I don’t begrudge William Calley his remorse about My Lai, but I’m hesitant to acknowledge his apology for it.

If you steal $10 from your mother, you need to apologize. If, as you carry out orders, you lead a raid on a village that slaughters 500 or more defenseless people, something of a higher magnitude is required before you can have your life back.

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Columbus, Ga., last week. “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”

It’s not that I don’t believe him . . . or that I hold him unforgivable. As a matter of principle, I refuse to waste time heaping my allotted teaspoonful of disapprobation on a scapegoat. Calley’s “responsibility” for My Lai, though personally enormous, is a minute fraction of the symbolic role — the Bad Apple in an American Uniform — he was forced to fill. He was, indeed, just following orders. And the first order of war is to suspend your humanity.

Just ask Lynndie England — another Bad Apple, another Face of Shame — who was also recently in the news. She had been scheduled to discuss her biography as part of a veterans forum at the Library of Congress several weeks ago, but threats and safety concerns forced the organizers to cancel her appearance.

England once almost apologized for Abu Ghraib, or for her miniscule but high-profile role in that scandal. “Yes, I was in five or six pictures and I took some pictures,” she told an interviewer for Stern, the German illustrated weekly magazine, “and those pictures were shameful and degrading to the Iraqis and to our government. And I feel sorry and wrong about what I did.”

The apology came well into the interview, in response to a pressing question about her sense of remorse. It was still tangled with her anger that the photos were made public at all, and was the lamest part of a fascinating interview. Far more interesting, for instance, were her memories of the casual horrors of Abu Ghraib and the moral relativism that was expected of her:

“Of course it was wrong. I know that now. But when you show the people from the CIA, the FBI and the MI (military intelligence) the pictures and they say, ‘Hey, this is a great job. Keep it up,’ you think it must be right. They were all there and they didn’t say a word. They didn’t wear uniforms, and if they did they had their nametags covered. . . .

“It was kind of weird at first. But once I started to see the big picture, I thought, OK, here come these guys, the OGAs (other government agencies), the MIs or even officers, and they don’t even look twice at it. If they approve, then I’m not going to say anything. Who was I to argue?”

Poor Specialist England. She was just trying to be patriotic — “as a child I mainly grew up on military gung-ho movies, so that’s where I got the idea” (to join the Reserves) — but she got caught up, like Lt. Calley, in the darkness of war, which passeth all understanding. “Who was I to argue?”

It’s always the same darkness, is it not? At his trial, Calley protested: “I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job on that day. . . . I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children. They were all classified the same, and that was the classification that we dealt with, just as enemy soldiers.”

In both cases, the odd thing was that the darkness got interrupted and they got caught in freeze-frame, enthusiastically carrying out their orders, or perhaps improvising them. But they’d been doing so surrounded by a context — the chain of command — which suddenly vanished when they got caught.

And here we come to the excruciating difficulty of any scapegoat’s apology. Their personal regrets, whether sincere or wound through with self-pity, hardly touch the enormity of the role they’ve been forced to play. They can apologize, or try to apologize, for carrying out their orders, but they can’t apologize for the orders themselves, or the special interests of war that bear ultimate responsibility for their implementation.

But let us stop playing with that slight word, “apology,” and dig at least for a word that approaches the magnitude of the matter at hand. What if Calley had told the Kiwanis of Columbus, Ga., that he intended not to apologize but to atone for his role in the My Lai massacre? What would that mean?

At the very least it suggests a commitment to do more than clear one’s name or somehow pay off a debt for old crimes. It suggests a lifelong commitment to reach for wisdom, and to convey that wisdom to the present moment. To atone is to cry out — with the outsize voice that history has bequeathed the scapegoat — against the big wrong called war that is still worshipped today, and with one’s words cut into present policy. We can’t change the past but, by God, we can humanize the future. (Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.