In his book "Americans At War", noted military historian Stephen Ambrose wrote the following when offering an historical perspective regarding the incident at My Lai during the Vietnam War:
"This is a painful task - to examine a side of war that is hard to face up to but is always there. When you put young people, eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, in a foreign country with weapons in their hands, sometimes terrible things happen that you wish had never happened. This is a reality that stretches across time and across continents. It is a universal aspect of war, from the time of the ancient Greeks up to the present. My Lai was not an exception or an aberration. Atrocity is a part of war that needs to be recognized and discussed. It is not the job of historians to condemn or judge, but to describe, try to explain, and, even more so, attempt to understand.
In the case of My Lai, the question is who was responsible? Was it one person? Was it a bad platoon leader who was inadequately trained all his life, including by the Army and by his society? Was it that he just could not handle the responsibility, and he broke? Maybe it is as simple as that. I know a lot of Vietnam War veterans who would take very extreme action if they could get Lt. Calley in their hands. They blame him for besmirching their reputation and the reputation of the United States Army and the reputation of the American armed forces in Vietnam. Then there are others who say: "No, no, you can't blame Calley. What you need to do is look at the U.S. Army as a whole, the Army as an institution, the way the Army was fighting that war, and the things Westmoreland was demanding from his platoon leaders." The problem here is that you have the whole U.S. Army going berserk. Yet others would argue: "No, no, the Army is but a reflection of society, it was American society that made this happen. The racism that permeates all levels of American society is where you look for the cause of what happened at My Lai. It is America's sense of exceptionalism, America's self-appointed task of cleansing the world, that made My Lai happen." In this view, responsibility rests with society as a whole."
At the end of another paragraph a little further along, Ambrose finishes with the following:
"In combat, Soldiers are always afraid, always enraged, and very often seeking revenge."
In another place, he stated the following:
"A feature of the contemporary experience which seems to apply to My Lai is that men seldom see their enemy. In the nineteenth century, this was not so true."
Finally, at the very end of the chapter, Ambrose sums up his feelings in this way:
"One of the things that stands out about My Lai in my mind and makes it not only possible for me to live with it but to be once again proud of the institution that I have spent most of my life studying, the United States Army, was that the Army itself investigated the incident, made the investigation public and did it's best to punish the perpetrators of this outrage. I would defy anybody to name another army in the world that would do that."
As I read those opening paragraphs, I was overcome by a sense of, "Yes! Somebody finally gets it! This is exactly how I feel!" While My Lai has been long held as the model of unethical decision making, loss of control, and the singular importance of retaining one's core value system in the midst of combat, in reality, life on the ground is never quite so cut and dry.
As I have done before, I went back and substituted "Mahmudiyah Incident" in every place where Ambrose used My Lai, and re-read the paragraph. I have heard, and had, those very same arguments and questions over the last 4 years. Somehow it seems, 40 years later, and not a single thing has changed. My Lai and the Mahmudiyah incident both raise the same questions of responsibility, accountability, the behavior of men under extreme duress, the value system of the individual, the country, and the institution.
In the book "Black Hearts" the author very clearly chose to focus his efforts on the leadership aspect when searching for an answer to why those Soldiers committed that crime. Why did they decide to leave their post and go commit such a terrible act of violence on that family? He chose to find fault with the leadership, implying that personality struggles and conflicts throughout the battalion created conditions of extreme frustration and anger among the Soldiers and battalion leadership. By portraying the battalion commander as an extremely toxic leader, we get a ready-made villain for the remainder of the story. The truth however, is very much more complicated than that. That condition alone did not create the conditions of this tragedy.
As Ambrose succinctly pointed out, "In combat, men are always afraid, always enraged and very often seeking revenge." When you couple that with his later idea that in 21st century warfare - at least in Iraq and Afghanistan - Soldiers often do not see their enemy, a whole other line of reasoning is raised. When I am surrounded by a faceless enemy who blends in completely with the local populace and it is impossible to discern who is my friend and who isn't, the level of fear and anxiety rises exponentially. To maintain a super-human level of awareness in order to foresee every potential threat is exhausting work. You cannot sustain that indefinitely. I found that for me, I had to choose between believing everyone was friendly until proven otherwise, or the opposite, believing everyone was a threat until proven friendly. Most of my platoon chose the latter as their mode of operating and surviving their environment. By personality and inclination I chose the former. I cannot reconcile being at war and believing that everyone around me is the enemy. Certainly my Soldiers might find that naive, but in reality it is no more absurd than the opposite idea that everyone is trying to kill you. In fact, most people don't really give a damn about you and just want to get on with their lives. If you can help them with that, that's great. If not, go away and don't bother me. In any case, feeling as if you are surrounded by ghosts who wish to harm you and your friends creates a fear that is very difficult to explain. Logic and emotion crash headlong into each other day after day after day until you begin to question the very structure of your beliefs and reasoning. When I was young my father sent me a copy of a document called "The Desiderata". There is a line in it which has always stuck with me. "Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness." Can fear and loneliness create the condition for horrendous crime? Maybe, but then as Ambrose pointed out with regard to Vietnam, it would imply that crime and evil acts would be the norm rather than the exception. Every person in Iraq in 2005 - 2006 had to live under the same conditions my Soldiers did. So, why weren't crimes like these being committed every day?
And then there is the institution. The Army. Can we look to the Army to find accountability and responsibility when something happens that is so squarely outside the realm of believability? Certainly, as I have said before, nothing in my previous training had ever prepared me for the conditions I found myself in. I had never taken a class where the instructor said, "This is how you repair a platoon which has suffered the catastrophic loss of a third of it's leadership in 12 days and had it's home base burn to the ground. Step one do this. Step two do that." The idea that any institution can do 'teach' a prescribed response to every situation is ludicrous. The sheer number of potential responses is astronomical. But, did the Army fail? In a way I think it did because it taught prescribed responses instead of dynamic thought. It led me, and others, to believe that there was a 'correct' answer to every problem and clearly there is not. We have recognized that now and are taking steps in out training centers and commissioning sources to create adaptive and thinking Soldiers, but it will take time to weed out those of us who grew up in the proscribed response world in order to make room for the multi-tasker who is comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.
Finally, much like Ambrose, I remain proud of the organization for it's actions when the Mahmudiyah incident came to light. Knowing it would be a black-eye on the entire organization and feed the emotional political drama over the course of the war, the Army did not waiver and went forward with the investigations and prosecutions. While incredibly difficult to live through personally, the fact is that the Army did the right thing. And while the cynics might say that it was only trying to cover it's ass, the truth is that no matter why the Army took responsibility for these events, it did, and in doing so reaffirmed that they are an institution worthy of the trust of the people. To live up to it's charter with America, the Army must always be willing to look very hard at itself when there are lessons to be learned.
I am realizing now that I will never have a complete understanding of that time. That it will be something that happened in my life that I will carry as part of the whole story of Fenlason. There are lessons to be learned from it, tragedies and ruined lives to feel badly about, and triumphs of principle and decency to be honored. Trying to balance all of those things is the hardest part.