What, My Lai?

And what didn't we see or hear about?

Infamous image, circa 2004

We have all heard about Abu Ghraib, the most famous – if not worst – example of the torture and degradation the United States has used against prisoners during the War on Terror. We hear less about civilians willfully killed by US troops in Iraq or elsewhere.

Haditha, Iraq

Haditha, Iraq

The one well-publicized case from Iraq, the Haditha killings of 2005, is still open to debate. The U.S. government changed its story about how more than 20 civilians died there, finally saying they were accidentally killed during a gun battle with insurgents. (Never mind that the alleged insurgents were actually among the civilians killed….) Iraqi eyewitnesses claim Marines deliberately slaughtered the civilians as revenge for a roadside bombing that killed a member of their patrol. One Marine involved may have corroborated some of this in outtakes taped by CBS. Several investigations and trials later, no American has been found guilty of anything, though one officer still faces charges of failing to completely investigate the incident, and the Marine corroborator could still face manslaughter charges.

An infamous image

An earlier infamous image

I thought about the war atrocities committed in our name as I read a NY Times review of Deborah Nelson’s new book, The War Behind Me. Nelson co-wrote a 2006 LA Times series about the Vietnam war crimes we never heard about. Everybody knows about My Lai, but not the hundreds of other killings and rapes and beatings of civilians that the government investigated, but never revealed. Seems that those “traitorous” Winter Soldiers may have been telling the truth after all. (To read about current Winter Soldiers, go here.)

(Let’s also not forget No Gun Ri, the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians during the Korean War. That story didn’t come out until almost 50 years after the fact, and we are still hearing about atrocities committed or ordered by Americans during that war and were covered up. Although with No Gun Ri,  some people, including historian Robert Bateman, accept the Army finding that the killings were incidental to combat and not intentional.)

The Vietnam-era investigations were designed to pre-empt more bad publicity if the media learned about other My Lais. If a reporter got a whiff of something and questioned military brass, the officers could truthfully say they were already checking it out, which would hopefully defuse the reporter’s thoughts of a cover-up and quell the  ardor for that next big war-crimes scoop.

Nelson’s conclusion, after reviewing files in various archives and conducting interviews: My Lai-like killings and brutality were not committed by just a few bad apples. Instead, “every major division that served in Vietnam was represented.” A general told her, referring to both My Lai and Abu Ghraib (and perhaps Haditha), we can’t try to explain away these atrocities as “isolated acts…” If we do, we will never end them.

I have never been in the military. I have no idea what it is like to fight a counterinsurgency/guerrilla war. I have sympathy for the terrors soldiers face and the need to make split-second decisions with enemies around tou. But when the killing of civilians seems to become systemic, and the cover-ups routine, then I think we have a moral dilemma. Nobody wants to see U.S. soldiers killed. No one should condone or explain away the killing of innocents. And let’s remember that these war crimes – call them what they are, though we Americans never seem to face the trials or get the punishments, Lt. Calley excepted – reflect an embrace of violence in our culture, especially against “gooks” and “ragheads” and others deemed less like us, and thus more easily killed. I laughed with disgust when, after the reports of Abu Ghraib came out, President Bush told the nation:

“What took place at Abu Ghraib does not reflect the character of the American people. What took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know.”

No, Mr. history-major-in-college? Then how do you explain the violence against innocents that goes back to the European invasion of North America centuries ago and that has continued since? (Read about some of them in American Violence: A Documentary History. Or check out my play Truth, Justice, And…,  which relied heavily on that book while bringing the history of violence up to the 21st century.) Yes, we are a freedom-loving people, as the President went on to say. But god help the Indian/African slave/Filipino/Panamanian etc, etc, who gets in the way of our exercising that freedom the way we want, when we want.

Yes, violence is engrained in many aspects of our culture, sadly, and wartime brings it out in even more despicable ways. I’m not suggesting Americans have a monopoly on it. Humans had been killing each other quite adeptly for thousands of years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And in recent wars, the worst atrocities have been carried out, nine times out of ten, by our enemies. But what riles me is the whole American exceptionalism thing – when we kill, it must be for a noble reason, we only kill bad guys, we always tell the truth. History tells us otherwise, if we care to study it.

The optimist in me thinks exposing the My Lais and Hadithas will help bring them to an end. The realist thinks not. But that part of me also hopes that we can still get outraged by the atrocities our leaders condone and fellow citizens carry out, and maybe lessen them. Or at least admit them. And perhaps lead ut to repent for our arrogance and cruelty, if we are truly the people we say we are.


~ by mburgan on December 26, 2008.

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