1969 Commentary on the My Lai Massacre by Jonathan Schell

Published on: March 21, 2017

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Article (unsigned) by Jonathan Schell in “Talk of the Town” under “Notes and Comments” in The New Yorker, December 20, 1969.

The reports of the massacre in the South Vietnamese village of MyLai, in which American troops are said to have rounded up several hundred villagers and then gunned them down, have left the nation stunned and vexed. We sense—all of us—that our best instincts are de­serting us, and we are oppressed by a dim feeling that beneath our words and phrases, almost beneath our con­sciousness, we are quietly choking on the blood of innocents. Often, when we open our mouths to condemn, ex­cuses pour out uncontrollable instead.

When soldiers of other nations did such things, our outrage was clear and strong, and we had no trouble finding the words of condemnation, but now we find that that outrage was poor prep­aration for facing what appears to be an atrocity our own people have com­mitted. We try to turn the old phrases of condemnation against ourselves, but they seem to ring false—perhaps be­cause they rested in the first place on a complete dissociation of ourselves from the people we condemned—and the be­ginnings of a new, craven logic that finds such atrocities to be the way of the world steal into our minds.

When oth­ers committed them, we looked on the atrocities through the eyes of the vic­tims. Now we find ourselves, almost against our will, looking through the eyes of the perpetrators, and the land­scape seems next to unrecognizable. The victims are indistinct—almost in­visible. A death close to us personally seems unfathomably large, but their deaths dwindle in our eyes to mere abstractions. We don’t know what kind of lives they led or what kind of things they said to each other. We are even uncertain of the right name of the village we are said to have an­nihilated.

Our attention turns to the men who are charged with the crime. Could we ourselves have commit­ted it? (Already we have dissociat­ed these men from “us.”) Explana­tions of how such things can happen which never occurred to us when oth­ers did them are suddenly ready to hand, and we try to use them to com­fort ourselves. From the President on down, we have responded in a muted, tired way.

Some people look to the trials of Lieutenant William Calley, Jr., and Sergeant David Mitchell to re­solve the issue. But the massacre—if, indeed, there was a massacre—has raised questions that go far beyond the question of the guilt of the men charged with being participants, and al­though some of these broader questions may he raised at the trials, the only proper purpose of the trials is to decide the fate of the accused individuals. If the men accused are convicted, the question of how much responsibility the rest of us bear will be left to us, and will be resolved by what we say to each other and what we say to ourselves, and, above all, by what course we fol­low thereafter in our Vietnam policy.

Although it may be that the My Lai massacre is an “isolated incident,” in the sense that no other report of mass killing of civilians by troops on the ground has been brought to light, there can be no doubt that such an atrocity was possible only because a number of other methods of killing civilians and destroying their villages had come to be the rule, and not the exception, in our conduct of the war.

And the scale of this killing and destruction had been great enough even at the time of the My Lai massacre to defeat completely our original purpose in going into Viet­nam, which was to save the South Viet­namese people from coercion by the enemy. A report in these pages revealed that in August, 1967, in Chuang Ngai Province—where the alleged My Lai massacre took place seven months lat­er—a carefully devised and clearly ar­ticulated policy of reprisal bombings against villages that helped the Viet­cong, or even tolerated their presence under duress, was widely in effect.

This reprisal policy was announced to the South Vietnamese population in the clearest possible terms by the dropping of psychological-warfare leaf­lets. One such leaflet, the title of which was “Marine Ultimatum to Vietnamese People,” announced, in part, “The U.S. Marines issue this warning: THE U.S. MARINES WILL NOT HESITATE TO DESTROY, IMMEDI­ATELY, ANY VILLAGE OR HAMLET HARBORING THE VIETCONG. WE WILL NOT HESITATE TO DESTROY, IMMEDIATELY, ANY VILLAGE OR HAMLET USED AS A VIETCONG STRONGHOLD TO FIRE AT OUR TROOPS OR AIRCRAFT.” The same leaflet announced the names of hamlets that had already been bombed, saying, “The hamlets of Hai Mon, Hai Tan, Sa Binh, Tan Binh, and many others have been destroyed.” And, in case the villagers didn’t fully understand us after they had read this—or, for that matter, after their village had been bombed—another leaflet, titled “Your Village Has Been Bombed,” was dropped, telling why we had bombed it. At one point, the second leaflet in­formed the surviving villagers, “Your village will be bombed again if you harbor the Vietcong in any way.”

This policy did not result in a few isolated incidents of villages’ being bombed; it resulted in the razing to the ground of over seventy per cent of the villages in the province. Sometimes the villagers were warned before their villages were bombed, but more often the people were bombed in their villages without warning. With this kind of policy in effect, and with foot soldiers burning as a matter of course almost every village they entered, our men had come to regard the whole population of the province as their enemy. The orders coming from Washington assumed that the population would be friendly to us, and ordered the troops to separate the enemy from the population. But this order couldn’t he applied in Quang Ngai. The military were unable to distinguish between friend and foe, so they improvised their own policy, which was to wage war against everybody.

Although the reports that the military sent to Washington formally referred to civilian houses they had destroyed as “military structures,” they were already fighting a war completely dif­ferent from the war that our policy-makers told the American people they were fighting. Therefore, the issue of the massacre at My Lai is inextric­ably bound up with the issue of our entire presence in Vietnam. And al­though any men who are accused of participation in the massacre cannot he exonerated on this account, when we ask ourselves who is responsible we can­not rest the blame on them alone, nor can we exonerate ourselves by imposing heavy penalties on them.

However, if by blaming only these men for the massacre we cast our net too narrowly, there is another way of looking at the massacre that casts the net too widely. Now that it is Ameri­cans who are accused of an atrocity, we hear on every side that “war is hell” and that “human nature has its dark side.” The sudden popularity of this line of thinking has led many people to say that up to now America has had an inno­cent, naïve impression of the wickedness of the world, as if to suggest that our failure to commit such atrocities in the past was due to a lack of worldliness and sophistication.

This view tempts us toward a touch of actual pride in the massacre, as if we had gone through an initiation ceremony into adulthood as a nation, or as if com­mitting great crimes were part of being a great nation, like having a huge gross national product, or going to the moon. But if war is hell, Man has made it so. Or, to be more precise, if a partic­ular war is waged particularly hellishly, it is not Man but particular men who are responsible, and in this case we are those men. To lay the responsibility on Man, or on War, is to make nobody ac­countable, and is to move in the direc­tion of regarding the massacre as part of a natural, acceptable course of events.

We also attempt to lighten our burden of responsibility by drawing dubious distinctions between this massacre and the massacres committed by others, such as the Nazi reprisal killing of all the men in the Czech village of Lidice dur­ing the Second World War, on the ground that for those others the killing was part of a national policy, where­as for us it is not. This again points the finger at the impersonal force of War and away from us.

But is it a vir­tue to have a sensible, humane policy if in our acts transgressions of it are the rule? An announcement of a policy is nothing more than a promise, and a promise not fulfilled is certainly no better than a promise not given. Was it a saving grace for a high official in our pacification program to say, as such an official did in August of 1967, that “Quang Ngai Province is going to be one of the success stories of 1967” when at that very moment our bomb­ers and troops were completing the destruction of the entire society in Quang Ngai? This is the point at which official pronouncements stop be­ing “policy” and become rationaliza­tion and propaganda.

Nor can we ex­cuse ourselves by saying that we have not known what we were doing. We have known what we have wanted to know. It may be that the truly stagger­ing gap between our lofty intentions and our brutal actions is due more to self-deception than to ordinary decep­tion. But we tend to forget that, just as surely as ordinary deception requires a conscious will to fool others, self-decep­tion requires an unconscious will to fool ourselves. And we are as accountable for our self-deceptions as for our decep­tions.

With the report of the My Lai massacre, we face a new situation. It is no longer possible for us to say that we did not know. When we look at the photographs published in Life and see bodies of children and women in piles, and look into the faces of an old wom­an and a young girl who (we are told) are about to be shot, we feel that a kind of violence is being done to our feelings, and that the massacre threatens to over­power us. To block it out, we may freeze.

If we face the massacre for what it is, we are torn by almost unbearable grief, but if we turn away and let the rationalizations crowd into our minds to protect us we are degraded. We want to go on with our daily lives, and we may wonder, Why should my, life he interrupted by this? Why should I take on this suffering on behalf of these victims?

However much we may resist it, the choice has been made for us, irrevocably. Whether we manage to bear the grief or whether we freeze, the massacre enters into us and be­comes a part of us. The massacre calls for self-examination and for action, but if we deny the call and try to go on as before, as though nothing had hap­pened, our knowledge, which can nev­er leave us once we have acquired it, will bring about an unnoticed but cru­cial alteration in us, numbing our most precious faculties and withering our souls. For if we learn to accept this, there is nothing we will not accept.

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