All of this week people have been remembering the My Lai massacres of forty years ago. There has been much agonised reflection, and acknowledgement that we too can, occasionally, commit horrific atrocities, even though the cause is just. In its way it serves as a useful addition to the Vietnam War for its apologists, as it demonstrates that the US is prepared to punish those in its ranks that go against orders and commit horrendous crimes. Others, of course, especially outside of the United States, are not so comforted. Let’s take a quick look at the notion of individual and collective responsibility, at what effect My Lai had on the anti-war movement, and at the situation since Vietnam.
We do not need to concern ourselves here with the specifics of the crimes (these are very easy to find if you wish). They were horrific and clearly war crimes under even the most limited definition of the term. We should remember that people do have individual responsibility, no matter what is wrong with the system or situation they are caught up in, or what their orders are. This is demonstrated best by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr, who witnessed the massacre taking place from his helicopter and flew in to intervene and rescue civilians, going as far as ordering his crew to fire on US soldiers if they opened fire on any of the people he was trying to help. Many others there refused direct orders to fire on civilians as well. Being in a war zone does not remove personal responsibility and, as established after World War II, orders do not have to be followed if they are orders to commit war crimes. Those directly responsible for the crimes committed at My Lai should have been punished. In the end, only 2nd Lieutenant William Calley was convicted, and he served a mere three-and-a-half years in a military prison where he was allowed regular personal visits from his girlfriend.
Individuals should not be absolved, but it is also clear, to those who are prepared to look, that they were only a small part of a much bigger picture. Leaving aside the illegal nature of the war in the first place, it has been shown since that not only did many try to cover up My Lai, but that it was far from an aberration and was in fact not far removed from official US policy in the war. Directive 525-3, issued in September 1965 and reissued in October 1966, is sometimes used to show that US forces did take efforts to minimize civilian casualties, as it states that “specified strike zones should be configured to exclude populated areas.” (“Specified strike zones” were areas where air strikes and artillery fire could be used freely if approval had been given by the province chief, which it almost always was).
But the directive made it clear that this motivation for humane treatment of civilians did not apply to those who had been under regular communist control, such as those at My Lai. A key point in the directive stated that “Specified strike zones should be configured to exclude populated areas, except those in accepted VC bases.” While this directive did not condone the machine gunning of civilians into pits, it did permit massive air or artillery bombardment of “VC bases” i.e. any village under regular Viet Cong control. The effect of course is essentially the same – dead civilians. This can much more easily be passed off as legitimate military tactics, and so elicits far less opposition.
There were numerous other examples of atrocities that only came to light many years later, and have received little attention. Documents declassified in 1994 revealed that there were at least 320 substantiated war crimes, including massacres, and more than 500 other cases that could not be proved. The declassified documents demonstrated a sustained level of massive violence against civilians in Vietnam, undermining claims that the massacres were merely the work of rogue units. Only 23 people were ever convicted. The documents were reclassified in 2002, with the government claiming that they contained personal information and so shouldn’t have been declassified in the first place.
Some say that the revelations from the My Lai case helped to spur on the anti-war movement. It certainly helped, but the real turning point in opinion was the Tet Offensive, which took place less than two months before My Lai. It was a militarily unsuccessful, but psychologically devastating offensive by the Viet Cong that demonstrated to the American people that the US was not winning the war. This is the unfortunate lesson that governments have come to learn. It is not the deaths of enemy civilians, no matter how brutally, but the deaths of one’s own forces, not the rights or wrongs of a war, but whether or not it is won, that determine the level of protest. This is in evidence today, with massive, and by its very nature indiscriminate, air power used as much as possible against enemies.
The idea of “no soldier left behind” also comes from learning these lessons, not because a soldier’s life is now worth so much more to those in charge, but because his rescue can make their cause look just, whilst no attempt is made to count civilian deaths. Bombing by its very nature will kill more than such massacres ever will, but it doesn’t generate the same degree of moral outrage. There will be no public widespread remembrance of the bombing campaign against Laos, waged in secret for years until it peaked with a bombing raid every 8-12 minutes throughout 1970. No-one was ever in danger of being tried for this.
People need to get out of the mindset that only the lives of some people matter, and that those of others don’t. Vietnam is seen as a double tragedy in America because they lost about 58,000 men and they lost the war. It was a tragedy, but more because it should never have happened, and because literally millions died in North & South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, as well as those 58,000. How many would care for the millions of dead if the US had been able to win, especially if they had been able to win with less loss of American life?
So, what is the point of remembering My Lai? Is it to remember that just causes aren’t always won, and that rogue elements within otherwise honourable forces will mean that, unfortunately, there are always going to be tragedies in war? Or is it to remember that unjust wars that are fought with little regard for the norms of war established in the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions will inevitably lead to mass killing, whatever the method? Currently, over 1 million people are thought to have died in Iraq by independent estimates, and details of massacres at Haditha, Mahmudiyah, Ishaqi, Mukaradeeb and on Nangarhar Highway, have so far come to light.
At the same time, support for the Iraq war is growing again in the US, slowly, as the “surge” is perceived as a success, and less US troops are coming home in body bags. As John “bomb, bomb, bomb’ bomb, bomb Iran” McCain gets closer to the presidency with his fervently pro-war stance, now is a good time to remember My Lai. More importantly, now is a good time to remember the lessons surrounding My Lai, and that it is not as much of an aberration as many would like us to believe, and furthermore that to victims of war, it makes little difference if death comes from a rifle or an air strike.
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This post was written by Ian Broughton