A rhetorical analysis of Captain Aubrey Daniels’ closing in the My Lai Court Martial

The below is a sample of some of Evan’s work conducted while an undergraduate in college.

A rhetorical analysis of Captain Aubrey Daniels’ closing in the My Lai Court Martial

On November 13, 1969, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Seymour Hersh broke the news of a catastrophe that would become the “first officially-admitted United States atrocity against civilians” (Russell 710). With the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Captain Aubrey Daniels was tasked with prosecuting the man responsible, platoon leader William Calley. Calley had murdered hundreds of innocent Vietnamese civilians despite receiving no fire or resistance. It was not an easy task, as the United States Army would have the spotlight shone brightly on them and everything they stood for: honor, pride, sacrifice, serving your country. The Army was under attack from the world for this tragedy and had to be the one responsible for bringing itself to justice.

Daniels artfully exposed Calley for the murderer he was and set about doing so while absolving the Army of any blame. By appealing to the use of rationality and emotion, Daniels was able to identify Calley as the guilty party. After accomplishing that, he was able to set Calley apart from the United States Army ideal, painting Calley as a man who did his own bidding and did so of his own will, not the Army’s. Using methods derived from rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke, one can see clearly how Daniels was able to accomplish this task.

The Vietnam War in the American consciousness

The Vietnam War, staged from 1959 to 1975, is the most unpopular war in the history of the United States and is also the longest war in American history (the United States did not join the war until 1965). For all its unpopularity, the United States won every battle it fought against the North Vietnamese, but did so with a toll of 60,000 American deaths with over 300,000 injured (Mintz, Introduction, War at Home), affecting countless families. The systemic murder of civilians engineered by Calley was just one part of the story, but it was perhaps the most indelible event to occur in Vietnam. Over 250,000 protesters marched in opposition of the Vietnam War in November 1969 in Washington, D.C. The war also resulted in California’s entire university system being shut down (Mintz, War at Home).

According to Stephen Mintz, the John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History at the University of Houston, “no American conflict in the 20th century so tore this nation apart, so scarred its social psyche, so embedded itself in its collective memory, and so altered the public view of institutions, government, the military, and the media” (American Culture). A generation after World War II and the atrocities the Nazis committed, Americans were about to find themselves on the other side of the coin. No longer were they good fighting evil, the ones horrified at the tragedies of the enemy. No, the tragedy would be their own and very real.

The My Lai Incident and platoon leader William Calley

Set in My Lai, Vietnam and referred to as “Pinkville” by American troops (Hersh, Lieutenant accused), the systemic murder of no less than 109 and perhaps more than 700 Vietnamese citizens, all elderly men, women, children and babies sparked outrage across the globe. People demanded answers from the United States a generation after the country had led the war crimes tribunals and laid down many of the rules that would later form the Geneva Convention (Russell 711).

Led by Calley on March 16, 1968, the only person to be convicted at a court martial over the proceedings, the platoon burned the village and left no stone overturned, shepherding dozens of Vietnamese civilians to ditches where they were promptly pumped full of bullets or had hand grenades blow them to bits. Women were resorted to rape to attempt to save their lives and their children’s’ lives, only to be murdered after the soldier got his pleasure (Jones).

A total of three platoons took part in the My Lai incident, not just those under Calley’s watch. This called into question the validity of Captain Ernest Medina as an Army witness against Calley as Calley and several others claimed that Medina had given orders to shoot civilians. Medina has denied these accusations (Beidler). A witness recalled Medina shooting a young girl point-blank and grinning afterwards (Lief 347).

The entire company of which Calley participated in (called Charlie Company) had a bad reputation. Calley was the worst of the bunch and was constantly harassed about his ineptitude. Calley developed a mean streak and a constant desire to prove himself as no pushover:

“He was the laughing stock of Charlie Company. In the platoon, his men didn’t know whether to ignore him or kill him. He was an incompetent and a pariah, under attack from both above and below, who tried to mask his insecurities with unconvincing explosions of rage. The resultant buffoonery was further packaged back into the blustering and strutting often characteristic of the little man in the military, the proverbial shortround. Nor was any of this helped by the company commander’s unrelenting mockery of him in front of his men, who consistently heard him addressed as “young thing,” “sweetheart,” or ‘Lieutenant shithead'” (Beidler).

A helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, attempted to end the madness but was rebuffed by Calley, with Calley stating “Down here on the ground, I run the show” (Jones). Many of My Lai’s inhabitants that survived the massacre did so thanks to Thompson. Many, however, were at a loss as to what to do. Several soldiers broke down in tears as they committed the atrocities or refused to take part in the event. One soldier even shot himself in the foot so he wouldn’t be obligated to take part (Jones).

The incident took over a year to enter the public consciousness and only did so thanks to the efforts of a former soldier, Ronald Ridenhour, who heard stories of the incident. He persisted in bringing the matter to the attention of Congress (Russell 704). In addition, Army photographer Ron Haeberle sold the photos he had taken of the massacre to LIFE magazine which put the unflinching candids in stark color in front of the public (Jones).

The Army was caught between trying to solve the matter internally and withstanding the calls for an international investigation; a war crimes tribunal. Complicating the matter was the United States’ heavy influence in such tribunals that occurred after World War II. In accordance with the Nuremberg Trials, every man was to be held responsible for his actions and using the excuse of “following orders” was not grounds to indemnify a soldier (Russell, 705). This would come in play during the trial when Calley claimed he was just following orders of Captain Ernest Medina, something Medina and some members of the platoon contested (Lief, 345). The United States, however, did not follow its own lead started a generation earlier and granted full military and civilian immunity to Paul Meadlo, a soldier involved in the attacks. This flew in the face of the code of the Nuremberg Trials (Punishment 1315).

Sentiment in America was decidedly pro-Calley:

“Instead of dismissing Calley as a cold-blooded killer, the majority of ordinary Americans accepted his claim that he was simply a patriotic soldier, faithfully acting out his duty and viewed him as a heroic martyr (Jones).”

In addition, fellow soldiers expressed support for Calley, according to Hersh. He quoted several soldiers saying things such as “There are always some civilian casualties in a combat operation. He isn’t guilty of murder.” “There are two instances where murder is acceptable to anybody: where it is excusable and where it is justified. If Calley did shoot anybody because of the tactical situation or while in a firefight, it was either excusable or justifiable.”

In the midst of all this, Army Captain Aubrey Daniels was tasked with prosecuting Calley in the court-martial that began November 17, 1970. Daniels, as an Army officer, could not use prose to convict Calley much like Robert Jackson had done to convict the Nazis in the Nuremberg Trials. Instead, he painstakingly covered every salient point in the events that occurred and left no shred of doubt that Calley had willfully committed murder. The jury had two major things to determine. The first was if Calley was responsible for the murders and the second was if he should be exonerated on the basis that he was following orders. More pressing than the thought of following orders (as the Nuremberg Trials had invalidated them as a defense) was the concept of if these orders should have even been followed had they, in fact, been ordered. “The court held that Calley, by virtue of his age, rank, experience, and training should have known such an order was illegal and convicted him primarily on that basis” (Cockerham 1274).

Calley, found guilty of 22 murders on March 29, 1971 and sentenced to live with hard labor, quickly walked out a free man. President Richard Nixon changed the sentence to house arrest and pardoned him three years later. He later married and ran his father-in-law’s jewelry store in Columbus, Georgia where he is considered a military hero (Lief 351).

Rhetorical analysis of Daniels’ closing

Daniels had to juxtapose getting justice for the genocide with the dilemma of trying an American soldier. Daniels was challenged with distancing Calley from the ideal of the American soldier. Condoning the conduct of Calley would have been tantamount to idealizing the soldier as a ruthless murderer. This was a huge public relations blow for the United States, and Daniels had to save the image of the Army while at the same time tarnishing an active soldier who had served the country in the Vietnam War. Daniels needed to expose Calley for what he was and convince the jury through several modes of argument that Calley was guilty of the crimes committed against him and then effectively separate him from the Army.

In Daniels’ closing, he draws in the jury and worldwide audience effectively by utilizing enthymemes and rhetorical questions. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an enthymeme is an argument “in which one of the premises is implicit.” To take it a step further, implicit is defined as “capable of being understood from something else though unexpressed.” When constructing an argument that leads to an implicit conclusion, the audience is drawn in and involved in the argument. Instead of being told the conclusion; the reasoning behind the correct path to take, the audience comes up with the answer on their own, framing their thoughts and opinions while being influenced by the rhetor’s arguments.

He produces his first enthymeme in striking fashion, saying that Calley “came to a man that was dressed in white, a man that was described as a monk…he blew half of his head off” (Lief 354). What does a logical person, a logical soldier do when he comes across a man clearly a monk? Is his head blown off or is he accorded more respect than that? In addition, this monk was of old age, as all the men in the village were elderly (346). Daniels goes on to explain the reaction of the village to the First Platoon moving into the village: “They received no fire from that village. None.” The inference is that there was no reason to open fire and start killing, which of course, the platoon would end up doing.

Daniels had to prove that Calley had, in fact, committed the murders: the ones that he personally did and the ones that were committed by virtue of giving the order to do so. He did this through recapping the witnesses’ claims and providing an enthymeme: “[The witness] observed Lieutenant Calley and Meadlo place the people in the irrigation ditch and fire into the people, but he didn’t see the people come out” (356). Another inference, this time in a direct question, comes with Meadlo and another soldier named Jim Dursi who had similar testimonies on Calley ordering the civilians killed. Says Daniels: “And here are two men testifying to that fact, both of whom are out of the service, one of whom is from Brooklyn, New York, and the other is from Indiana. Do you think they made up something like that?” (362)

In an additional enthymeme, Daniels recollects the testimony of a soldier named Thomas Turner, in which he subtly interjects two adjectives used to describe Turner that suggest that there is every reason in the world to believe Turner is unequivocally telling the truth. Right after mentioning Turner’s name, he clarifies Turner being a married student in Nebraska. Left unexplained is that a married student is one of the most trustworthy things a man can be. Indeed, Turner is referenced to have been the witness that “brings it all together” (365). Daniels continues this pattern of inference throughout his text. He relates a witness seeing Calley conversing with a sergeant, in which the sergeant then immediately went to the ditch holding the civilians with Calley and began firing in the ditch. Despite not having any proof what the conversation is about, Daniels makes it clear to the jury there can be no debate what the conversation was about. He asks several questions, all challenging the jury to infer that the conversation was about, “at a minimum encouraging him” (377).

In addition to using enthymemes and rhetorical questions to appeal to a person’s sense of logic, Daniels plays to the emotions of the jury. By establishing Calley as a man who went off on his own, unchecked and not representing the values of an American soldier, Daniels had to then paint Calley cruelly; deserving of punishment. How does he do that? He constantly repeats the phrase “unarmed men, women, children and babies,” ensuring that the jury understands clearly that there was no resistance from any person, no cause for any person to deserve being shot. He outlines a graphic display of murdering a child by relating a story of how Calley was apprised of the fact that a child was running away. Calley threw the approximately two year old child into the ditch and shot him (354). If not emotional enough for the jury, he relates how “that baby was at the end of that barrel” (368). Near the closing argument, he ponders the question “Would the evidence have proven any infant guilty of any offense which could justify his execution?” (398)

Daniels also takes care to provide various ways of referring to death as Calley referred to it – by doing such, he allows the jury to see how callously Calley referred to committing murder of innocent civilians. Daniels attributes statements of “Take care of them,” “Waste them,” “I want them dead,” “Kill them,” “We’ve got another job to do,” to Calley. He takes care to particularly repeat the term “waste” throughout his closing, perhaps the most callous statement Calley could have made that showed his frame of mind. Daniels also conjures up the thought of inhuman execution by referring to the unarmed men, women, children and babies as “cattle,” slaughtering them (383). He evokes the ultimate sign of sacrifice – “Mothers trying to protect their children” (362).” This tugs at the jury’s heartstrings while receiving a ‘double whammy’ of symbols of inhuman execution.

Daniels ties together the concept of the negative, as advanced by rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke, with the concept of emotion. The negative is “a powerful symbolic tool human beings use to create categories of experiences.” By using certain words and messages, a division is created that isolates what a person is and what a person is not (Stoner 215). Take for example Daniels’ use of the word “cattle” to describe how Calley arranged the victims in the ditch. By referring to them as cattle, he illustrates that Calley saw and treated them as cattle – ripe for butchering. The problem is that they were human, not cattle.

Daniels uses this concept of division to point the finger at Calley for the horrors inflicted; the Army or Captain Medina was not responsible. This is where Daniels starts isolating Calley from the Army. Throughout the text, Calley is constantly referred to as the one who gave the orders or who made the commands. Not once does Daniels suggest that Calley was following orders or doing what he told. No, Calley was running the ship, even when people tried to stop him.

Unlike Robert Jackson’s closing argument in the Nuremberg trials in which he disparages the men and their positions in Hitler’s army, Daniels paints Calley as an irrational, murdering savant who disgraced the name of the United States Army. He does so in an especially scathing close to his speech. He starts out by saying:

The accused was a commissioned officer of the armed forces of this United States when he slaughtered his innocent victims in My Lai. He has attempted to absolve himself of responsibility by saying that he had his duty there, that he acted in the name of this country and the law of this nation, and I submit to you and the government submits to you that he did not and upon that question there can be no doubt.

Daniels admits right up front that Calley was a member of the United States Army. He also nods to Calley’s contention that he was only serving at the pleasure of the Army, but Daniels refutes that argument. Throughout the whole closing argument, Calley has painstakingly verified that Calley is guilty of murder and uses this ending to hammer home the point he has made all along in the artifact; Calley did not represent the United States Army:

To make that assertion is to prostitute all of the humanitarian principles for which this nation stands. It is to prostitute the true mission of the United States soldier. It has been said that the soldier, be he friendly or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and unarmed. It is the very essence and reason for his being. When he violates this sacred trust, he not only profanes his entire cult but threatens the very fabric of international society.

These are harsh, heavy words. The word “prostitute” is especially striking, as the word evinces an image of an immoral person who sleeps with anyone possible for personal gain. By pairing together the word “prostitute” with a United States soldier, it is made extremely clear that those reflect two conflicting ideals. Daniels also cites the honored tradition of a soldier protecting “the weak and unarmed,” and goes so far as to say that this is the sole reason a soldier exists; not for war, but for protection of “the weak and the unarmed.” Daniels goes on to rephrase the “prostitute” argument in a different way, alleging that Calley’s actions was a direct insult to his “cult,” which can be taken one of two ways: the cult of America or the cult of the Army. He addresses the world’s outrage by referencing international society by decreeing that the world’s very survival is dependent on ensuring that soldiers of armies act honorably. With the atrocities of the Nazis a generation ago and then an American soldier joining these Nazis in infamy, Daniels used this stage to send a message to all countries of the world; the actions of the Nazis were unacceptable, and the actions of Calley ranked right up there to the point that his own Army was willing to blight him in such a way. No future incidents would be treated any less harshly. Daniels then wraps up:

The traditions of fighting men are long and honorable. They are based upon the noblest of human faith, sacrifice. … When the accused put on the uniform of an American soldier and took the oath of allegiance to this country, he was not relieved of his conscience… He was not given a license to slaughter unarmed men, women and children on his own personal supposition that they were the enemy…This accused has failed in his duty as an officer (Leif 399, 400).

By bringing up the oath of allegiance, Daniels has put a great burden on Calley’s shoulders, the shoulders of any soldier, for that matter. He is now an agent, a representative of the country and cannot just blindly follow orders (if there were even orders); a conscience has to come into play. By also dangling the nugget that every other soldier was implied to have been participated in “the noblest of human faith, sacrifice,” he divides Calley into the outcast who is certainly far from noble

Daniels effectively isolated Calley from the United States Army, absolving the Army of any wrongdoing. He holds Calley, and Calley alone, responsible for the murders even though no other soldier, following Calley’s orders, was convicted in accordance with the Nuremberg laws. All of his arguments point to one thing: Calley was of sound mental clarity and possessed the intent to kill and did indeed kill unresisting, unarmed men, women, children and babies. “Your duty is clear,” Daniels said to the jury. “…Find the accused guilty as charged” (400).

The aftermath

Aubrey Daniels faced a hard road in prosecuting Calley. Jury selection took three days with 25 officers dismissed due to being pro-Calley and anti-Army (Stoner, 348). He faced a country who defended Calley’s actions and called him a national hero while at the same time outraged at the fact the Americans were being sent abroad to war. He faced being called an enemy by America and the soldiers in the Army. He was also subject to international criticism at the hands of people who felt that despite their prosecution of Calley, America was sheltering its Army.

With Medina serving as a witness and getting off scot-free despite leading the company and reportedly participating in the murders along with other participants (such as Meadlo) not being charged for their crimes is one of the many flaws of the trial and caused outrage on an international scale and led people to wonder if the effectiveness of the court-martial at the hands of the United States would serve as a deterrent; that only bringing in international law would serve as a deterrent (Russell, 706-7). Indeed, the later incidents at Abu Ghraib and Haditha at the hands of the United States Army in the Iraq War would suggest Kent Russell, author of “My Lai Massacre: The Need for an International Investigation,” was correct when he said that “it would seem that individual prosecutions alone will not effectively deter United States soldiers from committing further atrocities” (706).

At a relatively young age, 29, Daniels had to stave off the media attention the case brought and focus on the task at hand. That task included helming the largest trial in army history, consisting of over 100 witnesses. Daniels capped off the exhausting process with a three-hour closing argument just explored.

When Calley was later placed under house arrest, Daniels wrote a letter of protest to then-President Richard Nixon. In it, he says that that decision gave “credence to those who believed that Calley and his troops were merely ‘killing the enemy'” and that Nixon “should and would stand fully behind the law of this land on a moral issue about which there can be no compromise.”

Daniels used several relevant techniques to distance the Army from the catastrophe that Calley had engineered. He painted Calley as a vicious murderer who showed no remorse for his actions, a man who abused the privilege and power of being a United States soldier. He used the concepts of pathos and logos to convince the jury of Calley’s peers that Calley was in fact, guilty and then harshly rebuked Calley as a representative of the United States by using the Burkean concept of division. Given an impartial jury, he engineered a resounding victory. Unfortunately, Calley would shamefully escape the throes of the law thanks to public perception that Calley was a hero, when, in fact, Calley was a villain.


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