“I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer.”
War is hell.
And one of the fiercest spotlights on that statement occurred a half-century ago, on this Friday. 16 March 1968. In short, a US battalion wiped out an entire village called My Lai of primarily unarmed women and children. Even infants weren’t spared. And rape. There are various accounts, but the total number meeting death in that hamlet was said to be over five hundred.
If you want a dark cloud to rain on your day, you can read in-depth backstories offered at the New Yorker here and more background at the History Channel here, although any Google search will provide you some accounts that will send a chill up your spine.
The Vietnam War was before my time, and mercifully ended by the time I reached kindergarten. Still, it provided countless case studies, some of which certainly involved mob mentality, struggles with ‘taking orders’ vs. one’s own conscience, and post-traumatic stress disorder. If anything “good” came out of that conflict, there have been ample documentaries, films, and books that have driven home the point that war is not a video game, and getting thrown into these harrowing situations can really mess someone’s mind up.
In the case of My Lai, it’s unfathomable to understand how a seemingly ‘good kid’ might turn into someone who didn’t hesitate to point a gun at defenseless civilians – and small kids, for Christ’s sake – and pull the trigger. Some reveled in it, some did it reluctantly out of “following orders,” and some refused and even aided Vietnamese survivors (this latter group, of course, got shunned back home). And therein lies the challenge with any nation’s military, where you need people who are hardened enough to kill enemy and forgo emotion, but not crossing that line into madness where there is no point of return.
My Lai was but one large example, but these instances occurred throughout the war on less-covered, lower-casualty scales. Indeed, there are accounts of rogue North Vietnamese not being much better in “handling” situations in villages either. And quite obviously, to be fair, this has happened in countless wars in the past, current and will in the future. Syria comes to mind as something freshly recent.
I don’t know what it feels like to descend into such a pitch-dark place, where I would take the life of anyone (outside of immediate self-defense where my very life was in danger, and even in that case, it’d mess up my head for a long while). Let alone a village of families.
So My Lai was but one scary, infamous example in a history littered with similar examples. And as much as I feel scorn and anger toward the soldiers who participated in that massacre, and Lieutenant William Calley in particular, who all wound up getting slaps on the wrist, the ingredients were all there to create these situations. Round up thousands of teens or barely-twentysomethings via draft who had little desire/training to shoot at things, send them overseas into a civil war jungle where every moment is blanketed in fear, in the heat with temptations of drugs to distract the brain, and suddenly you get a psychological petri dish of “everything that could go wrong.” Especially when you start seeing your close cohorts getting plucked off one by one.
That all being said, I’m an ardent supporter of our servicemen and servicewomen, who vow to protect the homeland. My utmost respect. But I approach war in a liberal or even Ron Paul-ish way: it literally needs to be a case of last resort, and when our security is under immediate and imminent attack. Diplomacy, tough negotiations and sit-down conversations, even with our worst adversaries, is a positive thing. Again, my ongoing fear is that too many view war like playing an X-Box video game, watching from a distance, with little emotional connection to the ‘players’ caught in the battle.
A dark post for today. But for me, personally, Friday will serve a valuable reminder of these things.
– Alan Morley