More guilt – mine, yours and ours


Dead man and child. Photo by Ronald L. Haeberle, Wikepedia

In my last post, I explored some guilt.  Some of my guilt, some of America’s guilt and even some of the guilt of our species.  However, I left out  a real issue of my own that I can no longer escape and need to include in my thinking.  I was not Lieutenant Calley, I was not an officer or in command of my team and I was not at My Lai – but I was there, there where Calley was in Southeast Asia.  I did have my very own Calley moment.  Once while on patrol with some members of my team and a group of mountainyard soldiers, soldiers we had been training and equipping, we came unexpectedly upon a village.  Someone from the village fired a weapon, may be at us and maybe at an animal – in response my team members and I  opened fire on the village.  Afterward we went into the village, which by then was empty of all but the dead.  We found a number of bodies, just like the two in the picture, only they were inside grass huts, one was lying face down in a small fire where he had been cooking his dinner. The hut and the man smelled like barbequed chicken to me, something I never ate again after that day.

Later leaving the village, we walked down a long grass covered hillside and looked up to see some people running away from us; they must have hiding somewhere waiting for us to leave.  Like the soldiers in the Wikipedia account of My Lai, we did shoot at them as the fled.  We killed at least one more person, a young man probably about my age at the time, I was just short of my 21st birthday.  He looked up at me as he was dying.  He seemed to be wondering what was happening to him why I was there – at least that is what I thought he was thinking – he did not talk, just murmured, gurgled and died.  I celebrated both my 20th and 21st birthdays in Southeast Asia – a month after my birthday I returned to the States and was discharged from the army.  In later years I was in other battle zones, but never again as a soldier.    You know what surprises me most about my memories of Laos and Vietnam?  I have never really thought about those years from a moral perspective. Even during the Calley trials, I did not compare in my mind, much less in my conversation, my behavior with his or his soldiers.  It has taken me 50 years to think about that incident and connect my act with the acts with other acts of cruelty and disregard for human life that I have condemned over intervening years between 1963 and 2012.

There are other issues that I have failed to confront, but they are much less personal.  Questions such as, what act of social disobedience did I do in protest of the atomic bomb testing, the continued war in Vietnam, the invasion of Afghanistan or Abu Ghraib? – the answer – nothing.  In all of those years, I have frequently found fault with others over the same issues, but never took any action, made any protest or even thought very deeply into my own behavior; I never took responsibility for my beliefs.  In my post – “There is enough guilt to go around” – I tried to suggest that we all are guilty or partially guilty of violating those high human moral standards.  In every era, in every country and in every culture under the pressures of war and violence human beings react much the same way.  We kill the people who we believe are trying to kill us, we do whatever we can to eliminate any potential threat, we question our captives and extract from them every bit of information we can and we even lock away whole groups of people to keep them from attacking us from behind.  It is human nature –  of course there are exceptions, rare examples in every era that rise about the rest and act with true humanity.  But they are rare – the rest of us, Germans, Arabs, Americans, Israelis, Chinese, Japanese and North Korean act out the scripts of our species.   In my opinion, that is where we need to focus our attention – on human nature.

It is a useless exercise to put blame on our enemies or anyone we dislike, distrust or disrespect and the standard, the losers in war; we are all guilty, it is part of our nature to be cruel to our enemies and do whatever we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones.  Every country and in all waring parties the same techniques are used to dehumanizes enemies; dehumanizing them allows us to treat them in inhumane ways.  We use non-human terms to describe them, like terrorists, butchers or fanatics; we describe their “crimes” in great gruesome detail, adding as many dead women, children and old people into the narrative as can be squeezed into it; conversely we use heroic and super human terms to describe our own behavior.  We only see the hypocrisy in it when our enemies do it, when we do it, it appears as truth to us.  So what is my point?  This is just one of those things we as a nation and as a society that I think needs to be rethought.  And, if after careful consideration and open debate, we find news laws are necessary, they should be laws to control our nature, not the behavior of our current or imagined enemies.

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