Saturday, August 22, 2009

America's national shame ...

My friend Max, a friend I met in Vietnam with whom I have stayed in touch ever since, brought this news story to my attention. Former Army Lt. William Calley (who took the fall for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam 40 years ago) made a public apology on 21 August of this year for his actions in that event, admitting he feels considerable remorse for what happened. This is a bit late, of course, but it's to his credit that he's done so. As the saying goes, better late than never. Lt. Calley was the sole person prosecuted for this crime against humanity. He was a scapegoat for the crime, which was clearly a reflection of the horrors of war. No such act can ever be considered the sole responsibility of one man.

Long after the war, I thought long and hard about my experiences in Vietnam. I was blessed with a time and duty station where I was exposed to none of the ugliness that combat troops participating in field operations had to deal with. Although I cannot condone the unlawful actions of my brothers-in-arms, I realized it wasn't possible for me to judge them. Had I been in their boots, what would I have done had I been there at My Lai? It's comforting for me to think I would have resisted shooting unarmed civilians ... but I have to accept that I have no evidence to believe I would have done anything different from what my fellow American soldiers did at My Lai.

What do you think you would have done, had you been there? How can you know the answer? I do know that if you haven't been there and experienced what the soldiers in that situation experienced, you also have no right to judge them.

They, like Lt. Calley, have to live with their choices on that day. Part of the agony of returning combat soldiers is to deal with the horrors that combat brought to them. People back home can't ever truly understand what it was like and so it's mostly pointless even to try. I was in Vietnam, and saw some part of the realities of that war, but by not being in combat, I can't ever truly understand what they experienced. So the returning combat veteran tends to keep it inside because it's obvious that friends and family who weren't there are not going to understand. But kept inside, these experiences can fester, and may become a cancer on the veteran's soul. I never had to deal with that, thank my lucky stars. But I know enough to have some appreciation for what my fellow soldiers may have gone through.

My government "asked" me to participate in that terrible war. I went, and I did what was asked of me, however reluctantly. Since it never involved shooting at another human being, and no one ever shot at me, I have no horrible memories or nightmares with which to try to cope. Lt. Calley, 40 years on, has admitted he was wrong and apologized for his misdeeds. When will our government do the same for its misdeeds during that time? William Calley is far from the only person responsible for war crimes during our long national disaster in Vietnam. When will our government face up to its responsibilities for that terrible time of our history? When will our government apologize to Vietnam, to the American public, and to the American war fighters for their actions in leading us into and continuing that awful, unjust war? If William Calley has the courage, however long after the event, to feel remorse and apologize for his actions, why can't our government show similar courage by owning up to its share of the responsibility for what happened in My Lai (and elsewhere during that long national agony)? Why should William Calley remain the lone repository of our national disgrace?

Many Americans, including me, are upset that the Japanese have never apologized for their war crimes during WWII, arguably with considerable justification. But if our own government is unwilling to admit its culpability in the horrors we perpetrated in Vietnam, can our government be justified in expecting Japan to own up to the war crimes it perpetrated in WWII?