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Looking Back at My Lai


During 1969, in the midst of the Vietnam War, I wrote "The Burn Ward" (365 Days), an account of the struggle on The Burn Ward of the Kishine Army Hospital in Japan, to save the lives of the 18 and 19 year old soldiers severely burned in a war that would eventually lead to 58,000 deaths and over 400,000 wounded.

Drafted in August of 1968, having just received my specialty boards in Pediatrics, I was sent to Japan to take care of the dependent population of Military and Department of Defense personal assigned to South East Asia, but quickly found myself involved in a war that would soon place much of the country in opposition to the government; a war that anyone, at the time, not blinded by partisan fervor or political devotion, had to see was coming apart; if not yet spinning out of control.

Perhaps it was being a pediatrician that separated me from the other physicians, the internists, the surgeons, along with the radiologists and the anesthesiologists, caring for the wounded who made it to Japan, either on their way to dying or back to the states. Or maybe I was just more realistic. These were clearly kids, who were being placed into the middle of a desperate terrible war.

The Army had pronounced these troopers to be adults, grown ups, no different from the thirty and forty year old NCOs and company and field grade officers. But saying something does not make it so. And it did not make it so in Vietnam for the 20,000 draftees swept up each month by the Selective Service System and it does not make it so for the high school volunteers- looking for a way up as much as a way out- who are today making the fight while daily being forced to run the most dangerous roads in the world. It doesn't even make it so at Camp Pendelton or for the 3rd Armored Cavalry recently returned from Iraq--their second long term deployment in less than three years.

Whatever the military might say about maturity, I would doubt that there is a businessman or CEO who would turn over the strategic or tactical planning of their company to someone just out of high school; a factory foreman who would offer up the production schedule on the factory floor to an eighteen year old, no matter how grown up or competent they might appear: nor a parent who would comfortably hand over the responsibility for home finances to one of their nineteen year olds.

My Lai happened on my watch. I read all that I could and talked to the enlisted men and officers about the massacre. The majority of those involved were right out of highschool. The general feeling about My Lai, then as now, was militarily straight forward and to the point. Atrocities occur when there is a breakdown in command and leadership. Atrocities occur when there is a weakness or subjugation of common sense or order in the chain of command. Atrocities occur when standards of behavior are ignored or trivialized anywhere within the system. Obscenities and wickedness do not occur because a private or a corporal, a squad or a platoon, get irritated or angry. Atrocities are first and foremost about personal and professional confusion.

The point of course is that kids need direction and clarity of purpose. That has not changed in the 37 years since My Lai, nor has the responsibility of adults, even if they send other people's children into the numbing terror, pain and anguish of war-symmetrical or asymmetrical.

Still it is murder, whether in the military or civilian life, to have a weapon locked and loaded, point it at a woman or child if there is no immediate or obvious personal risk, and then pull the trigger, whatever-else the reason. That squad of marines who walked into those homes in Haditha and killed those civilians will be indicted for murder and will be convicted and will spend decades, if not the rest of their lives, in a military jail.

I wonder though, as I am sure others do, if these marines should be tried or convicted-penance of course and retribution to be sure-but a life time in jail; maybe not.

So what happened...

Well, we put 18 and 19 year olds at road blocks and check points and send squads and platoons of these kids through urban sweeps where life and death decisions have to be made within seconds. No easy task when only the bad decisions count.

But in Haditha we added a new spin: exhaustion, the result of the old "not enough troops on the ground" problem...so completely dismissed by this administration as irrelevant. Yet, the marines in Iraq hold only the ground they stand on. The lack of adequate numbers of marines force those assigned to "search and destroy" or "hold and build" to go out on recurrent and extended patrols. They are tired and in many cases exhausted and always sleep deprived. Civilian psychiatrists and military psychologists will tell you that the first effect of sleep deprivation is a loss of "Impulse Resistance". This is the brain part. What about the mind.

That's easy...

It is a general military principal that vague orders are no orders at all; that to tell a group of 18 and 19 year olds to "soften up" prisoners is a recipe for disaster-- that to send combat troops trained to fight armies in the field into an insurgency where death and grievous wounds lie around the next corner or the next turn, where you cannot tell the "bad guys" from the "good guys, is not a recipe for disaster but shear lunacy-- that to say there are enough troops on the ground when anyone can see that there are to few to protect the Iraqis much less our own, itself, borders on the criminal--that to proclaim an insurgency to be in its last throes when those making the fight know that such comments to be no more than fantasy is at best confusing and at worse demoralizing to those in the fight-- that to "swift boat" anyone who criticized the war as unpatriotic under cuts needed objectivity and makes each soldier basically responsible for his or her own decisions-all furthering the gap between those in charge and those who do the heavy lifting.

"Bin Laden Dead or Alive" and the taunting "Bring it on" is of no help in establishing necessary military limits and the setting of appropriate boundaries in any war, but particularly this one. There is a difference between being merciless and being pitiless.

The marines in Haditha may have pulled the trigger but someone else-and they should be the ones indicted or at least exposed- loaded their weapons and then added the confusion and disorder that lead to the crime and the grief.