The Debate

The My Lai Massacre and How to Write About War

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The Debate

The My Lai Massacre and How to Write About War

How defense policy writers can vicariously fuel the dangerous myth of ‘clean’ military conflict.

The My Lai Massacre and How to Write About War
Credit: Ronald L. Haeberle/Wikimedia Commons

50 years ago today, American soldiers massacred hundreds (estimates range from 347 to 504) of elderly men, women and children in Quang Ngai Province in what was then South Vietnam.  The My Lai Massacre, as it became later known, constituted one of the most heinous war crimes committed by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. On that fateful March 16 1968, the young Americans were on a ‘search-and-destroy’ mission looking to engage communist guerillas. Instead, the green troops found unarmed villagers. The journalist Seymour Hersh described in 1972 what happened next:

During the next few hours, the civilians were murdered. Many were rounded up in small groups and shot, others were flung into a drainage ditch at one edge of the hamlet and shot, and many more were shot at random in or near their homes. Some of the younger women and girls were raped and then murdered. After the shootings, the G.I.s systematically burned each home, destroyed the livestock and food, and fouled the area’s drinking supplies.

A U.S. helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson Jr. and his two crew members, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, were observing the attack from the air and tried to intervene and stop the killing. As a 2006 New York Times obituary of Hugh Thompson Jr. describes:

Mr. Thompson landed twice in an effort to determine what was happening, finally coming to the realization that a massacre was taking place. The second time, he touched down near a bunker in which a group of about 10 civilians were being menaced by American troops. Using hand signals, Mr. Thompson persuaded the Vietnamese to come out while ordering his gunner and his crew chief to shoot any American soldiers who opened fire on the civilians. None did.

Initially, the U.S. military successfully covered up the episode with the vicarious support of a self-censoring U.S. press corps. Eventually, the whole truth of the horrible extent of the massacre was revealed. My Lai became the leading symbol of the gradual uprooting of America’s morale compass as a result of the war.

Yet, as many military historians can attest, there is nothing exceptional about the orgy of violence unleashed on the unarmed villagers on that fateful day. The massacre and torture of civilians, throughout history, has always been the unfortunate consequence  of the use of military force and there has virtually been no war in recorded human history where, based on the definitions in international humanitarian law, war crimes have not occurred.

This should neither excuse nor diminish the heinous nature of the My Lai massacre. What should be  emphasized, however, is that we continue to have more of a sanitized, or–as Chris Hedges puts it–mythical understanding of the nature of war that neglects its gross human cruelty. “The blunders of senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents, and the horror of wounds are rarely disclosed, at least during a mythic war [such as World War II], to the public,” Chris Hedges writes in War Is a Force that Gives us Meaning. “Only when the myth is punctured, as it eventually was in Vietnam, does the press begin to report in a sensory rather than a mythic manner.”

At the heart of this mythical understanding of war lies the omission of the actual brutal reality of killing. Michael Herr admits in his book Dispatches that he “never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course was really what it was all about. (…) The most repulsive, transparent gropes for sanctity in the midst of the killing received serious treatment in the papers (…)The jargon of the Process got blown into your head like bullets (…) the suffering was somehow unimpressive.”

As Hedges notes: “[T]he lie in war is almost always the lie of omission.” That omission is necessary in order to turn war into an instrument of policy. It also appears necessary when discussing the ways and means of wars. The majority of defense or security policy writers usually do not write of mangled corpses, raped women, and murdered children. Rather, they write of tactics, strategies, logistics, and weapons systems using euphemisms such as counterforce (destroying military installations and personnel), or countervalue (indiscriminately killing everyone in a specific geographical location) to describe killing in a more scientific way.

The first question to consider then is whether writers who cover defense issues and who omit what a new artillery or missile system can do to a human being or what combat is actually like, vicariously feed into the mythical understanding of war, where the killing of civilians, as was the case during My Lai, is seen as an anomaly rather than a relatively common occurrence.  The second question is whether harping on human suffering when writing about new weapons systems or military strategy influences our thinking about war.

I would answer both questions in the affirmative. By not repeatedly emphasizing the human death toll that can be caused by modern weapons systems, war is dehumanized and simultaneously mythologized. It becomes nothing more than a complex strategic game, based on abstract understandings of military strategy and technology, where the ‘human factor’ is merely used for figuring out an army’s fighting morale or a nation’s will to resist. By not graphically and in detail mentioning death and destruction, the narrative of a clean mythical war is strengthened and perpetuated.

As a result, massacres such as My Lai, are easier to ‘digest’ for the public since they purportedly constitute a rare exception, rather than a more regular occurrence in battle. This is not to say that U.S. soldiers committed war crimes on a regular basis during the Vietnam War. The major point is that we need to adjust our perspective on modern warfare. Or put another way, an accidental aerial bombardment of civilians (“collateral damage”) and the deliberate bayoneting and shooting of civilians at close range, while different from a moral and legal perspective, are ultimately two sides of one and the same coin: the pity of modern war.

By not emphasizing human suffering as a result of certain tactics, strategies and weapons systems, we vicariously feed the myth of clean military conflict. The sooner we realize that the horrors of My Lai are a more regular occurrence in war than many of us believe, the sooner we will approach the truer cost of military conflict.