Atrocities in Historical Perspective
T his is a painful task -- to examine a side of war that is hard to face up to but is always there. When you put young people, eighteen, nineteen, or twenty years old, in a foreign country with weapons in their hands, sometimes terrible things happen that you wish had never happened. This is a reality that stretches across time and across continents. It is a universal aspect of war, from the time of the ancient Greeks up to the present. My Lai was not an exception or an aberration. Atrocity is a part of war that needs to be recognized and discussed. It is not the job of historians to condemn or judge but to describe, try to explain, and, even more so, attempt to understand.
In the case of My Lai, the question is who was responsible. Was it one person? Was it a bad platoon leader who was inadequately trained all of his life, including by the army and by his society? Was it that he just could not handle the responsibility, and he broke? Maybe it is as simple as that. I know a lot of Vietnam War veterans who would take very extreme action if they could get Lieutenant Calley in their hands. They blame him for besmirching their reputation and the reputation of the United States Army and the reputation of the American armed forces in Vietnam. Then there are others who say:
"No, no, you can't blame Calley. What you need to do is to look at the U.S. Army as a whole, the army as an institution, the way the army was fighting that war, and the things that Westmoreland was demanding from his platoon leaders. There's