Both Victimizers and Victims

By Camillo Mac Bica

April 22, 2019 "Information Clearing House" - Recently I was invited to attend the "My Lai Memorial Traveling Exhibit" sponsored by the New York City Chapter of Veterans For Peace during its three day showing at the Quaker Meeting House in Manhattan. Developed by "Mac" MacDevitt and the Chicago Chapter of Veterans For Peace, the purpose of the exhibit is, in my opinion, first to acknowledge and educate visitors about both the murders of over 500 villagers in the Hamlet of My Lai by U.S. forces in March of 1968, and of the subsequent cover-up by military officials. Perhaps just as importantly, in keeping with the mission of Veterans For Peace, the exhibit provides

" . . . participants with a powerful anti-war experience. The experience invites participants to make a renewed commitment to peace and social justice and provides opportunities to support initiatives working to reduce violence and militarism both at home and abroad."

Since on the second day of the exhibit I was to make a presentation on military service, war, and atrocity and then participate in a panel discussion with other veterans and war resisters, I thought it wise to spend my first evening as an observer or, as much of the exhibit is interactive, as a "participant." After "engaging" the informative panels, videos, sculptures, and collages, I decided to step back and spend the remainder of the evening observing and conversing with other exhibit participants hoping to get a sense of how they were processing the information and the inevitable emotional and moral overload.

I think it accurate to say that most were understandably outraged and righteously appalled by such barbarism. But, whether real or imagined, I did get the impression that those, such as myself, who had personally experienced war, while certainly saddened, were not surprised that such heinous acts had occurred. Also, the war veterans seemed less judgmental of those who committed the atrocities. These observations so fascinated me that, virtually at the last minute, I decided to abandon the comments I had prepared for my presentation and to focus instead upon explaining what I thought to be the reasons for the variations in response. The following is what I offered the audience for their consideration.

War and Atrocity

After viewing the human carnage wrought by American servicemen at My Lai, certainly an emotional and moral response is understandable. What is underappreciated, however, by those who had not experienced war is the correlation between, and the inevitability of, atrocity in war. Noted psychiatrist and author, Robert Jay Lifton,[1] explains why even normal American young men and women when subjected to the conditions of war, what he describes as "atrocity-producing situations," become capable of such heinous acts. He writes, war is

. . . so structured, psychologically and militarily, that ordinary people, men or women no better or worse than you or I, can commit atrocities. A major factor in all of these events was the emotional state of US soldiers as they struggled with angry grief over buddies killed by invisible adversaries, with a desperate need to identify an "enemy."

To describe the barbarity of the soldiers at My Lai as an anomaly attributable to a few aberrant individuals or to a breakdown in proper military discipline, what military theorists describe as a "healthy command climate," betrays a poor understanding of the nature, reality, and psychology of war, and an acceptance of the mythology of just war and nobility of the warrior. The subsequent urge to dutifully judge and appropriately condemn, however reluctantly, those "depraved" individuals who dare tarnish the reputation of this great nation by violating the laws of God and man, constitutes a self-serving moralism and provides a welcome opportunity for all, no matter their political or ideological perspective, to reassert, perhaps feign is better, their commitment to the rule of law and to the dictates of their individual and/or collective consciences.


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