The My Lai Massacre Revisited

Thirty-eight years ago, 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 and old men, and executed them in cold blood, Nazi-style. No weapons were found in the village, and the whole operation only took 4 hours.

Although there was a massive cover-up of this operation (which involved a young up-and-coming US Army Major named Colin Powell), those who orchestrated this "business-as-usual" war zone event did not deny the details of the slaughter when the case came to trial several years later. But the story did eventually filter back to the Western news media, thanks to a couple of courageous witnesses and journalists whose consciences were still intact. An Army court-marital trial eventually convened against some of the soldiers, including Lt. William Calley and Company C commanding officer, Ernest Medina.

According to 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 in the murder of 109 civilians. In his defense statement he stated that he had been taught to hate all Vietnamese, even children, who, he was told, "were very good at planting mines."

The massacre was documented 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 those accused. 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 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 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, veteran's groups even voicing the opinion that instead of condemnation, he should have received medals of honor for killing "Commie Gooks."

Just like the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, the realities of My Lai deserve to be revisited so that it will happen "never again." The Vietnam 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 the conflict.

Of course the Vietnam War was a thousand times worse for the innocent people of that doomed land. They were victims of an army of brutal young men from a foreign land who were taught that the Vietnamese people were pitiful sub-humans and deserved to be killed – with some GIs preferring to inflict torture first. "Kill-or-be-killed" is an attitude that is standard operating procedure for military combat units of every nation and ideology.

Vietnam veterans tell me that there were scores, maybe hundreds, of "My Lai-type massacres" to which the Pentagon refuses to admit. Execution-style killings of "potential" Viet Cong sympathizers (i.e., anybody that wasn't an American at the time) 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.

Very few soldiers or their commanding officers were ever punished for the many war crimes that occurred during that war because those in charge thought that killing during war-time is simply the norm, usually labeled "collateral damage." After all, as Donald Rumsfeld infamously says, "stuff happens."

The torture was enjoyable for some – for a while. (Witness Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay today.) And wars are profitable for many – and still are. (Witness Halliburton 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 the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25:31-46, unless they are prepared to reject the words and ministry of the namesake of their religion especially regarding 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 these so-called Christians also reject Jesus' Golden Rule command: "Do onto others as you would have them do unto you."

The rejection of the Way of Jesus also includes 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. In order to participate in the legal homicide that takes place in all wars, the followers of Jesus must ethically reject the totality of Jesus' teachings and then adopt the un-Christ-like, non-gospel Just War Theory of Augustine (which first appeared 3 centuries after Jesus). There is no ethical way for the follower of the nonviolent Jesus to participate in or condone the mass slaughter of war. One has to choose between two irreconcilable belief systems.

The whole issue of the justification of war, with its inherent atrocities, is rarely 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, especially for American "Christians." 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 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 businesses must hide the gruesome truths and try instead to make it look like something 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.

Let's face 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 who wanted to "nuke the gooks" in Vietnam. Policy-makers of that ilk are still in charge of US war-making today, and they have been solidifying their power to do so with the huge profits made off the deaths, screams, blood, guts and permanent disabilities of our hood-winked soldiers who were told that they were "saving the world for democracy" when in fact they were making the world fit for ruthless and exploitive global capitalism and the obscene profits of the few. And the politicians and businessmen of war don't want that gravy train to stop.

Things haven't changed much even from the World War II mentality that conveniently overlooked the monstrous evil that was perpetrated 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 60 years later.

Things haven't really changed. The military mentality that allowed the 500,000 deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians in the aftermath of the first Gulf War is still dominant.

So it appears that our military and political leaders haven't learned anything since My Lai. Is it still true of the churches? The person sitting next to you in the church pew is, like most Americans, almost totally ignorant of the hellish realities of the war-zone, or he may choose to be blindly patriotic or prefer to be indifferent to the plight of the "other" who suffers so much in war. He may think, contrary to Jesus' clear teachings to the contrary, that some people are less than human, and, therefore, if necessary, can be justifiably killed "for Volk, Fhrer und Vaterland."

As long as America continues to glorify war and militarism and denigrate peacemakers, and as long as we endorse the current spirit of American nationalism and exploitative, corrupt global capitalism, and as long as the church leadership remains silent (and therefore acquiescing) we will not be able to effect a change away from the influence of conscienceless war-mongers and war profiteers. The prophets and peacemakers are never valued in militarized nations; indeed, they are always marginalized, demeaned, imprisoned and even killed. And the reason is that there are no obscene profits to be made in the prevention of war, whereas there are trillions to be made on the biggest business going: war and the killing of other humans and their habitat.

As long as we continue to be led by unapologetic war-makers, their wealthy business cronies and the bribery from large political campaign contributors, there is no chance we will ever obtain a meaningful peace.

And as long as America's leaders, particularly its pseudo-Christian political and religious leaders, do not reject the mass slaughter that is modern war and then repent of their silence about the My Lai-like torture of captives and other atrocities, the suffering world will be condemned to experience others.

And America's turn as a recipient of retaliatory violence from those we have so heinously victimized in the past will surely come.

March 6, 2006