On a Club Speaker

Back in Westmoreland Tennessee, I was in the Rotary Club. As an officer of that charitable group, it fell to me at times to come up with the after lunch program. Over dessert in our meeting space (the backroom of the local meat and three), we had a series of speakers and presenters who wanted to tell the Rotarians what was on their minds or what their business or project was doing at the moment. We tried to discourage politicians, but we always welcomed veterans and representatives of veterans’ groups.

A Kiwanis club in Columbus, Georgia, back in 2009, arranged for a veteran of the Vietnam War to come and share his experiences there. Now, we had Vietnam vets come speak to us fairly often. Sometimes, they talked about what that moment in their lives meant to them, why the United States fought that war (and others), and they would often offer their opinions on modern American society from the perspective of someone who fought when their nation asked them to do so.

That’s what the Columbus Kiwanis Club was wanting from their speaker. He had been given the time to share his war-time experience and offer his opinion on the war itself. Now, many of that Kiwanis membership were of an age that they remembered the war; some of them, like the speaker, fought in it. So, what this man would say would certainly resonate with that group more than most audiences. Also, and significantly, Fort Benning, a large military installation, is located on the edge of Columbus and houses over 100,000 military personnel and their families. It was also an important training base for soldiers who served in Vietnam. So, this speech by a Vietnam vet to the club carried a special significance.

The speaker’s name was Bill, and he had been an officer during Vietnam. Bill was 66 when he made his presentation to the group in Columbus, but, when he was in Vietnam, he was a youthful 22 year old 2nd lieutenant. His dad had been a navy veteran during World War 2, and Bill had entered the military and scored high enough on the officer candidate tests that he was admitted to the officer’s program. In fact, in beginning in March, 1967, Bill had been stationed at Fort Benning for his junior officer training. Bill spoke about his time on the base; he detailed what it taught him about leadership and discipline and how to handle himself in the field.

The speech began with the usual platitudes, thanking the Kiwanis members for having him and for being there. Bill acknowledged the Fort Benning contingent, and he also thanked the other vets in the group for their service in whatever capacity they served.

It was then that Bill’s after dinner talk swerved into the unusual.

He began speaking of the impact the Vietnam War had not on the Americans who fought in it but, rather on the land and people of Vietnam itself, both from the north and the south. He lamented that there were times when the actions of the Americans who were there crossed lines from military conduct into human rights abuses. Some in the audience were shocked. The room became quiet as people put down their coffee cups and placed their dessert forks on their plates and leaned into what Bill was saying.

Now, it is an absolute certainty that atrocities occurred in Vietnam on all sides. But what Bill was talking about was more than this. He referenced the mentality that some American servicemen had that they had to, in effect, destroy the nation in order to save it from communism. Vietnam, Bill explained, was different from other conflicts to a degree. Unlike, say, Europe in World War 2, where you could readily identify your enemy by the uniforms they wore, Vietnam was a different kind of conflict. The “enemy” could be a woman, a child, a old person. To some Americans, anyone and everyone was suspect. All were considered hostile. That created a fear, a paranoia, in many of the Americans who served over there, a creeping dread because they didn’t know which Vietnamese, if any, could be trusted.

And then Bill began speaking about the infamous My Lai massacre, a situation where American troops killed hundreds of innocent Vietnamese civilians simply because, well, simply because. Again, the audience was stunned. My Lai was a blight on the heroic record of the American military, an embarrassment that many in the service felt would be better off forgotten than rehashed and retold.

Some would say the topic was certainly not fair game for a Kiwanis speech, especially in Columbus.

But, you see, My Lai was repeated, has been repeated, in not only Vietnam but also in other wars and other towns in other continents by American troops since then. And situations like My Lai are being repeated today in Ukraine and other battlefields around the world.

In that hushed meeting room of the Columbus Georgia Kiwanis Club, Bill spoke about war crimes to an audience that included Vietnam veterans and active duty servicemen. And they listened. They heard Bill apologize for American actions in the war. And then Bill did something completely unexpected; he apologized for his own actions in the war.

You see, Bill had a lot to apologize for.

After all, as the commanding officer that day in March, 1968, 2nd Lieutenant William Calley was the one who gave the order for the massacre at My Lai.


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