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Ex-Vietnam lieutenant apologizes for My Lai massacre: opening doors for restorative justice?

September 3, 2009
Apart from the sentence, and the commutation of that sentence, Calley’s decision now to apology for his actions is something we must take note of. As a restorative justice practitioner
it caught my attention in a big way. National Public Radio provides the details of his apology which delivered to a surprised Kiwanis Club audience. It seemed to be spontaneous, or at least somewhat so.  What could it mean for Calley and what could it mean for others? Could it have significance in Vietnam, especially for family members of those who died during the massacre? Could it have an impact on any U.S. soldiers who also killed for their country serving in the line of duty?
A few years ago I was giving a speech on the subject of restorative justice and justice and reconciliation at a Unitarian Church in Nevada City, California. After my presentation I took questions from the audience. A well known American folksinger/songwriter named Utah Phillips raised his hand. Phillips I later learned was quite well known for his involvement in the peace movement opposing the Vietnam war. His opposition to the war drove him to run for the United States Senate in Utah in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom ticket.  Mr. Phillips asked me this, “Do you think this (restorative justice) would work in Vietnam?” It was a wonderful and surprising  question. My answer was, “Yes!” We had a short exchange about this and about the potential for healing the lives ravaged by violence. As an example, I told him what I knew of the work done in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide by Prison Fellowship International  that allowed for the use of a (modified) restorative justice model programme called the Sycamore Tree Project.  
Phillips passed away in May of 2008. He would have appreciated this story about Lt. Calley. I do not know how Calley’s apology  would have been received by him, whether with cynicism or with hope. Somehow I think the latter. But Utah Phillips’s question that day got me thinking. 
The hope that restorative justice provides allows us to build on small things to open doors for deeper healing in the lives of many. Sometimes that healing occurs between victim and offender. But sometimes it spreads and the actions of one can affect the lives of many. It is apparent that something heavy has been weighing on Lt. Calley since 1968. What could come from it ? What could a project look like in Vietnam that might allow more victims of violence, and those who participated in that violence, to heal? Imagine Lt. Calley agreeing to participate in such work.


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