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The Rule, Not the Exception

Forty four years ago tomorrow, March 16, 1968, Lieutenant William Calley led a group of American soldiers into the village of My Lai in Vietnam and embarked on a killing spree that left between 350 and 500 civilians slaughtered.  When news of the massacre finally became public the next year, whatever credibility the war had in the minds of most Americans was gone.  Tens of thousands of young U.S. soldiers had been killed, hundreds of thousands had returned home to scorn or indifference, many suffering physical and mental scars that would last a lifetime.  Miles and miles of countryside had been devastated by B-52 bombers and canisters of napalm. Relentless spin by military and political leaders citing progress in the war and reporting favorable “body counts” fell on the deaf ears of a population made cynical by unfulfilled promises and outright lies.  A war whose mission had long felt ill defined looked more and more like a crusade to nowhere, and the leaders in Vietnam purporting to be our allies were increasingly exposed as corrupt and self-serving, unwilling and unable to take on responsibility for their own country’s future.  An alleged war of necessity was more and more unmasked as a war of choice.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Memories of My Lai were hard to avoid earlier this week when reports of a U.S. soldier’s murderous rampage through a village in Kandahar Province broke on the news.  The numbers of those killed is small in comparison, but the grief for families of victims remains the same, and the outrage provoked among allies and enemies alike is no less real or devastating.  The political and strategic ramifications are undoubtedly enormous; it’s hard to imagine how U.S. soldiers will ever recoup a sense of respect or honor among reluctant allies who have watched their Korans burned at a U.S. military base and viewed soldiers on the internet urinating on the bodies of dead countrymen.  A nation grown weary of armed foreign soldiers entering their homes at night, targeting their villages because of suspected Taliban presence, and worn down by countless funerals of innocents can hardly be expected to be forgiving.

My Lai and last week’s killings shock us.  But we shouldn’t be surprised.  We recruit young people, then and now, train them in lethal skills, encourage brutal aggression, send them to  places that are culturally alien and made hostile by years of warfare, give them a vague mission in which victory is both ill-defined and elusive, ask them to engage a local population in which friend and foe are difficult to distinguish, have them watch comrades killed or maimed, and then expect that nothing bad will happen.  We’d like to think these “incidents” are isolated, anomalies that are tragic but hardly representative.  In fact, they are inevitable and systemic elements of any war and we engage in naïve, wishful thinking when we imagine they are not.

The vast majority of our soldiers serve honorably and courageously.  But the William Calley’s of the military are enlisted in every conflict.  Place them in the midst of violence where normal moral values are turned on their head, put high powered weaponry in their hands, add a healthy dose of fear and frustration, and massacres like My Lai and last week’s killings are outcomes we ought to anticipate.  It is part of the cost of war and any president or Congress who sends troops into quagmires like Vietnam or Afghanistan should expect that this cost will need to be paid along with the currency of the killed and the maimed.

Since the time of Alexander the Great armies, empires, and reformers have thrown themselves into Afghanistan seeking either their own economic and security interests or hoping to improve the lot of Afghan citizens.  Most of these occupying invaders and colonizing masters have left with their goals unfulfilled having paid a huge price in lives, money, and prestige.  No one has left Afghanistan a safer or more prosperous place.  That we thought it would be different this time is, at best miscalculation and at worst hubris.

It took five more years after My Lai for the United States to extricate itself from Vietnam.  Nothing useful was accomplished in those five years, only more death and destruction.  The lasting image we have is of Americans being evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the embassy in Saigon and a haunting black granite wall slicing through the national mall in Washington. I hope our extrication from this decade long debacle in Afghanistan can be far quicker and more orderly.  The aftermath of our departure will likely be grim, as it was in Vietnam.  But prolonging the end will not alter that difficult reality or absolve us from our complicity.  My sister, hosting a tour group on a cruise ship, visited Ho Chi Minh City earlier this week.  It’s hard to imagine that Kabul will one day welcome tourists, but who knows.

Meanwhile, there will be some aging Vietnamese peasants tomorrow remembering that horrible day 44 years ago, mourning children, spouses, parents, joining their tears to villagers thousands of miles away in Afghanistan whose own grief has just begun.  Is it too much to hope that the lessons of this week will at least last a generation, and that the imagined nobility of our crusades will not blind us to the physical and moral horror that inevitably accompany them?

John H. Thomas

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