The My Lai Massacre Revisited
by Gary G. Kohls
by Gary G. Kohls
ago this week, on March 16,1968, a company of US Army combat soldiers
from the Americal Division swept into the South Vietnamese hamlet
of My Lai, rounded up the 500+ unarmed residents, all women, children,
babies and a few old men, and executed them in cold blood, Nazi-style.
No weapons were found in the village, and the whole operation took
only 4 hours.
was a serious attempt to cover-up this operation (which involved
a young up-and-coming US Army Major named Colin Powell), those who
orchestrated this "business-as-usual" war zone atrocity
did not deny the details of the slaughter when the case came to
trial several years later. But the story had filtered back to the
Western news media, thanks to a couple of courageous eye-witnesses
whose consciences were still intact. An Army court-marital trial
eventually convened against a handful of the soldiers, including
Lt. William Calley and Company C commanding officer, Ernest Medina.
many of the soldiers in Company C, Medina ordered the killing of
"every living thing in My Lai," including, obviously,
innocent noncombatants – men, women, children and even farm animals.
Lt. Calley was charged with the murder of 109 civilians. In his
defense statement he stated that he had been taught to hate all
Vietnamese, even children, who, he had been told, "were very
good at planting mines."
That a massacre
had occurred was confirmed by many of Medina’s soldiers and recorded
by photographers, but the Army still tried to cover it up. The cases
were tried in military courts with juries of Army officers,
which eventually either dropped the charges against all of the defendants
(except Calley) or acquitted them. Medina and all the others who
were among the killing soldiers that day went free, and only Calley
was convicted of the murders of "at least 20 civilians."
He was sentenced to life imprisonment for his war crime, but, under
pressure from patriotic pro-war Americans, President Nixon pardoned
him within weeks of the verdict.
The trial stimulated
a lot of interest because it occurred during the rising outcry of
millions of Americans against the war that was acknowledged by many
observers as an "overwhelming atrocity." Many ethical
Americans were sick of the killing. However, 79% of those that were
polled strenuously objected to Calley’s conviction, some veteran’s
groups even voicing the opinion that instead of condemnation, he
should have received medals of honor for killing "Commie Gooks."
War was an excruciating time for conscientious Americans because
of the numerous moral issues surrounding the mass slaughter in a
war that uselessly killed 58,000 American soldiers, caused the spiritual
deaths of millions more, killed 3 million Vietnamese (mostly civilians)
and psychologically traumatized countless others on both sides of
Of course the
Vietnam War was a thousand times worse for the innocent people of
that doomed land than it was for the soldiers. The Vietnamese people
were victims of an army of brutal young men from a foreign land
who were taught that the "little yellow people" were pitiful
sub-humans and deserved to be killed – with some GIs preferring
to inflict torture first. "Kill-or-be-killed" is a reality
that is standard operating procedure for military combat units of
every nation of every era and of every ideology.
tell me that there were scores, maybe hundreds, of "My Lai-type
massacres " during that war. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon
refuses to acknowledge that truth. Execution-style killings of "potential"
Viet Cong sympathizers (i.e., anybody that wasn’t a US military
supporter) were common. Many combat units "took no prisoners"
(a euphemism for murdering captives, rather than having to follow
the nuisance Geneva Conventions which requires humane treatment
for prisoners of war). The only unusual thing about the My Lai Massacre
was that it was eventually found out. The attempted Pentagon cover-up
Very few soldiers
or their commanding officers have ever been punished for the many
war crimes that occurred during that war because those in charge
knew that killing (and torturing) of innocent civilians during war-time
is simply the norm – excused as "collateral damage." After
all, as US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld later infamously
proclaimed, "stuff happens."
was enjoyable for some – for a while. And wars are profitable for
many – and still are (witness the Krupp family of Nazi-era infamy
and Halliburton, the Blackwater mercenaries, et al. today).
Those who plan
wars and/or participate in them, yet also profess to be Christians,
pay no attention to the ethics of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew
5, 6 and 7) unless they are prepared to explicitly reject what their
religion’s namesake repeatedly said about the issue of homicidal
violence (for Jesus says, in so many words: "Violence is forbidden
for those who wish to follow me"). And what is most hypocritical
is the fact that many pro-war Christians also reject Jesus’ Golden
Rule command: "Do onto others as you would have them do unto
of the Way of Jesus also includes the rejection of his clear teachings
on how his followers are to treat the neighbor, the stranger, the
hungry, the naked, the captive, the enemy and all others in need
of mercy and understanding. In order to participate in the legal
homicide that takes place in all wars, the followers of Jesus have
to reject Jesus’ teachings and adopt the un-Christ-like, anti-gospel
Just War Theory of Augustine (which first appeared 3 centuries after
Jesus’ death). There is no moral way for the follower of the nonviolent
Jesus to participate in or support the mass slaughter of war. Christian
discipleship requires making a choice between those two irreconcilable
The whole issue
of the justification of war, with its inherent atrocities, never
seems to be thoroughly examined in an atmosphere of openness and
historical honesty. Full understanding of the realities of war and
its spiritual, psychological and economic consequences for the victims
is rarely attempted, even for American people of faith. If we who
are non-soldiers ever truly experienced the horrors of combat, the
effort to abolish war would suddenly be a top priority (perhaps
even for the current crop of "Chicken Hawk" warmongers
in the Bush Administration).
If we actually
knew the gruesome realities of war (or even understood the immorality
of spending trillions of dollars on war preparation while hundreds
of millions of people are homeless and starving) we would refuse
to cooperate with the things that make for war. But that wouldn’t
be good for the war profiteers who profit from war. So those "merchants
of death" must hide the gruesome truths and try instead to
make war look patriotic, with, for example, sloganeering like "Be
All That You Can Be." Or they might try to convince the soon-to-be-childless
mothers of doomed, dead or dying soldiers that their child had died
fighting for God, Country and Honor instead of for domination of
the Middle East’s oil reserves.
it. The US military standing army system has been bankrupting America
at $500+ billion year after year after year – even in times of so-called
"peace." The warmongering legacy of the Pentagon is still
with us, particularly among those "patriots," including
GOP presidential candidate John McCain, who wanted to "nuke
the gooks" in Vietnam. A multitude of un-elected policy-makers
of that ilk are still in charge of US foreign policy today, and
they have been solidifying their power to continue America’s misbegotten,
unaffordable and unsustainable militarism with the huge profits
made off the deaths, screams, blood, guts and permanent disabilities
of those hood-winked soldiers who were told that they were "saving
the world for democracy" when in fact they were making the
world safe for exploitive capitalism and obscene profits for the
few. And the politicians entrenched in both major political parties,
who are all-too-often paid lapdogs for the war profiteers, don’t
want the gravy train to be derailed.
changed much even from the World War II mentality that conveniently
overlooked the monstrous evil that was perpetrated on tens of thousands
of unarmed, innocent civilians at Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, a
war crime so heinous that the psychological consequences, immune
deficiency disorders and cancers from that nuclear holocaust are
still being experienced in unimaginable suffering 6 decades later.
really changed when one witnesses the political mentality that allows
the 500,000 deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians in the aftermath
of the first Gulf War or the 1,000,000 civilian deaths in the current
fiasco in Iraq.
So it appears
that our military and political leaders haven’t learned anything
since My Lai. And I’m sorry to have to conclude that it is still
true of the churches. The person sitting next to you in the comfortable
church pew is, like most unaware Americans, almost totally ignorant
of the hellish realities of the war-zone, so he may continue to
be blindly patriotic and indifferent to the plight of the "others"
who suffer so much in war. He may think, contrary to Jesus’ clear
teachings, that some people are less than human, and, therefore,
if necessary, can be justifiably killed.
As long as
most American citizens continue to glorify war and militarism and
ignore or denigrate the peacemakers; as long as the American public
endorses the current spirit of nationalism and ruthless global capitalism;
and as long as the American Christian church leadership remains
prudently silent (and therefore consenting to the homicidal violence
of war) we will not be able to effect a change away from the influence
of conscienceless warmongers and war profiteers. The prophets and
peacemakers are never valued in militarized nations, especially
in times of war; indeed, they are always marginalized, demeaned
and even imprisoned or executed as traitors. And one of the reasons
is that there are no profits to be made in peacemaking, whereas
there are trillions to be made in the biggest business going: the
preparation for war, the execution of war and the highly profitable
"re-building" efforts ("blow it up/build it up"
economics) all the while ignoring the "inconvenient" but
inevitable collateral damage to the creation and its creatures.
As long as
we continue to be led by unapologetic and merciless war-makers and
their wealthy business cronies and as long as the ethical infants
in Washington, DC continue to be corrupted by the big money bribes,
there is no chance America will ever obtain true peace.
And as long
as America’s Christian religious leaders and their followers do
not reject, as Jesus surely would have had them do, the merciless
mass slaughter that is modern war, suffering humanity will be condemned
to future wars, poverty, pestilence and starvation.
America stops the unjust carnage, fully repents and offers compensation
for the damage it has caused, its turn as a recipient of retaliatory
violence will surely come, and it will come from those foreign and
domestic victims that our nation has treated so shamefully over
the past half-century.
Kohls, MD [send him mail],
an associate of Every Church a Peace
Church, is a practicing physician in Duluth, MN.
© 2008 Gary G. Kohls, MD