We sat silently, private and colonel, staring onto the D.C. National tarmac. My mind was racing with questions. Before boarding, the seasoned soldier whispered: “Son, you’re likely to face ethical dilemmas this year. ... Trust your faith and God’s law over any man’s immoral command.”
We embraced. I boarded for Vietnam. My Dad, recently returned from his own tour — his third war and third set of combat-valor medals — headed to work at the Pentagon.
I respectfully reflected on his parting words. They bolstered my moral courage and guided my decisions and actions through the “fog of war” that was Vietnam.
This year marks a morally-infamous 50th anniversary in U.S. military history. In March 1968 at My Lai, American soldiers under the command of Lt. William Calley slaughtered over 500 civilians in an unprovoked attack. Many killings were accompanied by rape, torture and mutilation of women, children, babies and elderly men clearly beyond combat capability.
While some reveled in the slaughter, Calley threatened and berated reluctant soldiers to join in. This failure of military, and humane, conduct implicated the system that selected then under-prepared Calley for combat leadership and the command structure that created a body-count fueled environment wherein unlawful orders flourished and battle-fatigued soldiers took out anger and frustration on civilians.
In March 1968, I was a battlefield censor. Every field-intelligence report was scrutinized for anything that might “embarrass or compromise the American war effort.” A censor-worthy report might include disproportionate numbers of Vietnamese killed and weapons captured; a negative correlation, in My Lai’s case 504 to 0, “might be interpreted” as civilian deaths. Bags of unspeakable truths were incinerated daily, without making it to the historical record or American consciousness.
I resurrect these ugly truths, 50 years later, not to assign blame, but to debunk myths of American moral superiority or even moral equivalency between us and our enemy, which is too generous. The conduct of both was, sadly, an immoral equivalency.
The Vietcong and North Vietnamese indeed committed horrific crimes: assassinations, murder, kidnapping, torture, forced conscription, rape, mutilation, endless unmentionable acts.
But, so did we — in approximate measure, enough to negate our self-serving, false good-bad dichotomy. Contrary to international and military law, Buddhist and Christian principles, both sides committed crimes against humanity.
Like the war, My Lai has been tragically simplified as an aberration, obscuring the saddest truth: American atrocities were not infrequent and inadvertent, but commonplace and inevitable, given the worldview of American soldiers.
Culturally rooted, explicitly sharpened in basic-training, racial arrogance played the defining role in formulating soldiers’ worldview. Central to which: the linguistic degradation “gook.” This dehumanization granted license for personal misconduct and set the stage for indiscriminate, disproportionate human destruction, dishonoring our principles, undercutting our cause, and dooming the war to unwinnable.
This dehumanization was calamitous for the people we called “gooks.” Civilian casualties were several million more than combatants. It was, likewise, catastrophic for American veterans. The inevitable cost of dehumanizing an enemy is a dehumanized self, an impetus toward future atrocities and foundation for post-traumatic stress.
Unintentional atrocities happen; intentional ones are more prevalent and preventable. We can train differently by establishing clear standards for battlefield conduct, not neutralized by fear of disobeying or group pressure, and by making absolute demarcations between civilians and combatants, uncompromised by dehumanization of an entire people which severs common human ties, precipitating future atrocities.
Command protocol must ensure that unethical orders can be resisted, even reversed; reporting unlawful activities is protected; investigations are sincere; tactical language is void of euphemisms like “free-fire zone;” soldiers are properly treated after traumatic experiences.
At war’s end, Americans, eager to move beyond its divisiveness, ignored our mistakes, depriving ourselves of valuable questions: What in the socialization by parents, society, military training and field command instructs some to commit acts devoid of humanity, while others choose not to participate and others bravely try to stop such insanity?
It’s critical to comprehend that the “natural” military impulse is defensive, initially covering up My Lai, subsequently establishing a committee to study atrocities, not to prevent them, but to figure how to protect or “manage” the revelations.
Protecting our troops — our children and grandchildren — necessitates we instill in them a firm moral-compasses, confident judgment of right and wrong, strength to disobey immoral orders, and even courage to intervene.
Learning from history to avoid repeating it is critical to fortify future soldiers and veterans from such behavior. Most important, defending our troops requires sending them — only — for legitimate reasons and just cause. Our current wars suggest we still have much to learn.
Peter Berres of Lexington, a retired educator and Army veteran who volunteered to serve during the Vietnam War, is writing an occasional series of op-eds about 1968, a year that changed America.