Although knee-deep in research on the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam by the United States and its effects on the Vietnamese (blog forthcoming), I am compelled in this moment to comment on a historical event in the American-Vietnam War: the My Lai Massacre. Through my work with AEPD, I have been more directly involved in observing, researching, and thinking about the outcomes of war rather than simply studying them, and my research has led me to write this piece.
The My Lai Massacre occurred on March 16, 1968. It took place in Son My village, in the communities of My Lai and My Khe. It came two months after the Tet Offensive, which was a major skirmish that had occurred in January-US forces believed that the regrouping forces of the Viet Cong were in Son My.
Captain Ernest Medina debriefed his men the evening before, telling them that nearly all the civilian residents of Sơn Mỹ village would have left for the market by 7 a.m. and any who remained would be National Liberation Front (NLF) or NLF sympathizers. He was then asked about the killing of women and children. During the trials, there were different accounts of his response. Some testified that the orders as they understood them were to kill all guerrilla and North Vietnamese combatants and “suspects”, including women and children, to burn the village, and pollute the wells.
What ensued is one of the many horrors of war-it is not unique historically. However, it is horrifying, as is each of the other instances of undisciplined and illegal mass murder that have been documented throughout the history of warfare.
United States Army soldiers in “Charlie” Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division, systematically slaughtered 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians. Most of those killed were the elderly, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies were later found to be mutilated, and many women were allegedly raped prior to the killings.
The incident prompted global outrage when it became public knowledge in 1969, thanks to journalist Seymour Hersh and army photographer Ron Haeberle. There were three U.S. servicemen, Hugh Thompson Jr., Glenn Andreotta (who lost his life in battle three weeks later), and Lawrence Colburn, who had tried to halt the massacre and protect the wounded, who were initially denounced by several U.S. Congressmen as traitors. Thirty years later when all involved had retired, the three were decorated by the Army for their heroic actions (Andreotta post-humously).
This famous photograph was taken during the massacre, minutes before those pictured were killed.
While 26 U.S. soldiers were initially charged with criminal offenses for their actions at Mỹ Lai, only Second Lieutenant William Calley, a platoon leader in Charlie Company, was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was originally given a life sentence, but only served three and a half years under house arrest. He was quoted as saying he was “just following orders”, presumably the orders of Medina, who also actively participated in the killings.
The American public was sympathetic to Calley, and when polled, shockingly, a Harvard survey showed that allegedly, two-thirds of those polled (numbers unavailable) believed that most people would shoot unarmed civilians if ordered to. The public reaction in part led to the softened response toward Calley. Calley did not issue a public apology for his part in the My Lai Massacre until thirty years later, in 2009.
The issue of “orders”, at least under international law, was dealt with post-Holocaust during the Nuremberg Trials via Nuremburg Principle IV, which states: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” It is my opinion that these words are true, and that they should hold at the domestic level as well.
Not every person who fights under a flag and goes into battle is honorable and uses good judgment, and some of them are unstable, poorly trained, and exhibit severe anti-social behavior that could only have been exacerbated during combat training, considering the content of that training. Medina, Calley, and many others present that day in Son My obviously exemplify this, but it is not entirely their fault.
Human society in general romanticizes war and make of it a noble adventure, and in many people’s opinions, this is a state of mind practically comparable to Sainthood. Troops are seen as holy angelic avengers beset upon continents to uphold Values (American or otherwise) and Freedom, along with bringing the same to other nations so that they too can enjoy the benefits that will surely come after the glory of Napalm and Aerial Raids, those Harbingers of Democracy. Men are made, fair maidens are won, and victory is had, on television, in films, and in the written word.
Yet, the reality of war can be found within the Civilian Casualty Ratio. This is yet another piece of gentle language that has been spawned to lessen the emotional impact of the reality of war, that human-engineered reality that falls outside the lines of common human decency. I call war a human-engineered reality as it is not a natural occurrence (except in matters of logical defense because of an actual invasion of sovereign territory) but created by humankind, and I believe, not something that the majority of people who are affected by it would participate in, if given a choice.
The Civilian Casualty Ratio is the number of civilian casualties versus the number of military casualties sustained during combat. Combat can mean a lot of things, but civilians are generally unarmed non-soldiers who are attempting to go about the business of daily life when war, that is to say, death, comes knocking. This number does not include the often large numbers of people who die due to disease and/or hunger, the plagues that follow the path of war as surely as day follows night.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Civilian to Soldier Casualty Ratio of wars fought since the mid 20th century is 10:1; ten civilian deaths for every one dead soldier. To my knowledge, every other thing to be known to have that kind of a detrimental effect on human life has been curtailed and slapped with a warning label. Even red-colored chocolate candies were banned for ten years, and they didn’t even kill anyone, they were just thought to possibly cause cancer due to a Red Dye No. 2 scare. Neither My Lai, nor any of the other plethora of tragedies that occurred during the Vietnam/American war (or any war), has significantly curtailed human participation in war.
War’s effects on the soldier and her or his family have been well-documented, and its attendant psychologically damaging training, traumatic experiences, and use of weapons chemical and otherwise, causes cancer, psychosis, PTSD, depression, suicide, trauma, disability, birth defects, neurological diseases, debilitating anxiety disorders, limb loss, infertility, brain damage, violent behavior, and anti-social behavior, and of course death, for a start.
Anything else known to cause this incredible tapestry of ill-effects to afflict people would have long since heretofore been vilified and banned. So why does war persist? Why do people allow it to be used as a method of conflict resolution, expansion, commerce, capitalism, and general communication?
I think that one of the most hopeless realities about war is, most people don’t understand what it is really like, and I do not exclude myself from this category. Those who haven’t lived it, can’t fully comprehend its unnaturalness or its implications for humankind.
“There is nothing to fear but fear itself” sounds pretty, but I think there is plenty to fear, most of all the tragic comprehensive loss of that fragile element of human compassion that links us all together. It is essential to our survival, this collective ability to recognize our common humanity and cooperate. It is something that we have inexplicably come into, along with a mad intellectual capacity for engineering and innovation. And to what do we turn this miracle of complex internal micro-computation linked with its emotion sub-matrix?
“Human Civilization” is a subjective term, and arguable, in light of the manner in which many of the leaders of our civilization choose to resolve disputes and/or gain influence on the global stage. We will not be “civilized” until we, as a global society, create a way to negotiate our collective interests into agreements that don’t involve bludgeoning, exploding, stabbing, fire-bombing, water-torturing, torture-torturing, shooting, napalming, and nuclear-bombing one another.
On a lighter note, there appears to be hope on the horizon…many scholars have argued recently that war and violence is on the decline, and that we are living in a more peaceful period than ever before in history. Joshua Goldstein, in his book Winning the War on War, argues that there have been fewer war deaths than any decade in the last 100 years. Hopefully, this is true, and is evidence of a shifting perspective toward war; one that emphasizes compassion and the idea that power, when used rightly and with integrity, is used to assist and lift up those who have the least of it.
Posted By Kelly Howell
Posted Aug 28th, 2013