One My Lai a Month

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One My Lai a Month

US forces in Vietnam, 1962. (Credit: Horst Faas)

“When somebody asks, ‘Why do you do it to a gook, why do you do this to people?’ your answer is, ‘So what, they’re just gooks, they’re not people. It doesn’t make any difference what you do to them; they’re not human.’

“And this thing is built into you,” Cpl. John Geymann testified almost 44 years ago at the Winter Soldier Investigation, held in Detroit, which was sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “It’s thrust into your head from the moment you wake up in boot camp to the moment you wake up when you’re a civilian.”

The cornerstone of war is dehumanization. This was the lesson of Nam, from Operation Ranch Hand (the dumping of 18 million gallons of herbicides, including Agent Orange, on the jungles of Vietnam) to My Lai to the use of napalm to the bombing of Cambodia. And the Winter Soldier Investigation began making the dehumanization process a matter of public knowledge.

It was a stunning and groundbreaking moment in the history of war. Yet — guess what? — the three-day hearing, in which 109 Vietnam veterans and 16 civilians testified about the reality of American operations in Vietnam, doesn’t show up on the “interactive timeline” of the Department of Defense-sponsored website commemorating, as per President Obama’s proclamation, the 50-year anniversary of the war.

This is no surprise, of course. The awkwardly unstated, cowardly point of the site, as well as the presidential proclamation — “they pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans” — is to “nice-ify” the ghastly war, wipe off the slime, return public consciousness to a state of unquestioning adoration of all U.S. military operations and banish “Vietnam Syndrome” from the national identity.

So what if somewhere between 2 and 3 million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were killed in it, along with 58,000 American soldiers (with, by some measures, a far greater number of vets committing suicide afterward)? A bad war is nothing but trouble for those who want to wage the next one. It took a generation of retooling before the military-industrial economy was able to launch the war on terror, which itself no longer has massive public support. Maybe restoring Vietnam to a state of false glory is part of a larger plan to make the American public proud of all its wars and, thus, more compliant about the idea (and the reality) of permanent war.

The Vietnam War Commemoration website is generating serious pushback, such as the Veterans for Peace “full disclosure” campaign; and a petition, signed by such iconic antiwar activists as Tom Hayden and Daniel Ellsberg, demanding that the tidal wave of protests against the war in the ’60s and ’70s be included as part of the war’s legacy. I agree, of course, but hasten to add that there’s far more at stake here than the accuracy of the historical record.

As long-time journalist and Middle East scholar Phyllis Bennis told the New York Times, “You can’t separate this effort to justify the terrible wars of 50 years ago from the terrible wars of today.”

I repeat: The cornerstone of every war is the dehumanization, a terrifying process with long-lasting and infinitely unfolding consequences. And the Vietnam War was the first in which the full horror of this process, stripped of all glory and pseudo-necessity, reached significant public awareness.

The website’s effort to undo this awareness is pathetic. In an early version of the timeline, for instance, the My Lai massacre was dismissed as an “incident.” Public objection forced the website to bite the bullet and acknowledge, in its March 16, 1968 listing: “Americal Division kills hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai.”

Ho hum. It was still a good war, right? My Lai was just an aberration. A scapegoat was arrested, tried, convicted . . .

But as the vets’ Winter Soldier testimony and numerous books and articles make horrifically clear, My Lai was not an aberration but situation normal: “They’re just gooks, they’re not people.”

As Nick Turse and Deborah Nelson pointed out in a 2006 article in the Los Angeles Times (“Civilian Killings Went Unpunished”), based on the examination of declassified Army files: “Abuses were not confined to a few rogue units, a Times review of the files found. They were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam.” The documents substantiated 320 incidents of torture, abuse or mass murder of Vietnamese civilians, with many hundreds more reported but not substantiated, they wrote.

The article describes in detail a number of incidents of wanton killing of Vietnamese civilians and includes a letter an anonymous sergeant sent to Gen. William Westmoreland in 1970, which “described widespread, unreported killings of civilians by members of the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta — and blamed pressure from superiors to generate high body counts.”

The letter stated: “A batalion [sic] would kill maybe 15 to 20 [civilians] a day. With 4 batalions in the brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 to 1500 a month, easy. If I am only 10% right, and believe me it’s lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay [sic] each month for over a year.”

And there’s so much more. Some of the testimony is unbearably gruesome, such as Sgt. Joe Bangert’s testimony at the Winter Soldier Investigation:

“You can check with the Marines who have been to Vietnam — your last day in the States at staging battalion at Camp Pendleton you have a little lesson and it’s called the rabbit lesson, where the staff NCO comes out and he has a rabbit and he’s talking to you about escape and evasion and survival in the jungle. He has this rabbit and then in a couple of seconds after just about everyone falls in love with it — not falls in love with it, but, you know, they’re humane there — he cracks it in the neck, skins it, disembowels it. he does this to the rabbit — and then they throw the guts out into the audience. You can get anything out of that you want, but that’s your last lesson you catch in the United States before you leave for Vietnam where they take that rabbit and they kill it, and they skin it, and they play with its organs as if it’s trash and they throw the organs all over the place and then these guys are put on the plane the next day and sent to Vietnam.”

This much is perfectly clear: American soldiers were pressured from above, indeed, trained and ordered, to treat the “enemy” – including civilians, including children – as subhuman. All the carnage that followed was predictable. And as the morally injured vets who home from Iraq and Afghanistan keep letting us know, it’s still the way we go to war.

Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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