this year will mark a number of forty-year anniversaries, which i shall try to keep up with as they occur. it happens that today, 16 march 2008, is the 40th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, in which u.s. soldiers led by lt. william calley, jr., killed without provocation between 350 and 500 unarmed vietnamese civilians, many of them women and children.
these days we hear the word "hero" used with abandon, applied to anyone who has been within a hundred miles of a war zone, a fire, a crime. i personally don't buy that. a hero is someone who takes a moral stand against overwhelming and probably fatal odds, to save the lives of others. the key here is the larger context of the word "moral". many people would rush into a risky situation to save a person or even a pet, and would be celebrated by their peers as heroes. such actions happen across time, across cultures. but when you actually stand up to your own peers, defy them, face them down for the sake of a higher principle which will be seen clearly only with the passage of time .... to me, that's heroic.
and that is precisely what warrant officer hugh thompson, jr. and his helicopter crew did at My Lai. their chopper, on a scouting mission, overflew the village, and thompson saw the carnage. he landed, and after realizing that american troops and their officers were engaging in mass murder, was able to save a number of vietnamese, mostly children, after ordering his crew to open fire on any americans who interfered with the rescue.
a fuller account of the massacre, and the subsequent investigation, cover-up and courts-martial, can be found at wikipedia -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Lai_Massacre -- and similarly, a fuller description of the life of warrant officer thompson -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Thompson%2C_Jr. .
the mother of one g.i. who participated at My Lai remarked, "i sent the army a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer."
such events are hardly unique in war, any war, on both sides. being artificially placed in a hostile landscape where everyone is armed, warps the mind. to make sense of it, one falls back on a number of sources of mental stability -- military training, home upbringing, memories of loves ones, but most especially the bonds one builds with buddies, fellow soldiers. if you are a soldier on the ground, it's not about patriotism, or the american flag, or democracy. it is precisely about you and your friends protecting each other, helping each other survive. there is a common language, shared events and struggles and hardships and misery and fears and survival (hopefully) among those who have been in war. this is why veterans often find it possible to talk about their experiences deeply, only with other veterans.
the My Lai massacre happened to occur at a point in time when the american public's feelings about the war were on the brink of shifting -- and they did shift. which leads me to wonder why there isn't a similar public outcry now, vis-a-vis the war in iraq. the parallels are just about blinding -- both wars undertaken under false pretexts (stopping the spread of communism and removing a head of state who purportedly possessed weapons of mass destruction), concealing the heavy financial interests at work behind the scenes -- both wars set in an insurgent landscape where it's impossible to tell friendly allies from deadly foes -- both wars providing a massive fortune to military and civilian contractors, with deep ties to the politicians in power -- and on and on. where are the protest marches? where are the mass gatherings in washington, dc? where are the student strikes? where is the public outpouring of anger? i've said it before, as have others -- if there were a military draft, as there was during vietnam, there would be many more people actively opposing our presence in iraq. i was against it from the beginning. it's all about oil, and taxpayers' money, OUR money, lining the pockets of contractors and private mercenary armies like Blackwater.
george w. bush and donald rumsfeld and dick cheney and everyone associated with them, are at the center of a web of deceit and manipulation which too many of our elected representatives, republican and democrat, chose to buy into, to their eternal shame. it is we, the electorate, who pay the cost, in dollars and in blood.
here are a few specifics to place things in perspective, with appreciation to "this modern world" by tom tomorrow:
"at first they told us the war would pay for itself. an early estimate of $50 billion was scoffed at. as it turns out, five years later, the war is costing $10 billion a month. nobel-winning economist joseph stiglitz estimates the total cost of the war will be more than three trillion dollars. (if you taped three trillion $1 bills end to end, they would reach the moon and back .... more than 600 times. it would be almost as effective a use of our resources.
a few other things we could have done with an extra three trillion dollars:
~ funded social security for the next fifty years.
~ paid for health care for 530 million children for a year.
~ not flushed our entire economy down the toilet.
but hey, saddam did have those very threatening remote control model planes and stuff."
guess that made it all worth it, no?