Of Savagery and Civility

For the last couple of days, a poem has been stuck in my mind. It has interrupted the strains of Celtic music that are usually there on this day. It starts like this:

In prison cell I sadly sit,

A d__d crest-fallen chappie!

And own to you I feel a bit-

A little bit – unhappy!

It really ain’t the place nor time

To reel off rhyming diction –

But yet we’ll write a final rhyme

Whilst waiting cru-ci-fixion!

The metered echo in my head was not an unexpected event – yesterday, as I perused the headlines, I saw the predictable:

U.S. veterans, Japanese mark 1968 Vietnam massacre – Video

Survivors reflect 40 years after My Lai

My Lai. Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the incident that came to encapsulate Vietnam for the antiwar movement, and for a generation of Americans who lost their stomach for fighting Communists, for casualty counts, for war. Like it or not, My Lai was the best thing ever to happen to those who malign our troops and what they do – to the anti-troop crowd, My Lai was an unprecedented gift.

I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about the ‘official’ story around My Lai, especially given the context. There was tremendous pressure on the military to find someone guilty, to throw someone under the bus to make the raging crowds happy.

It’s generally accepted that our troops crossed the line at My Lai. But my problem with the whole thing is that the judgment of My Lai comes completely out of context, and more often than not, the incident is viewed through eyes that have absolutely no frame of reference. Hindsight may be 20/20 in most cases, but not when you’re working in the dark. Even now, so many years later, there are many, many unanswered questions about what happened – and why.

Vietnam, to be sure, was not the war that those who went there expected. When the Vietnam war happened, the generation who would serve there was accustomed to war being almost a rite of passage. Remember, there had been a war in this country virtually with every generation since its birth. If you were male, you grew up, you went to war, you came home. Sometimes you didn’t, in which case you became immortalized as a hero.

But never had anyone gone to Vietnam. Those fighting the Japanese in the Pacific had seen a premonition of how that area of the world dealt with war. Korea gave another indication – or at least it would have, if this country had really been interested in looking at it all. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

Although it wasn’t always the war portrayed in “Hamburger Hill” and “Full Metal Jacket,” Vietnam was a world of smothering heat, dense jungle, and invisible enemies for those who faced the worst of what it had to offer. Vietnam was a place where there were people lurking in the jungle who tortured and killed American troops. And worse, for Americans, it was hard to tell enemy from friend. Villagers who seemed friendly one moment could harbor the VC – sometimes under your very feet. Children with baskets might be carrying bombs. Yes, some of those who went to Vietnam never fired a shot. But some saw a far different war.

Sometimes, you couldn’t even relax enough to count on the ground you walked on – the VC regularly employed booby traps – spiked pits, bamboo spikes hidden in the ground where American troops would dive for cover when fired upon – endless ingenious and horrible inventions. And mines. Lots of mines.

The infamous “Charlie Company” walked into My Lai after several weeks of losing friends to those mines. They were under the impression that My Lai – like so many other villages, harbored VC. They were ordered to eliminate a threat. They were angry. They were tired. And then they walked into a village, like many others, that might or might not harbor the enemy, or harbor those who harbored the enemy.

So much of the analysis of My Lai relies on hindsight. There turned out, officially, to be no VC in My Lai, so therefore it was an atrocity. Problem with all that is, no one could really be sure who was VC and who was not, most of the time. Even the estimates on My Lai dead vary so wildly as to be suspect. Estimates range from somewhere around 150 to over 500, with more ‘official’ numbers wandering between 350 to 400.

30 soldiers out of the 100 or so in Charlie Company were put on trial. 30 out of 100 in Charlie Company. Looks like a pretty big percentage – 30% of a unit accused of an atrocity. But let’s look at some other numbers – 2.1 million Americans served in Vietnam. My Lai represents the behavior of .0014% of those who served – an incredibly small amount. How much energy is spent on that .0014% versus how much is spent on the honorable service of the other 99.9986%?

The problem lies in the ugliness of war. For the most part, if war can be spoon-fed to the general populous in manufactured film reels and staged pictures, if news can be delivered in brave victories and vanquished enemies that can be easily demonized in your average cartoon, we’re happy to tolerate it. But when it gets ugly, the Western world doesn’t want to think about it. Unfortunately, we seem to have this need to distance ourselves from the wars we wage. There’s this need to set a line, to seize upon the stuff in war that doesn’t look good on the cover of Time, and to prosecute so that we can say, “See? War may be uncivilized, but we’re still civilized.” War is bad, but we’re not bad.

Every war has its trial, its villains from the winning side. The victors have to find those who will bear the cost of what we needed to do to win; those who will in essence shoulder the responsibility for the fact that when armies meet to settle things, people are killed and maimed. Vietnam had My Lai. Iraq had Abu Ghraib – the stupid behavior of a very few soldiers, who took some idiotic pictures. Since that didn’t turn out to the torture-fest that would have satisfied the need to demonize someone on our side, the hunt went on. They almost got Lt. Ilario Pantano. And they almost got Haditha – a tale that has been falling apart from the start. Frighteningly, both could have gone far worse for the troops involved had it not been for a couple of factors that didn’t exist during the My Lai circus – milbloggers and talk radio. This time, there was opposition to the lynch mob that always waits in the wings. Haditha is still open, and it is up to that opposition to remain vigilant.

What always throws me for a loop in these situations is that we are collectively so ready to view American troops as if they’re something other than human. We’re always so ready to forget that those “animals” at My Lai were, in some cases, barely out of high school. They were brothers, sons, fathers…they were ours. In another place, at another time, some of them might have been that nice kid next door.

I wonder what’s more savage – the behavior of troops in war, who occasionally cross the line after they are pushed to their limits, or the behavior of the bloodthirsty mob of critics who clamor for the heads of the heroes that protect their freedoms? I think, and always have, that the latter is more reprehensible. Our Heroes display remarkable restraint when criticized, often enduring the attacks without a word.

No matter what “end” they decide –

Quick-lime or “b’iling ile,” sir?

We’ll do our best when crucified

To finish off in style, sir!

When troops cross the line, in the context of their jobs, they deserve help, not prosecution. I’ve got no problem with court martialling soldiers who rape innocent girls and kill their family to cover it up. I’ve got a real problem putting Marines on trial who are in a hostile area, have to make instant judgment calls, and almost certainly believed that they were doing what they needed to do.

Sadly, I think we are eager to try those who are involved in the darker, uglier side of war because it makes us feel better. We can send troops off to kill, and feel OK with it, as long as we make sure that we still have standards – that we haven’t completely lost our humanity. How sad it is that we all can’t just get along, but rather have to get dragged into the nastiness that is war.

But we bequeath a parting tip

For sound advice of such men,

Who come across in transport ship

To polish off the Dutchmen!

If you encounter any Boers

You really must not loot ’em!

And if you wish to leave these shores,

For pity’s sake, DON’T SHOOT ‘EM!!

Other cultures don’t have that same limitation, that same need to justify, explain, and dress up a war. To many other cultures, it’s real simple. The enemy is the enemy, and no one really cares what happens to them. I’m not saying that we should go that way. I just think that maybe we should be leaning a little towards our Heroes, rather than their critics, when there’s a problem.

The most bizarre thing about the whole My Lai redux yesterday was the fact that another anniversary was all but ignored in the headlines. In addition to My Lai, survivors of another of history’s darker moments were remembering, too.

Over this past weekend, survivors of the Krakow ghetto were marking the 65th anniversary of its “liquidation.” Thousands upon thousands of Jews were killed outright or deported to Nazi death camps from the Krakow ghetto. Thousands upon thousands of lives were destroyed.

And if you’d earn a D.S.O.,

Why every British sinner

Should know the proper way to go


Let’s toss a bumper down our throat, –

Before we pass to Heaven,

And toast: “The trim-set petticoat

We leave behind in Devon.”

It’s a far juicier story to make criminals out of heroes. Far better reading to watch the fall of someone on a pedestal than to focus on the truly evil. How much airplay has Spitzer gotten lately – and why? Because he was a man who had been held up as a moral crusader – a paragon of law and order. If he’d been a common thug, dalliances with prostitutes wouldn’t have been big news. Paradoxically, common criminals get the benefit of their actions being judged by how they were raised, whether they were bullied, and any other excuse that society can make for them. But our Heroes? They have no such defenses, and there is no compassion for them in the rush to condemn their actions.

The Viet Cong regularly did unspeakable things to Vietnamese civilians. That didn’t get much coverage yesterday. None, actually. But My Lai? Now there’s a story.

Noting that yesterday was the anniversary of a Nazi horror wasn’t going to get a lot of mileage, either – especially since looking at the Holocaust forces us to look at ourselves. The horrors of the death camps, like it or not, were well known to the Western world for years before American troops gaped in horror at what they saw in Nazi concentration camps – and no one really cared. All of that Europe stuff, for a long time, was seen as someone else’s problem. Although the Nazis bear the responsibility for the Holocaust, the rest of the world has to look at its ambivalence, and that’s not very comfortable. The true extent of the evil that played itself out in Europe obviously didn’t teach us much, either, but that’s a subject for a different time.

The big factor in the disparity of coverage, sadly, is that focusing on real villains doesn’t play as well in the media as demonizing American troops does. That, to me, is also a crime. When it all boils down to it, I guess I wouldn’t mind the My Lai coverage, if we actually tried to learn something from it, rather than using it as yet another excuse to paint American troops in the worst light possible.

Oh, that poem that has been running through my head for the last couple of days? It’s noted, by its author, as “The Last Rhyme and Testament of Tony Lumpkin.” It’s official title is “Butchered to Make a Dutchman’s Holiday.” It was written by Harry “Breaker” Morant, another military man who became intimately familiar with the process of putting troops on trial to satisfy the hunger for civility.

See Also: Marines Fight ‘Domestic’ Enemies

(a Haditha story)

Pamela Duffy
Pamela Duffy is an Awesome Milblogger, who honors and writes about military men and women.