Hard Lessons of the My Lai Massacre
Editor’s Note: Over the past several decades, there has been a concerted effort by America’s Right to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War, to transform it into a noble undertaking and to bully those who refuse to go along as unpatriotic, people who would “blame America first.”
In this guest essay, Dr. Gary G. Kohls says Americans must not ignore the real history and must learn lessons from some of the most horrible moments of that war, such as the My Lai massacre:
Forty-two years ago this week, on March 16,1968, a company of green, battle-untested U.S. Army combat soldiers from the Americal Division, swept into the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, rounded up the 500+ unarmed residents, all women, children and old men, and efficiently executed them in cold blood, Nazi-style.
No weapons or Viet Cong soldiers were found in the village, and the whole operation took only four hours.
Although there was a serious attempt to cover-up this operation (which involved a young up-and-coming U.S. Army Major named Colin Powell), those who orchestrated this “business-as-usual” war zone event did not deny the details of the slaughter when the case came to trial several years later.
But the story did eventually filter back to the Western news media, thanks to a couple of courageous eye-witnesses whose consciences were still intact. An Army court-marital trial eventually convened against a handful of the soldiers, including Lt. William Calley and Company C commanding officer, Ernest Medina.
According to many of the soldiers in Company C, Medina had ordered the killing of “every living thing in My Lai,” which included, obviously, all the innocent noncombatants living there and their farm animals.
Calley was charged with the murder of 109 civilians. In his defense statement, he stated that he had been taught to hate all Vietnamese, even children, who, he had been told, “were very good at planting mines.”
That a massacre had occurred was confirmed by many of Medina’s men. The raid, part of a mission called Task Force Barker, had been recorded by photographers, but the Army still tried to cover it up.
Many of the shooters were tried in the U.S. several years later in censored military courts with juries of Army officers who had no legal credentials. These “courts” eventually dropped the charges against all the soldiers involved - or acquitted them, as is typical in such cases - except for Calley.
Medina and all the other shooters of the 500 dead Vietnamese went free. Only Calley was convicted of the murders of “at least 20 civilians.” He was sentenced to life imprisonment for his crime, but, under pressure from patriotic pro-war Americans, President Nixon pardoned him within weeks of the verdict.
The trial stimulated a lot of interest because it occurred during the rising outcry of millions of Americans against the war that was acknowledged by fair-minded observers as an “overwhelming atrocity.”
Many ethical Americans were sick of the killing and the economic costs. However, 79 percent of Americans who were polled strenuously objected to Calley’s conviction. Some veterans’ groups even voiced the opinion that instead of condemnation, he should have received the Congressional Medal of Honor for killing “commie gooks.”
Just like the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, the realities of My Lai deserve to be revisited so that perhaps it will happen “never again.”
The Vietnam War was an excruciating time for conscientious Americans because of the numerous moral issues surrounding the mass slaughter in a war that physically killed 58,000 American soldiers, physically wounded hundreds of thousands more, spiritually wounded millions of soldiers and psychologically traumatized countless others on both sides of the conflict.
People of conscience were sick of the war that killed three million Vietnamese, most of them innocent and unarmed civilians, making those deaths international war crimes and crimes against humanity that should have been punished in the International Court at The Hague.
Of course, the Vietnam War was a much worse for the farm families of that doomed land than it was for the American soldiers.
The Vietnamese people were victims of decades of invading armies consisting of brutal, trigger-happy adolescents from foreign lands who were taught that the “little yellow people” were pitiful sub-humans who thus deserved to be killed - with some soldiers preferring to inflict torture first.
“Shoot first and ask questions later” is, all too often, standard operating procedure for frightened military combat units, and it is fear that motivates the killing of every soldier of every era, of every political persuasion, especially in jungle warfare.
Many Vietnam veterans have told me that there were scores, maybe hundreds, of smaller “My Lai-type massacres in that futile war.” Not surprisingly, the Pentagon has consistently refused to acknowledge that truth.
Execution-style killings and torturing of suspected “insurgents” were common, and it is still common in today’s wars. Many combat units “took no prisoners” (a euphemism for murdering captives, rather than having to follow the nuisance of the Geneva Conventions which require humane treatment for prisoners of war).
The only unusual thing about the My Lai Massacre was that it was eventually found out, despite the shameful attempted Pentagon cover-up.
Very few soldiers or their commanding officers have ever been punished for the many war crimes that have occurred in the dense “fog of war” because those in charge thought that the killing of innocent civilians during war-time was simply the norm.
The euphemism used for the killing of civilians is “collateral damage.” Or as the lamentable ex-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would say, “stuff happens.”
Water-boarding, the infamous torture technique - and recognized international war crime - was aggressively employed in Viet Nam. The “stuff” that happened to the indiscriminately imprisoned and often falsely charged “suspects” at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay was nothing new.
Those who plan wars, profit from wars, send their unaware sons or daughters into war or otherwise participate in war, yet also profess to be Christian, must studiously ignore the ethics of Jesus as summarized in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6 and 7 and Luke 6) and Matthew 25:31-46.
Such war supporters explicitly reject what their religion’s namesake repeatedly taught about the issue of homicidal violence. Jesus says, in so many words: “violence is forbidden for those who wish to follow me.”
Equally blasphemous is the fact that many pro-war Christians reject Jesus’s Golden Rule command: “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The rejection of the Way of Jesus also includes the rejection of his clear teachings on how his followers are to treat the neighbor, the stranger, the hungry, the naked, the captive, the enemy and all others who are in need of mercy and understanding.
In order to participate in the legal (but immoral) homicide that takes place in all wars, the followers of Jesus have to not only reject those teachings but also have to ignore (or mis-apply) the Just War Theory of Augustine (which first appeared three centuries after Jesus’s death).
There is no ethical way for the follower of the nonviolent Jesus to participate in or support the indiscriminate mass slaughter of modern war, even if utilizing the Just War Principles. The follower must choose between two irreconcilable realities – homicidal violence or nonviolence.
The whole issue of the justification of war, with its inherent atrocities, never seems to be thoroughly examined, either by those giving the orders or by those who are going to be the ones pulling the triggers.
Full understanding of the realities of war and its spiritual, psychological and economic consequences for the perpetrators and their victims is rarely attempted, even for church leaders who have been taught the Just War Theory.
If we who are non-soldiers ever truly experienced the horrors of combat and then simply applied Augustine’s Just War Principles, the effort to abolish war would be a priority (although we would still be opposed by the current crop of “Chicken Hawk” warmongers in both the Bush and Obama administrations).
If we truly understood the gruesome realities of war (or simply comprehended the immorality of spending trillions of dollars on war and war preparation while hundreds of millions of people are wandering refugees, starving, thirsty, homeless and jobless) we would refuse to cooperate with the things that make for war.
That, of course, wouldn’t be good for the corporations that profit from war. So those “merchants of death” try to hide the gruesome realities of war and instead try, with aggressive propaganda, to make war look like something patriotic, with, for example, sloganeering like “Be All That You Can Be.”
And they try to convince the soon-to-be-childless mothers of doomed, dead or dying soldiers that their child had died fighting for God, Country and Honor instead of for corporations and the control of the Middle East’s oil reserves, opium, the building of permanent U.S. military bases and Israel’s security.
Let’s face it. The U.S. standing army system, continually practicing for war, has been bankrupting America at the rate of $500 billion to $700 billion a year - year after year – even in times of so-called “peace.”
The cost of maintaining one soldier in the current war zone for one year is $1,000,000!
The warmongering spirit of the Pentagon (not to mention the White House and the Congress) is alive and well, particularly among those who had wanted to “nuke the gooks” in Viet Nam and now have a chance to overcome the shame of losing that war.
Un-elected policy-makers of that ilk are still in charge of U.S. war-making foreign policies today, and they have been solidifying their power with the huge profits made off the deaths, screams, blood, guts and permanent disabilities of those hood-winked soldiers who were told that they were “making the world safe for democracy” when in fact they were making the world safe for predatory capitalism and obscene profits for the few.
And the politicians who are mostly well paid lapdogs for the war profiteers don’t want the gravy train to be derailed.
Things haven’t changed much even from the World War II mentality that conveniently overlooked the monstrous evil that was perpetrated at Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and at Nagasaki three days later, a war crime so heinous that the psychological consequences, immune deficiency disorders and cancers from the nuclear holocaust are still being experienced in unimaginable suffering of the Japanese and the exposed American “atomic veterans” six decades later.
Things haven’t really changed when one witnesses the political mentality that allows the 500,000 deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians in the aftermath of the first Gulf War or the estimated 1,000,000 civilian deaths in the current fiasco in Iraq.
So it appears that our military and political leaders haven’t really learned much since My Lai. And it looks like the churches in our highly militarized, flag-waving nation haven’t learned much either.
The person sitting next to you in the comfortable church pew may be, like most unaware Americans today, ignorant of the hellish realities of the war-zone. They are likely to be totally unaware of the severe spiritual damage that is likely going to happen to their baptized and confirmed boys and girls who patriotically joined the military to “avenge 9/11.”
The person in the pew also may be blindly patriotic and perhaps indifferent to the plight of those innocent “others” who are being targeted by the most lethal, and expensive, collection of weapons known to man.
He may even agree, contrary to Jesus’s clear teachings and more in line with Hitler’s master race theories, that some people are less than human, and, therefore deserve to be killed “for Volk, Fuhrer und Vaterland.”
As long as most American citizens continue to glorify war and militarism and marginalize the occasional peacemaker, and as long as the American public endorses the current spirit of nationalism and exploitive capitalism and as long as the American church leadership remains prudently silent (and therefore consenting to the anti-Christic homicidal violence of war) there will be no turning away from the influence of the war-mongers and war profiteers.
The prophets and peacemakers are never valued in militarized nations (or their churches) when war fever has been orchestrated by the powers-that-be. Prophets and peacemakers are never allowed to give balancing testimony in the court of public opinion (much less in the White House cabinet).
Rather, the wisdom and warnings of the prophetic voices are ignored. When, after being consistently ignored, conscientious objectors to war and killing raise the decibel level of their warnings, they are shuffled off to obscure “free speech zones.” threatened with police violence, pepper-sprayed, beaten, arrested, tried, fined and/or imprisoned (rarely are they acquitted) and even, in the last century, executed as traitors.
As long as we continue to be misled by unapologetic and merciless war-makers and their wealthy elite (who are conveniently exempted, along with their children, from military service), and as long as the nuclear giants and ethical infants on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C., continue to be corrupted by the big money bribes, there is no chance America or the world will ever achieve a meaningful peace.
And as long as America’s Christian religious leaders and their followers do not reject, as Jesus surely would have had them do, humanity will be condemned to future wars, poverty, pestilence and starvation and the planet will become increasingly unlivable.
And unless America stops the unjust carnage, fully repents and compensates its victims for the damage done, its turn as a recipient of retaliatory violence, just as happened to Japan and Germany, will eventually come, and it will come from the foreign and domestic victims that our nation has treated so shamefully and violently over the past half-century.
Dr. Kohls is a retired physician from Duluth, Minnesota, who treated many primary and secondary victims of combat-induced posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in his holistic mental health practice, severe illnesses that were totally preventable. He edits and publishes an occasional online newsletter entitled the Preventive Psychiatry E-Newsletter.
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