We should not be surprised that a platoon of Marines went berserk and killed twenty-four Iraqi civilians. Similar incidents occurred during the Viet Nam conflict, and have occurred during our present Middle East involvements. Soldiers have told me that Army vehicles carry an extra shovel to leave at the scene of the killing of an Iraqi male of "insurgent" age, to explain the man's body as an IED emplacement interrupted. Knee-jerk "patriots" can Swift Boat the messengers, but the facts remain. To understand the similarities between the Viet Nam conflict and the current Iraq debacle is to shed light on how decent American young men would think, for an instant, that they were justified in killing moms, dads, little girls and innocent taxi passengers. To try to explain it only in terms of the grief and pressures these young guys were under, however, is to ignore some very painful facts about us and about the society from which they come.
Many people the age of those who committed this massacre have apparently not yet sorted out a lot of issues about who they are and how they are to relate to others around them. They look to older soldiers and Marines for examples and for leadership. It is difficult to imagine military training, from West Point and Annapolis to the Primary Leadership Development Course at the lowest-ranking enlisted Reserve and Guard levels, that would not examine the errors in judgment and leadership surrounding the My Lai incident in Viet Nam in 1968. This incident in Iraq, like My Lai, was an egregious failure of leadership, from the platoon sergeants to company-level officers, to the field-grade officers who lied in cover-up attempts. It may be indicative of a failure of leadership at very high levels.
A fact of My Lai, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and no doubt countless other atrocities is that when the cause is rotten, the rot filters down to everyone involved in it. The cause for which my generation was sent to Viet Nam was a false one, later admitted by those who orchestrated it. Those of us who did our duty in Viet Nam enabled our country to poison the land and water of that poor country with an especially virulent form of dioxin, Agent Orange. We would need hundreds of Memorial Walls to contain the names of the Vietnamese killed in that foolish war.
The rot in Iraqi Freedom and in the social engineering of Afghanistan is found in the lies used to justify it, and in the disgraceful lack of debate, discussion and concern shown by Americans, from senators and congressmen to those of us driving buses and balancing accounts. The rot lies at the foundation of our hastily considered invasion and occupation of Iraq, based on fear, and on the flip side of the fear coin, hate. The communities from which some of our service people come preach hatred of Islam in their churches, demonize the rest of the world, and foster ignorance through inadequate and incompetent education. Lets us not forget that some of the most hateful vilification of Specialist Joe Darby, who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib, came from within his own community in western Maryland.
In 1968 I smugly thought I understood the hypocrisy of a military chaplain telling me that the Viet Cong were the "forces of evil." I rejected that, to the point of not setting foot in a church for years, except for chaplain services at the deaths of two buddies. Yet, I must have retained some fragment of the notion of Vietnamese as "gooks" to have allowed my friends to throw bars of soap from a speeding truck at passers-by on a hot, dusty road near Long Binh in 1968. We were not under stress, and we did not recently lose a buddy in combat. We were stupid, immature 21-year-olds with no leadership at that moment, angry at the heat, the dust, with being in Viet Nam. I can tell you that not one of us ever spoke of the incident. We knew we were wrong.
This notion of a "Christian" nation, and our constant lip service to "freedom and justice for all" have made our country a sick joke in the rest of the civilized world. Our history of violence against women, blacks, Native Americans, immigrants, dissenters, and religious minorities surfaces through every crack in our national foundation. No sooner do we identify a "threat" or an enemy, whether it is believers in Islam, abortion providers, immigrants, or marijuana users, than someone is proposing rounding them up, putting them in jail or worse.
Our national obsession with punishment and prison is a root cause of Guantanamo. Civilized systems of justice have, as a distinguishing feature, careful consideration of the facts of the individual case and the application of law to the particulars of the case. Yet, the knee-jerk reaction to nearly every social problem seems to be treating all members of a group as if they are criminals. Mob justice is simply mob violence disguised. By extension, we occupy a foreign country and treat the inhabitants as inmates, subject to search, home invasion, torture, beatings, and death. In consenting to surveillance of our own communications within our own country, we are consenting to being treated as inmates.
Of course, all societies engage in mob justice. We only need to look at the behavior of colonial powers and the present ethnic tensions in Europe. We sneer at "tribalism" in Africa, only to imprison innocents in the New York City area after 9-11 because they had Arabic names. The difference between us and the rest of the world is the punch line of the sick joke that we have been proclaiming for our entire history: that we are better, that we are Christians, that we are "bringing democracy." The rest of the world does not call us on our hypocrisy because they are all too aware of their own history, some of it quite recent. The Arabic world, as well, will ignore their own behavior in Darfur and in the streets of Iraqi cities as they righteously proclaim the gross injustice of the deaths of the people of Haditha.
It is important that we refrain from engaging in mob judgment in dealing with these soldiers and Marines who come from our homes, our schools and our churches. It is estimated that 72% of the troops in Iraq favor a rapid if not immediate pull-out. The troops know that their country does not support this war, and that people their own age who support the war will gleefully let them serve three and four combat tours without enlisting themselves. They know that they will not have the jobs waiting for them in the private sector that they left when their Guard and Reserve units were called up. They know that this administration has worked diligently to phase out veterans' health care, and has neglected care for those suffering from PTSD. They know that they are likely to be sent back into combat, with only Prozac to help them with deal with the same conditions that caused their PTSD. Their blogs and emails are being censored, or shut down, as if they do not deserve the protections of the Bill of Rights for their sacrifice.
Demand punishment for the truly guilty, especially their leaders. Please realize, however, that many of our military people have taken the Iraqis into their hearts, doing all possible to try to alleviate their suffering. They are troubled when they come home at the death and injury to the innocent that they have witnessed. The war is not the fault of those at whose feet we lay it. Welcome them back, and encourage them in their readjustment. Don't give them an empty thanks for their service and walk away; demand from your government that their medical and psychological needs be met.
The best we can do for our service people is to end this debacle and bring them home. They are not to be sacrificed for a "democracy" that is not ours to bestow, and for which we have given up credibility by not practicing it in our own country. We will need their help in bringing back integrity and Constitutional checks and balances to our government. They are better people than those who sent them to war. They are better people than those who have remained silent through their imprisonment in endless deployments, pain and suffering.
Finally, to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, I am one American citizen, a veteran of another foolish war, and a somewhat humbled person who finds refuge in the Christian faith to help me to deal with the wrongs I have done in my life. I see nothing in my Bible that tells me I should hate you for your Islamic faith. In fact, I am struck by the tragedy of all three great monotheistic traditions allowing false prophets to lead us in the ways of hate and violence toward our fellow human beings. For the depredations against your people, for the deaths, the injuries, the destruction, and for the lies and indifference that have led to them, I am sincerely sorry.
Doug Nelson is a father, grandfather and stepfather, a Viet Nam veteran, and a member of Veterans for Peace and Viet Nam Veterans Against the War.