Sam Smith, 2016 – A chance surf landed me on the beach in time for some rare unpredictable C-SPAN moments. There was a supercilious Michael Lind, lately proposing that the Vietnam War was a good thing, and a mild and bemused novelist, Tim O’Brien, who thought nothing of the sort, in part because he had been there. The essence of the dispute was not what made me put down the zapper but rather the stunning contrast between an arrogant young man extolling mass death on behalf of the state, and an older man who had participated in this supposed virtue and had come out of it in a manner described in 1999 by Don Lee:
“From 1969-70, O’Brien had been an infantryman in the Quang Ngai province, and his platoon had been stationed in My Lai a year after the massacre. Then and now, he could feel the evil in the place, ‘the wickedness that soaks into your blood and heats up and starts to sizzle.’ In [a New York Times] cover story, O’Brien elaborated on the complex associations of love and insanity that can boil over during a war, almost inevitably exploding into atrocity. But he went a step further, drawing parallels between the ‘guilt, depression, terror, shame” that infected both his Vietnam experience and his present life, especially now that his girlfriend had left him. Chillingly, he admitted, “Last night suicide was on my mind. Not whether, but how.’
Here is part of what O’Brien had written:
At approximately 7:30 on the morning of March 16, 1968, a company of roughly 115 American soldiers were inserted by helicopter just outside the village of My Lai. They met no resistance. No enemy. No incoming fire. Still, for the next four hours, Charlie Company killed whatever could be killed. They killed chickens. They killed dogs and cattle. They killed people, too. Lots of people. Women, infants, teen-agers, old men. The United States Army’s Criminal Investigation Division compiled a list of 343 fatalities and an independent Army inquiry led by Lieut. Gen. William R. Peers estimated that the death count may have exceeded 400. . . According to Col. William Wilson, one of the original Army investigators, “The crimes visited on the inhabitants of Son My Village included individual and group acts of murder, rape, sodomy, maiming, assault on noncombatants and the mistreatment and killing of detainees.” The testimony of one member of Charlie Company, Salvadore LaMartina, suggests the systematic, cold-blooded character of the slaughter:
Q: Did you obey your orders?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: What were your orders?
A: Kill anything that breathed.
Whether or not such instructions were ever directly issued is a matter of dispute. Either way, a good many participants would later offer the explanation that they were obeying orders, a defense explicitly prohibited by the Nuremberg Principles and the United States Army’s own rules of war. Other participants would argue that the civilians at My Lai were themselves Vietcong. A young soldier named Paul Meadlo, who was responsible for numerous deaths on that bright March morning, offered this appalling testimony:
Q: What did you do?
A: I held my M-16 on them.
A: Because they might attack.
Q: They were children and babies?
Q: And they might attack? Children and babies?
A: They might’ve had a fully loaded grenade on them. The mothers might have throwed them at us.
A: Yes. . . .
Q: Were the babies in their mothers’ arms?
A: I guess so.
Q: And the babies moved to attack?
A: I expected at any moment they were about to make a counterbalance.
. . . . . . . .After fire fights, after friends died, there was also a great deal of anger — black, fierce, hurting anger — the kind you want to take out on whatever presents itself. This is not to justify what occurred here. Justifications are empty and outrageous. Rather, it’s to say that I more or less understand what happened on that day in March 1968, how it happened, the wickedness that soaks into your blood and heats up and starts to sizzle. I know the boil that precedes butchery. . . We did not turn our machine guns on civilians; we did not cross that conspicuous line between rage and homicide. I know what occurred here, yes, but I also feel betrayed by a nation that so widely shrugs off barbarity, by a military judicial system that treats murderers and common soldiers as one and the same. Apparently we’re all innocent — those who exercise moral restraint and those who do not, officers who control their troops and officers who do not. In a way, America has declared itself innocent.
Michael Lind was not impressed with O’Brien’s thoughts about war and killing; instead, like an patronizing and impatient professor, he chided him for not having read the right documents. O’Brien kept his cool aided by callers, including a number of veterans, who saluted him for his comments, which left Lind sullenly waiting for all this tedium to end so he could make another analytical point or spit another put-down at the man on his left.
Ex-cathedra, ex-cathedra, ex-cathedra onward, all in the valley of death rode the draftees of the Fortune 500. The ever so brilliant men who understood all the geo-political consequences and the other men who had to pay all the personal consequences. The Michael Linds at the Pentagon, the CIA, the White House, and in the media, and the Tim O’Briens killing and dying in Quang Ngai province.
And now it’s happening all over again. The summa cum laude boys who learned in ivied classrooms how the world should really be run and the barely GED boys who will now have to test their theories. And, almost forgotten, the others whom we will at best only know as numbers after they have been bombed, or burned or blasted away.
In reducing death to an extraneous consideration, Lind is far from alone, The male and female news models on cable television do it nightly, happily blending sex and slaughter as they use mass extermination as just another viewer come on.
And nowhere is the normalization of killing large numbers of people more routine than in Washington, once again the murder capital of America.
When that phrase was coined, it was dumb, poor, twisted young men who were doing the killing and only a few hundred a year. Now we have the best brains in the city figuring out how to off tens of thousands, destroy whole cities, or starve and wreck whole nations out of existence.
A homicidal psychopathy had taken over the capital. Its establishment has turned its collective energy to the mass death of others. There is no real debate on the subject; if you try to speak for the human or challenge the madness, you are described as irrelevant, naïve, a pacifist, or laughable. Besides, you haven’t read the documents.
Of course, Washington’s elite always does that to those who challenge its presumptions and paradigms. It never really debates them, it just ignores or dismisses them. Virtue is just another American colony and there are no moral questions anymore. Only strategies and tactics.
The city’s establishment is a culture that has been remarkably successful in isolating itself from the reality it is attempting to govern. The abstract, soulless nature of the city protects it from the pain it causes, the suffering it neglects and the concerns it can quantify but not ameliorate. Here statistics substitute for tears, data for anger, and mechanically modulated voices recounting promises never to be fulfilled serve as a placebo for real hope and joy.
Official Washington assumes, for no good reason, that the line between wicked murder and good murder can be drawn at the door of the state. But the state is just a collective us, and if it is wrong for one of us to kill in revenge, then how does collectivizing the slaughter make it more decent? Just where is the line between those whom Governor Bush executed and the ones President Bush appointed?
One day, you can and should at least imagine, war will seem as obscenely unacceptable as slavery is today. At least war on the scale that we have come to accept in which the “leader of the free world” can with impunity kill millions in the name of human justice. It will be seen as wicked, perverted, and mad.
Those who speak against the evil, the perversion, and madness are not so much pacifists as abolitionists. And one need not even be an absolutist about it. Once can accept that it is a long road away from the viciousness embedded in our culture and in our souls. And that peace, like war, is something you have to learn.
You can argue about it, equivocate about it, draw the line at one’s own survival. But what one can not do – and still retain any honesty and decency – is to pretend the issue does not exist, refuse to discuss it, and ban it from the airwaves.
One must start by accepting that killing is not an analytical or political choice, but a capitulation to the worst of our being, something that, as a culture, we may not yet be able to overcome but something we must approach with shame and not celebration, and as a last act of desperation rather than as a first sign of political sophistication.
But they won’t allow such talk on CNN or in the Washington Post. Instead, with the help of the justifiers, the war planners, and the media clappers, a whole American ruling class is unflinchingly embracing “the wickedness that soaks into your blood and heats up and starts to sizzle.”
The same subculture of power that infuriated the Muslim world with a half century of bad decisions, which has treated the environment like just another Afghanistan to dominate, which has jettisoned in the false name of security the democratic principles that made the country worth defending, and which has turned corruption from occasional deviance to daily norm, is now putting our nation at enormous risk based on the same kind of presumptions, paradigms, and narcissistic regard for its own intelligence and wisdom that got us into this mess in the first place.
Until we stand in sufficient numbers against the brutal sophistry that drives our country’s choices, the madness will continue to drain the land of its decency, democracy, and humanity. The mad will be called expert, the immoral praised for their intelligence, and the distorted interviewed for their vision. And the Tim O’Briens of another generation will be sent far away to kill and be killed to make America safe for a smug, cruel, reckless, and immoral elite.