There's shock in the aftermath of the revelations about Haditha and the My Lai-like rampage that apparently occurred there. Millions of Americans are too young to remember My Lai, but this scandal seems to be following the same path. Heartrending photos of butchered brown people appear. Then we hear rumblings about a cover up, countered by reassurances that a few soldiers under intense pressure briefly lost control. The promise of a full investigation rings hollow; we know the military instinctively protect their own, and much of the public believes they should.
But the most familiar echo from My Lai (and Abu Ghraib as well) is our intense desire to sweep this atrocity under the carpet. Editorials around the country are already sounding the drumbeat: This was an anomaly. Americans shouldn't be judged by the actions of a few. Our soldiers are good men fighting with honor under impossibly grim conditions.
Then I looked at a fascinating new book called "Stumbling on Happiness" by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In it he says that we are all wired to make the best of difficult situation.s Almost the first second we get bad news or face any other immediate cause of misery, our brains search desperately for a way to be happy again. The brain remains actively searching until it finds a perspective that softens the blow. According to Gilbert, we all think we handle unhappiness in a unique way, when in fact almost everyone shares the same automatic reflex: We are happy to believe that a My Lai--we can update it to Haditha--either didn't happen or was exaggerated or rests on the shoulders of a few people who forgivably went berserk momentarily.
I'm no different. Look at what I'm doing this minute. I'm writing these words to make myself feel better, keeping my mind from seeing an Iraqi mother begging for her child's life, bent over his body as a Marine shoots both of them. I'm struggling to save my American pride while not imagining what it would be like if I were on my knees, pleading for my life as a U.S. soldier takes my picture on his cell phone as a memento before he guns me down.
By now, so much has been swept under the carpet that I can hardly beat to peek under there. But I have to. A few days ago I braked hard for a Muslim woman in San Diego who was crossing against the light. She was unmissable as a Muslim because of her black dress and veil. I though, "Come on. You people cause all this trouble, and now you won't even walk on green?"
See? I was doing that thing Gilbert's book talks about, using righteous indignation to make myself happier. Peeking under the carpet, Americans would find a lot more of that. How dare these Iraqis not shape up and quit killing one another! But the worst thing under the carpet is a painful truth. War creates the conditions for atrocities. We aren't immune from it, and the world won't accept excuses fro Abu Ghraib and Haditha.
Our best hope is to stop trying to look on the bright side, to shake the carpet and clean out what's underneath. I'm not talking about maximum punishment for the Marines at Haditha--their fate depends on the courts. What's far more important is a deep soul searching among the rest of us. If we really want to pursue an aggressive campaign of preemptive war overseas, if we want to use implacable force as our main response to terrorism, then we had better learn to accept the consequences. There will be so much dirt under the carpet that it will take generations to clean up.
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