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Reflections on My Lai: Is it Possible to Fight a Just War? (GRAPHIC)

Updated on October 7, 2014

The Video and the Question

As I was doing some research on the My Lai Massacre (a subject on which I was woefully under-educated) I came across this video, NRA Life of Duty: Defending Our America, Episode 4: Lessons from My Lai. In the name of full disclosure, I will say that the initial viewing of said video made me so angry that I had to go outside and walk around the block a few times until I calmed down. This was followed by various colorful responses that would be inappropriate for general consumption. I will not pretend that I am a fan of the opinions expressed in the video, but I decided to try and make a reasonable and objective response. What resulted was this Hub.

The My Lai massacre occurred on March 16, 1968 when Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division killed anywhere from 347 to 504 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians near Son My Village. At this point, the facts are well known, and I would refer you to the Wikipedia entry on the subject ( for general background and links to more scholarly references. In short, women, children (including infants), and the elderly were gunned down in cold blood, many of them raped and mutilated. It appears that most of the soldiers participated in the slaughter, with the noted exception of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr. and his helicopter crew, who intervened on behalf of the victims and managed to save a few. The U.S. government and military have since acknowledged the massacre, and even the men in this video cannot deny the event.

The only uncertain details are whether Company C was acting under orders, and if so where those orders came from. The question must be asked: does it matter? Whether the order came from Lt. Calley, company commander Cpt. Ernest Medina, or even higher up the chain of command, these types of incidents seem endemic to warfare no matter the participants. The question becomes, not how to stop them, but whether they can be stopped at all. And if not...

Is it possible to fight a just war?

In the NRA video, the man identified as Del says the follwing: "We have learned from it, I think, and I can't see it ever happening again." Ignoring the fact that the video then proceeds to discuss Abu Ghraib without a hint of irony, let's try and answer Del's claim.

Has it happened again? Let's take a look at recent history.

Victims of the My Lai Massacre.
Victims of the My Lai Massacre. | Source
A victim of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. Note the electrical wires attached to the hands.
A victim of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. Note the electrical wires attached to the hands. | Source

Abu Ghraib - Iraq 2003

Abu Ghraib was a prison in Iraq used by U.S. led coalition forces to house detainees after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The section staffed by U.S. personnel contained men and women suspected, not convicted, of being insurgents or criminals. Many of these detainees were humiliated, tortured, raped, and executed. In late 2003 Amnesty International exposed the abuse, and between 2004 and 2006 17 soldiers were removed from duty, and 11 of those were charged with and convicted of crimes.

The Bush administration tried to pass off the scandal as an isolated incident. When the so-called Torture Memos later surfaced ( the argument became that because the detainees were classified as "enemy combatants" and the American interrogators were overseas, the Geneva Convention did not apply. The U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled that the Geneva Conventions did and still do apply to the War on Terror.

A room in Haditha where civilians were shot by U.S. forces.
A room in Haditha where civilians were shot by U.S. forces. | Source

Haditha - Iraq 2005

Haditha is a city in western Iraq. On November 19th, 2005, 24 unarmed civilians - including elderly and children - were allegedly executed by a group of Marines in retaliation for a roadside bombing that took the life of a U.S. soldier. The event has drawn many comparisons to the My Lai massacre.

The Marines claimed that 15 civilians had been killed by shrapnel from the bomb explosion, and that the remaining casualties were Iraqi insurgents who opened fire first. An investigation opened by the Pentagon, however, found evidence that Marines had deliberately shot civilians, including women and children. Whichever account is accurate, there is no dispute that the deaths were not reported properly and that an investigation was delayed. Three officers were reprimanded and eight Marines were charged with crimes. Despite strong evidence, seven of the soldiers had charges against them dropped, and the eighth received a rank reduction and pay cut but no jail time.

Mahmudiya - Iraq 2006

On March 12th, 2006, five soldiers manning an army checkpoint from the 502nd Infantry Regiment - a unit which had been taking heavy casualties in recent weeks - entered the Mahmudiyah home of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, a 14 year old Iraqi girl. The soldiers, who had been drinking, killed Abeer's family and took turns raping her before shooting her and lighting her on fire.

The men claimed that the attack had been perpetrated by Iraqi insurgents, and given the widespread violence in Iraq at the time few questioned their account. The truth came to light in June of 2006 when the 6th member of the checkpoint team, who had not gone along but knew of the crime, confided in a fellow soldier what he knew. All five men involved in the attack were either convicted or pleaded guilty.

PFC Steven Green, the ring leader, died in prison after an attempted suicide. Before he died he was quoted as saying "I didn't think of Iraqis as humans."

One of the perpetrators of the Maywand District murders with his 15 year old victim.
One of the perpetrators of the Maywand District murders with his 15 year old victim. | Source

Maywand District - Afghanistan 2010

In 2010, five members of the U.S. Army, referring to themselves as the "Kill Team," murdered at least three innocent Afghan civilians, planting evidence to make the killing look justified. The soldiers posed for pictures with the corpses and cut off body parts for souvenirs, including a finger and pieces of skull.

The first victim was a 15 year old boy. While working on his father's farm he was gunned down and stripped naked, after which members of the Kill Team posed for photos with his body. The second victim, who was either deaf or had an intellectual disability, was found in a ditch and shot. The soldiers kept part of his skull. The third victim was an unarmed cleric.

In the end, 11 soldiers were convicted of crimes in the case, three of premeditated murder.

Victims of the Kandahar Massacre.
Victims of the Kandahar Massacre. | Source

Kandahar Massacre - Afghanistan 2012

The Kandahar Massacre occurred on March 11th, 2012 when Staff Sergeant Robert Bales of the U.S. Army murdered 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood, nine of them children.

Bales left his combat outpost at 3 am with night vision goggles and dressed in Afghan civilian garb. He went north to a town called Alkozai, killing four and wounding six. Bales then returned to base before heading south to Najiban, where he killed 12 more people. Afterwards, he turned himself in.

It has been suggested that Bales was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a severe psychological condition for which combat soldiers are at high risk. A fellow soldier had lost his leg on March 9th in a bombing, and a letter from Bales' wife indicated that he was having marital and financial problems. He was based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JLBM), whose medical staff has since come under investigation for misdiagnosing PTSD and returning soldiers to duty before they were ready. Members of Kill Team were also based out of JLBM.

President Obama refused to draw comparisons with My Lai.

The Answer to the Question

So, what is the point of this little history lesson?

Let me start off by saying that this is not an indictment of soldiers. My grandfather was a soldier. My father was a soldier. I grew up around soldiers. I have the utmost respect for anyone willing to put their life on the line for the sake of others, and I do not blame the men and women of the armed forces for starting the wars that politicians force them to undertake. Though all of these crimes were committed by soldiers, I do not think it is because they were soldiers, but rather because they were human beings placed in an inhuman situation.

In response to Del's statement that he "couldn't ever see [My Lai] happening again," I think there is pretty conclusive evidence that he is wrong. The above five incidents are only the most notable of those brought to light - what of those that were not? It would also be foolish to think that these same crimes committed by our enemies are somehow different. When I hear about Muslim extremists beheading prisoners, I can't help but be reminded of Christian warriors putting entire cities to the sword during the Crusades. War crimes are not exclusive to any one race, religion, nation, or ideology. They are a natural result of war itself; the only difference is the justification used.

I take further issue with the assertion that the media should bury these stories in the interest of national security. Another talking head from the NRA video, Tim, points out that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were stopped by other Americans and the people involved were prosecuted, so no media coverage was necessary. Does anyone really believe that the behavior would have stopped if it hadn't first been uncovered by a third party and then transmitted around the world? Especially when evidence points to the fact that the torture was authorized from the highest levels of government?

So, we come back to the question: can war ever be just? Can atrocities committed against civilians, non-combatants, and POW's ever be prevented? Towards the end of the Duty video, Del states his belief that they can be prevented by a more effective leadership, fully trained on their responsibilities and given clear rules of engagement, as well as unquestioning support from people back home. Yet here we are. The rules of engagement are clear, soldiers enjoy more support from the public than at any other time since World War II, and still the unarmed continue to die at the hands of the armed.

The sad truth is that these kinds of events can never be prevented because they are inherent to the very nature of war. War makes human beings into monsters. The combatants necessarily become the very thing they seek to destroy. As soon as civilians are killed, the moral justification for war is lost. Therefore, the answer to the question is clear: war can never be justified.


What do you think?

Is war ever justified?

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    • Anate profile image

      Joseph Ray 

      4 years ago

      The personal way that I would look it would be that a war can be justified while not all the actions in it are justified. I also think that many war justified and many are not. In all fairness, there is usually at least one unjustified side in every war. Also to me the necessity of it is what makes it justified.

    • Nicholas Pollock profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicholas Pollock 

      4 years ago from Columbus, Ohio

      I understand what you're saying. I struggled with that thought as I was writing, specifically thinking about World War II. Was there any choice but to go to war? And yet, all sides killed countless civilians, even targeted civilians. How can that be just?

      I guess maybe the way I would put it is that sometimes war is necessary, but it is never just. It is a difficult question, to be sure. I think those cases are few and far between anyway. All of the wars since have been unjust and unnecessary, and it is staggering to look at the number of lives tragically wasted on all sides.

    • Anate profile image

      Joseph Ray 

      4 years ago

      When war occurs, it is obviously a tragedy, and when there are civilians casualties (which almost always occurs), it is also a tragedy. However, this does not mean that you cannot have a just war. Sometimes the evils that you are fighting against are far too great to annoy, and one side will only allow for war. A very good example of this would be World War 2. The only possible response to Hitler was war, and it was justified to go to war with him.


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