"War crimes like My Lai rightly arouse horror, but the psychology of such episodes is related to the psychology of much “normal” combat. Of course, the deliberate massacre of defenseless civilians is morally different from fighting armed enemy forces. Morally different, but in its psychology disturbingly close.”
-- Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century
The alleged mass executions of civilians by U.S. troops in Iraq have brought up the inevitable comparisons by the mainstream media to My Lai, the infamous massacre of Vietnam villagers on March 16, 1968. Without diminishing the loss of life in either of the Iraqi episodes, neither one of them comes close to the scale of horror and destruction that was My Lai.
The most recent Iraqi case was the alleged murder of 11 villagers in Ishaqi, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. U.S. forces were conducting a raid on a known insurgent safe house, according to the Pentagon, when they engaged and killed four people, including an insurgent. The Pentagon acknowledged nine collateral deaths in the fighting, but concluded that U.S. troops acted appropriately.
Iraqi police, however, have accused the U.S. soldiers of deliberately executing innocent civilians, including five children and four women, and then hiding the murders by bombing the house where the alleged crime took place. To make matters worse, the BBC last week broadcast videotape that appeared to corroborate the Iraqi police’s version of the events.
The second Iraqi case took place in November 19, 2005, when U.S. Marines claimed that they were targeted by a roadside bomb in Haditha and then came under enemy fire. They reported that 15 Iraqis, including insurgents were killed. New evidence, however, questions the validity of this story and, according to the New York Times, 24 civilians may have been murdered in cold blood. Even worse, U.S. Marine commanders allegedly covered up the massacre.
Both Iraqi cases are under increasing scrutiny, but it remains to be seen if U.S. troops acted improperly in either case (although the mounting evidence seems to indicate guilt). It’s grossly unfair, however, to compare either case to My Lai – which may be the worst documented atrocity by U.S. troops in history. According to an account given in Jonathan Glover’s book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, this is what happened at My Lai:
One hundred and twenty soldiers from “Charlie Company” were sent to My Lai because, they were told, it was a Viet Cong stronghold. The company had been under intense combat for weeks with four soldiers killed and another 38 wounded. Before the raid, the U.S. troops were told to expect enemy soldiers and armed civilians in the village.
Landing by helicopters, the soldiers attacked the village – shooting people and animals as they moved in. Despite the fact that there was no evidence of Viet Cong activity in the village or any return fire (in fact not one shot was fired at the soldiers), Charlie Company went on a four-hour murderous rampage. They raped women and children. They slashed open the bellies of pregnant women, they disemboweled and tortured people, they executed villagers by lining them up and machine gunning them down, and they burned down every house. In the end, 500 people were murdered and My Lai was a smoking ruin.
Notwithstanding the seriousness of the two Iraqi cases, but they are a far cry from My Lai – where justice was again thwarted when only one soldier, Lt. William Calley, was tried, convicted, and spent a paltry three years in prison.
What’s perplexing about the Iraqi cases isn’t that they happen – atrocities always happen in war – but that the United States continues to naively believe that it doesn’t happen to us. There seems to be an enormous disconnect in this country about the meaning of war (this disconnect got more severe after 9/11). As former war correspondent and author Chris Hedges wrote in his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, war is always exposed for what it is: “organized murder.” War means murder, rape, torture, and atrocities because that’s what it is at its essence.
The idea behind “civilized and lawful” wars sounds nice during UN debates and on television talk shows, but once the bullets and bombs start to fly and people die, the rules don’t mean anything anymore. War breeds savagery and lawlessness. When you start a war – Ishaqi and Haditha – are inevitable consequences.
Yet, the United States widely supported the Bush administration on its march to war in Iraq – because we’re a country that still doesn’t understand war. That’s why these same supporters are now turning against the war in huge numbers as the unavoidable consequence of real combat now reveals itself.
War is ugly, which is why it should be the last possible option for resolving any crisis. It means children die, women are raped, and civilians are tortured. It means war crimes and mental illness. How dangerous is war for civilians? It’s more dangerous than being a soldier. Here are some disturbing figures from another Chris Hedges book What Every Person Should Know About War:
- Between 1900 and 1990, 43 million soldiers died in wars compared to 62 million civilians