Russell Johnson

My Lai after Fifty Years

Current Events, PT Through History, War and Peace

What the words of Lt. Calley teach us about how we see (and don’t see) our enemies.

On March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers killed over three hundred unarmed civilians in the Quảng Ngãi province of central Vietnam. Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the My Lai Massacre.

While most Americans today rightly condemn the actions of the soldiers at My Lai, we are liable to share with those men an immoral way of conceiving of and speaking of our enemies. This dehumanizing understanding of our enemies, I argue, not only makes it more likely for us to commit unjust actions against them, but prevents us from living fully human lives.

Of the fourteen soldiers charged with murder for the massacre at My Lai, only one was convicted, Lieutenant William Laws Calley. People disagreed at the time, and to this day, whether Calley instigated the slaughter or whether he was the fall guy, unfairly punished for just following orders. After the story broke, Americans rushed to lionize or demonize Calley, and in the process his own voice was lost. But his words are more revealing than any of the identities that have been projected onto him, and they invite analysis.

Psychologist Albert Bandura studies the way moral rules, even when sincerely affirmed, fail to restrain behavior. As Bandura writes, “Moral standards do not operate invariantly as internal regulators of conduct, however. Self-regulatory mechanisms do not come into play unless they are activated, and there are many social and psychological maneuvers by which moral self-sanctions can be disengaged from humane conduct.” Put more plainly, we don’t always recognize that we’re acting against our moral code, because there are psychological tendencies that bypass our moral decision-making process. Bandura calls this bypassing “moral disengagement.”

Moral disengagement is not to be confused with moral justification. Rather, it’s how we distance ourselves from the reality of our actions, thereby reducing the felt need for justification. Moral justification says, “I had to make a choice and I made the right one.” Moral disengagement says, “It wasn’t my choice” or “I had no choice.” Bandura surveys several forms that moral disengagement can take, and Calley’s remarks in court and in his subsequent book exhibit all of them.

First, there is moral framing. Through the use of euphemisms and reframing, one can make actions against one’s values seem banal, or even virtuous. Calley talks primarily in terms of “pacifying the region” and completing his mission for the day, and says that his only crime was to “value the [lives] of [his] troops.” When he was accused of premeditated murder, he acknowledged the truth of this, but then added, “Of course, in Vietnam we called it a combat assault.” (23)

Second, Bandura talks about advantageous comparison. This is to make one’s inhumane actions seem necessary by suggesting that they were the only reasonable option available. Calley writes, “This war in Vietnam is ridiculous, but I’m an American, and I won’t curse it. I won’t just say ‘It’s horrible.’ What we have in America with its horrors still is the best there is. For what would we have without it? Chaos.” (17)

Bandura’s third and fourth forms of moral disengagement are displacement of responsibility and diffusion of responsibility. Displacement of responsibility involves diminishing one’s own agency and thereby distancing oneself from one’s actions. In Calley’s case, as in so many others, this involves insisting that he was just following orders. He writes, “Maybe if I were president, I would change things. Till then, I’m like anyone else: I’ll carry America’s orders out. For that’s what the Army is: a chisel. It has to be kept sharp and let the American people use it.” (17) Diffusion of responsibility, on the other hand, involves narrating one’s actions as part of a collective. If everyone’s doing it, then I can’t be singled out for moral interrogation. Calley writes, “I thought, Could it be I did something wrong? I knew that war’s wrong. Killing’s wrong: I realized that. I had gone to war, though. I had killed, but I knew, So did a million others.” (8)

Calley’s statements are unsettling, in part because they express some truth. Many on both sides of the conflict committed acts just as cruel as Calley’s. And he was following orders—directly from his superior officers, and indirectly from the American people. The danger of moral disengagement is when actors rely on truths like these to obscure the fact that they played the part they played in unjust actions. This is a danger not only for those pulling the triggers; American voters and policy-makers are equally susceptible to moral disengagement and need to confront their own role in mass killing.

The fifth form of moral disengagement is attribution of blame, in which one shifts the moral spotlight onto another party and makes one’s own actions seem like the inevitable consequences of someone else’s actions. Calley blamed the Viet Cong tactics for making extreme measures like the My Lai massacre necessary, saying in court, “Everyone was a potential enemy and men and women were equally dangerous… Children were used to throw hand grenades or plant mines. It was essential that troops in Viet Nam put out of their minds the World War II and Korean concept of giving candy and chewing gum and things to children. The communists used that American philosophy against us.” (229) Again, Calley isn’t wrong, but by consistently narrating the event this way he distances himself from his own responsibility and treats himself as a being without agency.

Sixth and finally, a person morally disengages from their actions by dehumanizing others. By considering others as less than human, the moral convictions one has for how to treat other humans do not kick in to the same degree when one sees them suffer. This dehumanization is facilitated by racial, ethnic, and gender prejudice pre-existent in a society or manufactured through propaganda. But ideological views can also become a site for dehumanization. For example, when asked in the 1960s what it feels like to take human life, Polish mercenary Rafal Gan-Ganowicz reportedly responded, “I wouldn’t know, I’ve only ever killed communists.” This is an extreme example of a common social practice: not treating others as unique individuals but merely as instances of a broader ideology or social problem.

“Vietnam War Air Operation” CC BY-NC 2.0

We innately have a sense of our shared co-humanity with others, what Kenneth Burke calls our consubstantiality, which empathetically connects us to them even if we have never met them before. Moral rules for social interaction codify and reinforce these empathetic connections. Because of this, Bandura writes, it is “difficult to mistreat humanized persons without suffering personal distress and self-condemnation.” This is true even when a person is an ideological opponent, as long as they are recognized as fully human. When people are characterized as “Nazis” or “terrorists” or “criminals” or “fascists,” however, it becomes harder to empathize with them and easier to justify mistreating them.

The massacre at My Lai is a textbook case of dehumanization; though paying close attention to the details of Calley’s moral disengagement helps us recognize the complexity of the issue. Calley’s famous statement prior to sentencing included these lines: “When my troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel, and I couldn’t touch—that nobody in the military system ever described as anything other than Communism. They didn’t give it a race, they didn’t give it a sex, they didn’t give it an age. They never let me believe it was just a philosophy in a man’s mind. That was my enemy out there.” (231)

This statement is revealing. When we think of dehumanization, especially in war and social conflict, our minds turn to race, and rightfully so. Almost as a rule, any ethics or psychology text that discusses dehumanization offers examples of racial slurs used to diminish opponents. And race absolutely was a factor in the indiscriminate killing Calley supervised. But what strikes me is that I haven’t found any example of Calley using racial slurs or saying anything disparaging about the Vietnamese people. The terms he uses are VC, communism, and enemy.

In Calley’s vocabulary, “enemy” designates a different species. He says, “I never sat down to analyze it, men, women, and children. They were enemy…” Not they were “enemies,” not they were “the enemy,” they were enemy. This may seem a subtle grammatical point, reading too much into the words of a man who’s not careful in his speech, but I think it’s indicative of the role antagonism plays in dehumanization. It’s not as if Calley harbored deep-seated prejudices against the Vietnamese before the war, the framing of the conflict itself was sufficient to exclude some people from the realm of human dignity. “Us versus them” logic does not need to build on pre-existing stereotypes to facilitate dehumanization.

Calley’s objective, as he understood it, was to destroy communism. The dehumanization that made it possible for a man to disengage from his own commitments and kill hundreds of his fellow humans was based on an identification between those people and an anathematized ideology. Dehumanizing others based on their ideology is not as despicable as dehumanization based on their race or ethnicity. It seems, to use Dr. King’s vocabulary, closer to judging someone by the content of their character than by the color of their skin. But as Calley’s case shows, dehumanizing others based on their ideology can be just as destructive as racial discrimination. And this, too, is reducing a person from fully human status to a mere iteration of a belief system deemed evil. This kind of dehumanization is prevalent, and activists and ethicists working for justice need to be on guard against reducing people to incarnations of racism, sexism, fascism, and bigotry. We need to maintain an openness—even if a critical openness—not only to the face of the other, but to the voice of the other. I confess, even as I write this reflection, it’s hard for me not to treat Calley as merely an iteration of American militarism, and I’m not confident I’ve succeeded.

Resisting dehumanization may mean we have to recognize others’ humanity more than they recognize it themselves. It involves treating others as responsible individuals who make flawed decisions. This recognition by itself challenges the moral disengagement by which they distance themselves from their choices, from their identity, and from their fellow humans. Humanizing our enemies is not just a moral restriction on our advocacy, it is itself one aspect of the revolutionary honesty that refuses to call injustice by any other name.

When conflicts become zero-sum and destructive, we find it easier to justify using tactics that would otherwise go against our moral commitments. Dehumanization is in these circumstances necessitated by the demands of the conflict itself. It is hard to kill a person; it is easy to kill enemy. Those put in positions where they are ordered to kill resort to dehumanization not in spite of their conscience, but to preserve their conscience.

This, as psychologists are increasingly realizing, is a form of trauma. Your coping mechanisms become your obstacles, and an inability to recognize the full humanity of others is a lingering effect of complicity in acts of violence. In sum, we think of dehumanization as a precondition for killing the innocent, when we ought rather to see it as a consequence.

Finally, Calley’s statements lend credence to Desmond Tutu’s belief that when we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. Calley’s statement, “An enemy I couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t touch” ultimately says less about the Viet Cong than about how involvement in the war had diminished Calley, rendered him less able to sense others and make sense of himself.

Tutu writes that oppression wreaks havoc on the bodies of the oppressed and the souls of the oppressor. Dehumanization has the same effect. In treating others as less than human, shutting off the part of ourselves that suffers when we see others suffer, we become disengaged not only from the moral law but from our own hearts. The more we see our opponents as less than human, as mere iterations of an ideology or social force, the more we will start to see ourselves that way. The disengaged self is a diminished self—it doesn’t act, but only reacts; it isn’t a free individual, but a tool at others’ disposal; it won’t admit the whole truth, so it desperately clings to half-truths; it can’t feel compassion, only obligation. For us to be fully human, then, we need to preserve the full humanity of our opponents. For Tutu, this is why the idea of ubuntu—that we become human through other humans—extends not only to our companions but also to enemy.

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