Long before Daniel Jonah Goldhagens Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust - during World War II, to be precise - I was far from alone in concluding that Hitler's madness was only catalytic among a morally defective people. It took the United States' invasion of Vietnam to provoke me to abandon the thought that Germans are somehow unique in iniquity. For 30 years, our military tortured the. peoples of Indochina, eventually killing three million in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This cold-blooded destruction horrified, only a tiny number of Americans; indeed, our press, several Congresses and presidents, and the vast majority of US. citizens were disturbed - if at all - only because Americans were dying in the enterprise. Unlike European Christians vis-a-vis the Jews, the United States had no history of vilification of the Vietnamese; most Americans probably still can't find Vietnam on a map. But just like the Germans, we harbored a malignant ethnocentrism capable of arousal by any leader willing to aim it.
There has long been scholarly justification for this conflation of Hitler and Kissinger, along with generals Custer and Washington, lynch mobs, and Oliver North. Psychologist Gordon Allport described the phenomenon of concentric circles around the self, beginning with the family; extending to racial, ethnic, and religious compatriots; and then to members of the community or country. A kind of moral calculus favors those closer to the center over those farther away. It would have been no surprise to Allport that most Americans felt nothing when we killed Vietnamese but were outraged when the Vietnamese fought back.
A complementary theory was developed by sociologist Lewis Coser. He observed that very small differences can cause a population to split into groups, and, following the split, the importance of those differences is magnified. The separation then grows exponentially, increasing cohesiveness within groups and solidifying their mutual isolation. …