Lessons of My Lai just never took hold

I watched the documentary on the 1968 My Lai massacre on PBS Monday night and had the feeling that I had seen it all before, but it was compelling nonetheless.

American soldiers wantonly murdered unarmed Vietnamese women and children and old men and others — hundreds of them.

Americans are not supposed to commit such atrocities.

Of course we did this in our own country to the American Indians.

There are a lot of explanations for what happened or why it happened, but few of them hold up.

What good excuse would you have for killing obviously unarmed women and children and others?

But it seems these things happen in war — always have, always will.

The thing that disturbs me the most about such incidents, other than the human suffering itself, is the fact that the higher ups seldom if ever get in trouble. In this case no one really got into trouble over it, high or low.

The evidence seems clear that the chain of command supported what went on at My Lai and if they did not know what was going on, then that would be their fault too.

According to comments in the documentary, there was ongoing abuse of civilians even before the incident.

As to the individuals who took part, that is the soldiers on the ground, I have some sympathy or understanding for those who may have fired into the bush or at adult males in the distance before they knew they were just innocent (or at least unarmed) villagers.

From what we know now, the soldiers were basically told they were going into enemy territory and that they were not to leave anyone alive.

But when it comes to coming face to face with obviously innocents (especially women and children and old men), I just can’t go there. I don’t see how anyone can do this.

I do understand the quandary soldiers find themselves in when it comes to the idea that they do not have to follow illegal orders. While it is obviously illegal to be ordered to kill innocent people, the way the system of military justice works is that the burden of proof is on the poor soldier who chooses not to follow an illegal order. If the system gangs up against him, which would likely be the case, he would not stand a chance.

Given the fact, as brought out in the documentary, that the American public made its feelings known that it did not want one of the main culprits, one Lt. William Calley, who was accused of giving orders that resulted in the atrocity, punished, what chance would a lone soldier have if he had refused to follow the orders to shoot everything that moved?

(Of course the public support for Calley was over the fact as they saw it that he was simply an officer who had to make decisions in the confusion of war and that if you start sending officers and soldiers to jail for killing people in a war then we could never be successful in a military operation.)

Well, anyway, My Lai is ancient history almost. But what I really got from all of this is that it is futile and dangerous to impose ourselves into the internal struggles of other nations. We end up doing terrible things and make enemies in the process.

We went into Afghanistan supposedly to go after forces that attacked us on 9/11 and now nearly a decade later we have imposed ourselves into an internal struggle and are killing civilians in the process.

We just never learn, do we?


Anyone who has been in the military, or even in a big organization, can probably tell you that the way things often run is that higher ups tell you to do something but at the same time let you know that if things go wrong they will swear they never had anything to do with it, but you have to go along with the program or face the consequences — you lose either way.

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