The Essence of War

Photograph Source: National Archives and Records Administration – Public Domain

Many US teenage boys in the late 1960s and early 1970s grew up wondering if they would end up in the jungles of Vietnam when they reached draft age. Some could hardly wait to go fight in their idealized version of honor and glory. Some knew by the time they were sixteen that they would do whatever they could to avoid going. The rest of us were somewhere in the middle. Although I leaned towards running away to Canada or Sweden, I included myself among the uncertain. If there was one instance that convinced me I was going to avoid military service no matter what, it was the exposure of the massacre in MyLai. I had recently attended my first antiwar protest in the suburban town I lived in between Washington, DC and Baltimore and was devouring all the antiwar literature I could find. Most of it came from a friend’s older brother who was volunteering for the Vietnam Moratorium Committee and attended the nearby University of Maryland at College Park.

The literature provided arguments against the war and discussed how the US could end its involvement. I remember these arguments as intellectually appealing. However, it was the news articles accompanied by grotesque photos of dead babies that caused such moral revulsion I knew I could never participate in the war in any way. As it turned out, the disclosure of the massacre would convince many more of my fellow Americans that the war was wrong and needed to end.

As the months turned into years after the publication of the massacre, other revelations of various impact appeared in the media. Like the first news of MyLai, there were those who either rejected these revelations as lies, tried to diminish their importance or worked even harder to bury them deeper than where certain reporters had originally found them. Fortunately, the damage had been done. The US war on the Vietnamese ended ignominiously for the US in 1975.

Despite its importance, it was not until 2017 that an authoritative text about the incident and the attempted cover-up of it was finally published. Titled My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness and authored by historian Howard Jones, the work is a masterpiece. Jones utilizes virtually every document available about the massacre and includes information and anecdotes from interviews of individuals present at the scene and involved in the eventual trial. His descriptions of the murders by the US troops are detailed and horrifying, even sickening. Likewise, his reportage of the coverup and the bureaucratic gymnastics that are part and parcel of military life expresses the frustration of both those NCOs and officers trying to cover up the massacre and those journalists and military investigators trying to get to the bottom of the incident. The second half of the book, which covers the trial of William Calley—who was the only military man convicted of murder in the incident—reads like a well-made television courtroom drama. The only real conclusion one can take from this incredibly detailed and objective history is that what happened at MyLai in March 1968 was a war crime and that many of those involved in the crime and its coverup got away with murder.

A phenomenon I have observed over the years of watching and protesting US wars in other lands is the refusal of most US civilians to accept that the young men (and now women) they send into foreign lands to kill and destroy will commit war crimes. Although many of these same individuals will be quick to point out vicious killings and torture by the enemy of the time, they reject any suggestions that US troops are capable of the same acts. Or, more reprehensibly, they excuse them in the name of a twisted exceptionalism that paints US lives as somehow better than any others. As Jones made clear, this was certainly the predominant opinion in the months after the MyLai massacre was revealed in the press. Those reporters and editors who wrote and published the stories received death threats by the dozens. The military officers involved in the prosecution of William Calley were forced to watch their backs, too. Politicians supporting the war set up hearings designed to paint Calley as a hero and those soldiers who reported him to the brass as traitors.

I am someone who does not believe the massacre of close to five hundred women, children, old men and babies was an anomalous incident in the US war on the Vietnamese. Nor do I think Vietnam was the last place such crimes were committed by US military members. I remain grateful for the various reporters who uncovered the story of the massacre and the editors who published those stories and the photos taken by military photographers at the scene. If this hadn’t happened, myself and perhaps many other young Americans might not have protested and resisted the US war effort. I have nothing but respect for those troops who attempted to stop the murders and consider those officers who pushed for a trial of Calley and wanted to go further up the chain of command to be men of honor. Howard Jones’ text not only cements their stories for posterity, it also makes it clear that a soldier’s nationality does not preclude their ability to commit mass murder or excuse them if they do.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: