Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Lai and the Nature of War

Today is the 43rd anniversary of the massacre at My Lai in which U.S. troops brutally beat, tortured, raped, and slaughtered several hundred unarmed civilians, mostly women and children, in a South Vietnamese village.

Having taught at a military academy, one of the words you hear thrown around often is "honor." It is certainly part of the mythology of the warrior that they try to build. But is it possible to create someone who can do the job one asks of the warrior and not have them become like Heracles, blinded to the consequences of your actions when you are in the middle of them? Are horrors like My Lai inevitable when war is a reality? We hear terms like "bad eggs" applied to folks at Abu Ghraib, but is it the eggs that have gone bad or does the environment spoil them? Certainly, it is true that different people react differently to the same stimulus, and that not everyone will be changed in the same way by war or any other experience; but there are sociological regularities, there are trends. If you have a war, will it not affect a significant enough number such that My Lai-type incidents are a near certainty?

Is it something that strong leadership or better training can change or is such despicable evil a nearly necessary result of war itself?