Thursday, September 07, 2017

What We're Reading: Looking Back at the My Lai Massacre



My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the
Descent Into Darkness,
by Howard Jones


This fall Ken Burns’s new documentary on the war in Vietnam will run on PBS stations, and it will no doubt open old wounds and bitter debates about the war. These feelings still run deep in America. Mark Bowden, who will be here at the library on September 27, will talk about his New York Times bestselling book Huế, 1968, which recounts the nature of the conflict in one bitterly contested engagement of the war, and the largely courageous actions of individual soldiers on both sides of the battle. Quietly, and with less attention than this more high-profile look back, Howard Jones has published what is being called the definitive account of one of the darkest moments in the war and in American history, a book he has researched and worked on for almost a decade, and which is part of the Oxford University Press’s series, “Pivotal Moments in American History.” His book seems to have something of importance to say in these angry and contentious times, and it is worthy of greater notice than it has been getting.

Most Americans know about what happened at My Lai in a rather general sense. But like their leaders during the war, they have not wanted to look too closely into the details. Some don’t care, while for others the details are just too disturbing: We want to dismiss them as an aberration, and we want to forget them. The first third of Howard Jones's book, which describes the massacre, is one of the most unsettling things you will ever read about American soldiers. Jones describes in graphic detail the rape of Vietnamese women and the murder of a group of almost 500 civilians, mostly old men, women, children, and infants, by U.S. soldiers in My Lai and in surrounding villages on March 16, 1968. Most of them were shot at point-blank range and thrown into a ditch. It is an event that seems incomprehensible; it will leave you deeply ashamed.


 Lt. William Calley arriving for his court martial trial. He was
the only soldier convicted of the crimes. Charges against others
were either dropped, or the others were acquitted outright.
There have been a number of explanations proposed for why My Lai happened, and Jones addresses these: a sense of fear among soldiers fighting an unseen enemy; resentment for the deaths of fellow soldiers; a breakdown of command and poor officers; the nature of war itself; the particular nature of this war and its command orders (things like “search and destroy” and “free fire zones”); and the emphasis on body counts as a measure of military success. These all combined to make the war more brutal than we realized at the time, and encouraged atrocities more pervasive than the comfortable notion of occasional “aberrations” that we have entertained. Nick Turse has also memorably addressed these in his recent Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.

It seems from Jones’s analysis that certainly there were poor officers on the ground, both immoral and incompetent in decision making, and also unable to take control of the action they were directing. The general sense of what battalion, division, and higher command wanted, or what they either explicitly or in effect gave license to, were certainly part of the context. And while Jones gives us a good understanding of the soldiers' fear of both a largely unseen enemy and a civilian population that often actively or tacitly supported them, it is difficult to accept fear as a primary factor driving the events in My Lai. In that military action, it turned out that the North Vietnamese enemy was not in the villages as had been expected. American troops were unopposed, and (as far as we know) not a shot was fired at them by the enemy. These were not actions taken under duress.  If you are in a state of fear, you don’t have the leisure to rape women, or to line up all the people from a village by a ditch and murder them in cold blood; and fear isn’t a plausible explanation for shooting an infant through the head with a bullet.


Warrant officer Hugh Thompson and his helicopter obervation
crew saw and reported what was happening at My Lai.
Thompson landed and blocked soldiers from committing more killings.
He was central to the Army's investigation of what had happened at My Lai.

People who do these kinds of things are able to justify them because they have come to view their victims as “other,” as less than human. As "gooks." A veteran of both Korea and Vietnam told Philip Caputo, then fighting in Vietnam himself, “Before you leave here, sir, you’re going to learn that one of the most brutal things in the world is your average 19-year-old American boy.” It’s an assessment that ought to give us pause. We have a cultural history as Americans that seems to facilitate the branding and brutalizing of those we so readily identify as “others.” It ought to make our leaders understand that there is a danger in indulging these currents. They need to work to prevent us from going down those well-paved roads that lead us to racism and violence. The civilians at My Lai could be killed because they were not viewed as human beings, and that’s a perspective that nations at war work to achieve as they attempt to mobilize a passion among their citizenry against the enemy. In Vietnam, the civilian population--often sympathetic to the enemy and also looking like the enemy--became (in a war where the enemy went largely unseen and was often indistinguishable from the civilian population) a stand-in for armed belligerents.

Reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story of My Lai and was
awarded a Pulitizer Prize for his reporting.
It appears that more than 40 American soldiers took part in the killing of civilians, and no soldier in any of the platoons taking part in the action tried to stop the killing. These civilians were killed with less compunction than that felt over the pigs and cattle that were “wasted” along with them. It matters that we talk about what we would do, how we should behave, before we find ourselves in a circumstance that may test our response. We need to know what we hold to be right before then, we need to carry those values with us.

Hannah Arendt, in writing about the Eichmann trial, is famously associated with the notion of the "banality of evil," of the ease with which people can come to participate in actions that are atrocities. Perhaps more to the point--or at least actionable--is another thing she said about how things like this can happen: “The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be or do either evil or good.” If episodes such as My Lai are to stop happening, we must make up our minds, as individuals and as a nation, to do good.

Some of the most interesting parts of My Lai are the cover-up perpetuated by soldiers and officers and all the way up the chain of command; but perhaps most deflating is to read about the national reaction to the massacre and the trial of Lieutenant Calley, and to hear the cynical political calculations in recorded phone conversations and tapes between Nixon and Kissinger and Kissinger and Melvin Laird, the Secretary of Defense. They are simply astonishing, and they show clearly that no one gave a damn about these murdered people at all. You understand why the soldiers who did the killing didn’t care either. The fault was not only in the individual soldier, it was in the nation.

Jones does a good job of detailing the trials and the legal framework, and of explaining why almost everyone involved in the killing and cover-up escaped accountability. It all makes the episode so much more shameful. But it is hard not to feel a particular anger for those soldiers who killed these people, because what they did has forever darkened the reputation of those many other soldiers who served their country in Vietnam with great honor, heroism, and sacrifice. Along with the darkness, that’s what we ought to remember in this season where we take a look back at the war in Vietnam.


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