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From My Lai to Kandahar

My name is William Calley,
I’m a soldier of this land,
I’ve tried to do my duty and to gain the upper hand,
But they’ve made me out a villain,
They have stamped me with a brand …

The massacre of 16 Afghan men, women and children in Kandahar has, inevitably, recalled the My Lai incident in Vietnam.

But it’s worth thinking through what the comparison tells us.

In 1971, a military court found Lieutenant William Calley guilty of murdering Vietnamese civilians, a decision generally recalled by liberals as a tipping point in domestic opinion, a moment that Americans turned against the conflict.

That’s not entirely false. But it ignores an equally significant phenomenon  — the tremendous outpouring of support for Calley.

The lyrics above come from ‘The Battle Hymn of Lt Calley’, a spoken word track celebrating the lieutenant as an all-American hero. That’s right – a song recorded to laud the man who had ordered soldiers to open fire on unarmed civilians, forcing some of his victims to strip before they were shot; a man who’d later picked up a weapon and joined in the killing himself. Among other deeds, when a two-year old child escaped from the ditch in which his relatives were being massacred, Calley grabbed the infant, tossed him back into the trench and personally shot him.

Historians now think as many as 500 people died at My Lai. They were overwhelmingly old men, children and women. Some were tortured before being killed. Women were gang-raped; bodies were mutilated, with the words ‘C Company’ carved into their chests.

So who wore the Free Calley stickers that proliferated in 1971? Where did this support come from?

In a history of the 70s, the conservative commentator David Frum notes:

Congressional liberals like Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut joined with conservatives like Georgia’s Herman Talmadge to condemn the verdict … The governor of Indiana ordered all state flags to be flown at half staff for Calley. The governor of Utah criticised the verdict as ‘inappropriate’ and the sentence as ‘excessive’. Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia proclaimed ‘American Fighting Man’s Day’, and urged Georgia motorists to drive all week with headlights on. The Arkansas legislature approved a resolution asking for clemency. The lower house of the Kansas legislature demanded Calley’s release from prison. So did the Texas Senate and the state legislatures of New Jersey and South Carolina. … Alabama Governor George Wallace visited Calley in the Fort Benning stockade and called on President Nixon to pardon him. Wallace then spoke at a rally in Calley’s defence at Columbus, Georgia, alongside Governor John Bell Williams of Mississippi.

One poll showed that 78 per cent of Americans opposed the verdict, while a majority wanted Calley exonerated entirely. President Nixon, acutely keen to fan any backlash against the New Left, personally ordered Calley released pending appeal. Thus, in his book Nixonland, Rick Perlstein recalls how

‘a man convicted by fellow army officers of slaughtering twenty-two civilians was released on his own recognizance to the splendiferous bachelor pad he had rented with the proceeds of his defense fund . . . complete with padded bar, groovy paintings, and a comely girlfriend, who along with a personal secretary and a mechanical letter-opener helped him answer some two-thousand fan letters a day.’

Nixon’s intervention meant that Calley, originally sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour, served only three years of house arrest, despite their never being any doubt about his guilt.

In some ways, the killings in Afghanistan are quite different. Though much about the slaughter conducted in the Panjwai district of Kandahar remains obscure, U.S. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales seems to have been acting on his own behalf rather than undertaking the kind of officially-sanctioned mission in which Calley was involved.

Thus, whereas General Westmoreland initially congratulated C Company on an ‘outstanding job’, President Obama immediately issued an apology for the
Kandahar massacre, claiming Bales didn’t represent ‘army values’. Bales was, the story goes, an aberration – a New York Daily News dubbed him ‘Sergeant Psycho.’

Yet for some Americans, he’s a hero nonetheless.

Blogger Charles Johnson writes:

‘I’ve looked at about a dozen right wing sites this morning to see how they’d react to the news from Afghanistan, and the comments at every single one of them were full of people celebrating the killings, praising the soldier who allegedly committed them, and denying there was any crime, while at the same time frantically trying to blame the crime on President Obama.’

Johnson documents a thread on Fox News that contains the following.

I don’t see a problem here.

[…]

Obummer what is tragic and shocking that you are a lying P O S P that supports t e r r o r i s m ! Burn in L L E H
moooooooooooooooooooslime

[…]

It’s perfectly okay for the Afghanistan military to mur der our troops, Obama dosen’t even flinch, however, condolences go out when it’s the other way around. I’ll be very glad when the loser-in-chief is on his way out. I hate muslums, big time, in a very big way! Right behind the muslums are the libtards, they’re just as bad.

[…]

What comes around goes around That soldier deserves a medal!!!!!

Just a few nutters? Perhaps. Except, as Johnson says, you can find similar comments on almost all of the big right-wing blogs, with a certain proportion of commenters greeted the killings with an open celebration of murder for murder’s sake.

One of the men responsible for bringing My Lai into the open was a helicopter pilot called Ron Ridenhour. He later discussed the war he saw.

We would identify somebody […].  We’d say, OK, here’s somebody who is looking suspicious or whatever.  And some infantrymen would walk up to him and just shoot him.  I mean, no provocation.  They just walk right up to him.  I’m not talking about something that’s ambiguous, I’m talking about murder.  I’m talking about somebody walking right up, pointing a gun and, without provocation, pulling the trigger.

In those remarks, he wasn’t talking about My Lai. He was referring to the rest of his service, the everyday conduct of a colonial war in which callousness and oppression became routine.

That’s why, back in 1971, the right-wingers who supported Calley understood far more about Vietnam than most liberals. When conservatives celebrated Calley as a man who ‘tried to do [his] duty and to gain the upper hand’, they tacitly acknowledged that the war itself was inseparable from atrocity and that what took place at My Lai was merely an extreme example of a logic underpinning free fire zones and village pacification and all the rest of it, a logic that identified the population as a whole as the enemy.

In a recent interview with Democracy Now, journalist Neil Shea explained how the occupation in Afghanistan inculcates a similar  brutality in today’s soldiers.

By the time I reached these guys, they had already been sort of—they had been building up anger and aggression in strange ways for a number of years. And when I saw them, they had just shot a dog that had been a pet in an Afghan home that they had confiscated during the mission, and they treated Afghan civilians fairly roughly, and they took a few prisoners and treated them very roughly, as well. Nothing that would rise to necessarily the—sort of a crime at that time, but the way that they talked about things and the way that they sort of handled themselves was really aggressive. And it was only—it seemed to me only to be barely kept in check.

So it’s just this small—when we cycle our soldiers and marines through these wars that don’t really have a clear purpose over years and years, I write in the article that we begin—we expect light-switch control over their aggression. We expect to be able to turn them into killers and then turn them back into winners of hearts and minds. And when you do that to a man or a woman over many years, that light-switch control begins to fray. And that’s what I believe I was seeing with these guys in Afghanistan.

Shea’s does not claim that the men with whom he embedded were particularly evil. On the contrary, they were, he says, entirely ordinary, which is why they needed a protective layer of hatred to perform what was asked of them.

But it’s not just that the War on Terror changes soldiers. It also changes the society on behalf of which those soldiers fight. Lukacs says somewhere that the modern mass army is directly linked to what he calls the ‘inner life of a nation’. You don’t have to look very hard to see what he means.

Since 2001, we’ve seen the normalization of torture against (mostly Muslim) detainees; the construction of secret prisons to detain Muslim prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial; the routinisation of assassinations and other extrajudicial killings of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen; and, most of all, deaths of (by the most conservative reckoning) hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Muslim, in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

What attitudes to ordinary Muslims does such a record inculcate? What notions does it foster about the way they should be treated?

Should we really be surprised that, within the semi-anonymity of a blog forum, a large number of Americans discuss Muslims as untermenschen, subhuman enemies of civilisation, fit only for extermination?

Back in 1971, ‘The battle hymn of Lt Calley’ sold a million copies in less than a week. Its final verse runs like this:

When all the wars are over and the battle’s finally won
Count me only as a soldier who never left his gun
With the right to serve my country as the only prize I’ve won …

More than a decade of the War on Terror has, just as you would expect, created a new audience who wants to never leave the gun, an audience no longer shocked by atrocity but increasingly prepared to celebrate it. The consequences will be with us for a long time.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence.

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