We ‘Support’ the Troops by Burdening Them More
Posted on Dec 2, 2009
By T.L. Caswell
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Bad Judgment, Militarism and Hubris
The lives of Lt. William Calley and Capt. Peter Sinclair—one the villain, one the victim—both were ruined by the United States’ bad judgment, militarism, hubris and imperial leanings. Add to that list a twisted notion of exceptionalism, an idea that God has ordained us to teach the world how to live.
In short, the two men, along with thousands of their comrades, were done in by national policy. Both were sent to wars that were purely elective for the U.S. The reasons for fighting the conflicts lived mainly in the minds of politicians, not in the realm of need; there were alternatives to getting militarily involved, but these were ignored in favor of exercising force of arms.
The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong did not invade Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington or any other U.S. soil. Even the famous “Gulf of Tonkin Incident”—which opened the way for the U.S. to use military force in Southeast Asia without a declaration of war—turned out to be a half-baked justification built partly on fantasy. President Johnson said in commenting to his press secretary, Bill Moyers, about what happened between the U.S. Navy and the North Vietnamese boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
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In our national arrogance we put weapons in the hands of Americans and sent them abroad, where more than a few of them learned that all of those strange little people were enemies fit to be killed, even the old ones, even the females, even the children, including the babies.
This article is no apology for Calley, because none can be made for him. No doubt, murderous bigotry against anyone who looked like the enemy found fertile soil in the lieutenant. But his nation’s culpability cannot be discounted. We as a people trained him and armed him and sent him across the Pacific to do violence to an imagined enemy, and he carried out that charge with almost unimaginable enthusiasm. To be sure, we did not send him there with instructions to massacre the innocent; nor did his military training call for mowing down unarmed peasants. But we did create a situation in which body count was king—a situation conducive to indiscriminate killing. And our frustration over being unable to rout the enemy engendered ever more extreme military measures, on the ground and in the air.
There is no way of knowing how many “Little Calleys” there were in Vietnam, Americans who committed lesser atrocities against innocent Vietnamese. And few higher-ups who set policy and tone ever had to answer for misdeeds. Calley was caught and he went to jail, while superiors at various levels who egged him on toward the slaughter went free. If readers want to drew any parallels between this and the crimes at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, they are given free rein to do so.
None of this is meant to indict the GIs and officers who served honorably in Vietnam. Those of Calley’s ilk were a microscopic segment, and his deeds at My Lai found infamy because such actions were so far from the norm. Few American fighting men took lasting delight in seeing fellow human beings—battlefield enemy or not—blasted to bits or burned beyond recognition. Our national store of compassion is not a false myth. The percentage of our countrymen who would repeatedly shoot at and then kill an infant must be close to zero. But some would do so, and have done so, especially after themselves being wounded physically or psychologically.
William Calley and Peter Sinclair—the brute and the brutalized—both were victims of U.S. eagerness to settle affairs by duking it out with other countries: one man thrust into a situation that called out the beast within him, the other savaged by beastly experiences.
Brutes themselves are born in traumatic events. According to USA today, the Army’s 2008 study of PTSD found that “[s]oldiers in combat suffering emotional issues and who saw friends killed were twice as likely to abuse civilians by kicking or hitting them, or destroying their property. … Half of those soldiers admitted unethical conduct compared with a quarter of all other soldiers in combat.”
President Obama is, I believe, personally a decent, moral man. But he is a politician, too, and he is not being straightforward with Americans. His speech at West Point on Tuesday carried the scent of mendacity—a whiff of wartime speeches by Johnson, Nixon and (dare I say it?) George W. Bush. To argue that we must conquer a nation to prevent a handful of Muslim extremists from hatching activities that could be plotted in any apartment in any country of the world pushes against the boundaries of common sense. When we finally subdue the bad guys in Afghanistan and make Pakistan secure, will aggrieved Islamic fanatics around the globe suddenly say, “Well, that’s that. …. Now we love the Yankees”?
Obama was quick to whip out the national security card. He said: “If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow. So no—I do not make this decision lightly. I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” One can almost hear echoes of presidential speeches from the 1960s and 1970s in which the word Vietnam fills in for Afghanistan and Pakistan. At least Obama did not tell us there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” a phrase that fell from the lips of more than one government official or military leader during the Vietnam era. And mercifully we did not hear a sentence that was popular among Vietnam hawks: “If we don’t fight them there we’ll be fighting them here.” But the old messages of “we will win if we stay the course” and “be afraid, be very afraid” were subtext.
Perhaps the reason Obama took such pains to assure us that Afghanistan is not another Vietnam was because of the pesky pile of evidence that that’s exactly what it is.
We will come out of Iraq and Afghanistan much as we came out of Vietnam, with nothing to show for it except huge bills and death lists and unknown numbers of U.S. combatants who were either turned into evildoers or wounded beyond healing in body or spirit. That’s what war produces. By subjecting participants to almost unthinkable horrors, it turns a small but disturbing percentage of them into something horrible or horribly pitiful: a Calley reviled and everlastingly racked with regret; a Sinclair deeply afflicted and then dying because of an accident with pills. All need our compassion and, when necessary, our forgiveness.
If a war is unavoidable—as was our struggle against the Axis powers in World War II—armed services personnel must be asked to pay whatever the price is for the survival of the nation. And they must bear whatever human consequences come. But the Iraq war was and is not necessary, and the Afghanistan war was and is not necessary. Pat Tillman should be on an NFL field today, not dead.
The Afghanistan surge announced Tuesday is a blow against American military men and women. Most will be worse for the experience if they are sent to a war that pits Afghans against Afghans, and Americans against whoever happens to hate them most at the moment. They deserve better from our leaders and from us. They deserve to be home.
T.L. Caswell is a former member of the Los Angeles Times editing staff and now edits and writes for Truthdig.
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