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On the Anniversary of My Lai

new crimes come to light in a new war......go figure

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, March 16, 2005.

It’s not a good sign when I feel like quoting old Greek poets. Still, try this on. Again.

Far reaching, endless Time
Brings forth all hidden things
And buries that which once did shine.
The firm resolve falters, the sacred oath is shattered
And let none say, “It cannot happen here.”

Let’s all nod sagely while we review the newspaper headlines. Purse the lip; it gives a more concerned visage to the proceedings. Because, it’s happening again.

Today, March 16, is the anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, something far worse and maybe even less justified than the one on Sand Creek here in Colorado in 1864 one hundred and four years before the names Calley and Medina, the officers in charge at My Lai, entered our history. Certainly, more people were killed, over three hundred men, women, and children machine gunned to death in that unimportant Vietnamese village, than Black Kettle lost of his Cheyenne. Were they the victims of naturally cruel, sadistic thugs that somehow besmirched the golden reputation of the US military? No, not entirely. They were exhausted, scared, frustrated, and angry men who got out of control. Eventually, in any prolonged conflict, it will happen on both sides. It always does.

And now, a mere 24 centuries after Sophocles wrote those lines discussing the Trojan War, and only thirty seven years after My Lai, we need to consider them yet again. Because not only can it happen here, it has happened here and continues to happen. It’s what happens in war. The US military is now saying that there are twenty six cases of probable homicide of prisoners held by our forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq. There will, inevitably, be more to add to the deaths of families killed in their cars at checkpoints, families killed by smart bombs aimed by less sharp intelligence officers with old maps.

If anyone is overly shocked or surprised by these revelations – and there will probably be more like this in the field and not – they can’t have been paying attention. Can’t have been reading history, can’t have much of an imagination, can’t be living in the real world. This stuff always happens, always, and the worst thing we can do is to deny it and hold soldiers up to a perfect ideal and punish them for the failure. Before you get indignant, I agree you punish them for the deed, and you punish those who enabled them. But when you send people off to war on your behalf, you are thrusting them into a world where wrongs compounded sometimes do make lesser wrongs if not a right on a daily basis. It's war, after all. The very definition of hell.

I realize there is a difference between being in a war zone under fire and having prisoners in your care - unable not only to strike back but unable to move - die by your actions. I further realize that there are people who view the opportunity to kill and torture with more joy than others. I’m only saying that war will narrow the differences between the best and worst with mathematical surety.

I’m saying the American public has no right to pretend this stuff doesn’t happen and always will happen, when we go to war. We have no right to sheltered ignorance about those things of which war consists. We know the British and Americans burned people in barns during the Revolution, we know that in the Civil War irregulars wore necklaces of ears from corpses they had killed, that submarines surfaced in WWII and machine gunned Japanese sailors, and that there were elite units in Europe that never seemed to take a prisoner. We know that we did some horrible things in Vietnam, and here it is starting again in the Middle East.

There are things as predictable as conflict itself.

And it’s all very well for the public to demand punishment for the guilty. But unless you can truly imagine yourself under situations where the firm resolve might falter, and you might break a sacred oath, we have at least a need to accept some of the responsibility for these acts of barbarity and crime done in our name, and not create fairy tales of virginal pure youth in uniform marred only by these few bad apples. Any apple will rot, and faster under heat.

And like I say, irony today. Because when we choose to live far upriver from the actions that support our life style snacking high on the food chain, it’s a lot clearer to those looking up at the few of us than it is to us looking down at the many of them where the lines of causality merge. In that regard, it doesn’t matter if we’re not little Eichmanns if most of the world thinks we are and can trot out evidence. It doesn’t matter if they do the same or worse. They aren’t claiming to be better than everyone else. That hubris is ours alone.