The My Lai Massacre occurred during the Vietnam War. US soliders shot to death hundreds of villagers--men, women, children, infants--and also livestock, cows, chickens, whatever. A number of women were gang-raped before they were murdered. It was covered up by the military, and only discovered due to a few brave whistleblowers, who were denounced as traitors at first, even by the Chair of the Armed Services Committee. Eventually many soldiers were charged, including up the ranks to Generals, but only one was convicted, a platoon leader named William Calley Jr. Although he was found guilty of killing 26 people, he served only three and a half years under house arrest, due to the intervention of President Nixon.
Nick Turse, in his scholarly book, Kill All That Moves, argues convincingly that My Lai was not an isolated incident. Other such massacres occurred, as did individual killings and rapes by US soliders on a massive scale, so much so as to constitute the norm. There was also the CIA’s Phoenix Program, where over 80,000 were interrogated (read: tortured) and “neutralized” in "provincial interrogation centers." Between 20,000 and 40,000 of those who went in never came out.
Backing up all this hell-worthy horror was a mentality that the Vietnamese were subhuman “gooks” who deserved to die. This mentality was fostered in boot camp and expressed up through the chain of command. Turse gives plenty of examples of disgusting commonplace statements that are reminiscent of the mentality of Nazi prison camp guards.
If Turse is right--and his research looks impeccable--the US Empire sunk to a Hitler-like level during the Vietnam War. In WWII, Jews were subhuman. In Vietnam, “Gooks” were subhuman. The SS mass murdered Jews with rifle execution. The US 9th Infantry, Marines and others shot the life out of entire villages, or in random encounters, such as flying helicopters over rice fields. As Himmler’s “Final Solution” had different paths to extermination, so did the US in Vietnam. Rifles, helicopters, detention centers and grenades thrown into underground shelters. Although the US did not have a "final solution" codified somewhere, the mentality and behavior supported the imperative highlighted by Turse in his title: Kill All That Moves.
My reaction, like many of us, is still, How could this happen? I just don’t want to believe it. But Turse and others have done their job well. Books like Kill All That Moves and Killing Hope (William Blum) show systematic lack of conscience and malignant behavior via US Foreign Policy on a longterm and extreme scale.
Another side of me sees how this Satan-worthy shit happens. It comes down to human psychology. We are malleable creatures who can slice our minds into many compartments, believing stubbornly what we are first trained to believe, and, after that, what we want to believe. The 19-year-old soliders in Vietnam (average age) were too young to legally drink but were given M-16’s, told to “kill, kill, kill” in bootcamp, saturated in “gook” hate-talk, and placed in a terrifying and deadly landscape full of boobytraps, snipers, and guerilla ambushes.
Harder for some of us to fathom is the utter lack of decency in Congressmen and military leadership. Some kind of situational psychopathy takes hold of them en masse. Grown adults who go to church, treat their neighbors well, give to charity, and so on--enforce a pogrom of mayhem on a country of millions, employing racism in a philosophy of monstrous wrong.
President Nixon gets special mention for pardoning a mass murderer and giving his imprimatur to the depravity-as-normal atrocity of US forces in Vietnam. I think future historians will categorize him with Hitler, and wonder at the US population's denial. In a similar position of great devil-bad atrocity is Henry Kissinger, who ordered the carpet bombing of three countries: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Adding some perspective, more bombs were dropped by the US in the Vietnam War than were dropped in WWII.
Hannah Arendt called this “the banality of evil.” What it seems to me is that our leaders--and all of us--are vulnerable to becoming part-time psychopaths, as if we split our thinking into two parts for two separate worlds. Or maybe it is just that many people have a kill switch for their conscience, and flip it when they feel it is in their own self-interest to do so--how would this differ from a clinically diagnosable psychopath?
Human psychology is the big hurdle for a progress ethos that combines reason and empathy. Minds are not only highly adaptable, but gullible and fragile as well. Humans can turn off their conscience as if flicking a switch, and even forget they turned it off. Humans can lie in ways that are so deep they forget they are lying. We can partition our minds so that ‘the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing’. There can be so many tunnels in the psyche, dug by fear, pain and trauma, that not even the brightest light of truth can illuminate to heal them.
To deal with the frailties of human psychology at least two protections are required: education and also, just as important, therapeutic practices that enlighten people as to their own mental dispensations. We need to know how to have better relationships with our own minds. I think meditation is helpful here, or any spiritual practice of listening, respect or art that fosters compassion.
We need to make compassion a strong spotlight and turn that invigoration inward. As Plato said so long ago, "Know thyself." And also, I would add, Love thyself (while avoiding narcissism, which actually is devoid of self-love, merely a shell of it).
Knowledge alone is not enough. You can hand people perfect knowledge and they will spit on it. You also need to deal with human psychology. Empaths are needed, good listeners, counselors, and techniques for dealing with denial, disassociation, projection, and so on. If we want ethical progress, we must face what we truly are; and that is something far more complex than rational autonomous agents.