War Is Hell. Or Why My Lai Always Confused Me

War is Hell. – Gen. William T. Sherman

Years ago when reading and learning about the Vietnam War, I was struck over the historical revulsion to the My Lai massacre. I bet you could examine any war and find a similar event or events. What struck me was the outrage directed at the men involved. We all know what happened was horrific, assuming you’re a moral person. But I was puzzled over the surprise that it happened at all.

What I understood at a young age was that these actions did not take place in a vacuum. They took place during a guerilla war. Stand in the boots of a bunch of 19, 20, hell even 30, 35 year old soldiers fighting a ghost. The enemy is there, the enemy is gone. These people are friendly, no the just set us up for an ambush. And on and on.

Existing under these conditions seems likely to produce behavior exactly like that which took hold in My Lai. Maybe not full time. But certainly it would produce, at minimum, short violent convulsions like My Lai, if for nothing more than releasing the crushing fear of your own mortality that shadows you through every rice paddy in Vietnam or dusty road in Iraq. I would like to think I would know good from evil, but I’m not going to deceive myself. It would become blurry at best certain moments. And that’s all it takes.

Here’s a quote from Gen. Colin Powell that gets right to the heart of the matter, “”I mean, I was in a unit [the Americal Division] that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.” (emphasis mine)

This article got me to thinking again about soldiers, fighting, and the transformation to killers. Unfortunately, I think it’s inevitable for survival in situations like this. So long as people thousands of miles away commit young men and women to war, it will always devolve into kill or be killed.  So let’s squelch the outrage.  It’s happened before, it’s happening now, and it will happen in every future war.

So while those of us out of harms way can continue to “deplore” such behavior, it won’t change a thing.  It’s human nature.  As long as we fight wars, deplorable things will continue to happen.  Let’s just drop the feigned outrage.


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