One of the early flaps of Campaign 2004 concerned the Republican attempt to capitalize on Sen. John Kerry's 1971 admission that he, like most other Vietnam veterans, had inadvertently committed wartime atrocities. The youthful Kerry, then in full cry as a war protester, had used a rather broad, amorphous definition of atrocities: the burning of villages, the implementation of "free-fire zones," and so on -- all par for the course in Vietnam at the time. GOP partisans, however, have tried to reinterpret Kerry's guilt-ridden remarks as an insult to American servicemen, who, it is claimed, never strayed beyond the bounds of proper conduct in Southeast Asia.
Everyone knows, of course, about the My Lai massacre and its lead perpetrator, Lt. William Calley. Yet, that incident has been held out by military apologists as the exception proving the rule. We comfort ourselves with the thought that the murder of 500 innocent civilians by Calley and his command was an aberration, an isolated criminal act carried out by some unrepresentative bad seeds; it's an excuse that has echoes in the Middle East today. Moreover, the revisionist-minded among us scoff at disturbing celluloid portrayals of the Southeast Asian conflict, such as Oliver Stone's Platoon, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. These amount to perverse exaggerations and expressions of national self-flagellation, they say, un-American visions calculated to undermine the heroic exploits of the babyboom generation in uniform.
We now know better. Thanks to some fearless and persistent editors and reporters at Toledo, Ohio's daily newspaper, the Blade, it is clear that My Lai, rather than being a random occurrence, may have been the tip of an iceberg. Last October, to regrettably little public acknowledgement, The Blade exposed the 1967 depredations of the US Army's Tiger Force, a specialized combat unit charged with carrying out search-and-destroy missions in South Vietnam's Central Highlands. Instead of focusing on enemy soldiers, however, the Tiger Force vented its spleen on area noncombatants, murdering several hundred over six months, including 120 in a single 30-day period.
To its credit, the Army did investigate Tiger Force activities after the fact, from 1971 to 1975. But to its shame, the Pentagon, though finding at least 18 platoon members had definitely committed war crimes, declined to prosecute any of them. That is where things stood until Blade reporters, whose paper received a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize, uncovered the hidden story of officially sanctioned horror. American troops, our troops, shot women, children, and the elderly, tortured and executed prisoners, engaged in rape, performed decapitations (shades of Iraq!), took scalps, and celebrated their accomplishments by wearing necklaces made of severed ears. Even Oliver Stone couldn't have imagined a more grotesque scenario.
What has all this to do with the events of our time, you might ask. Quite a bit, actually, because a new generation of Americans has been placed, like their Vietnam predecessors, in a position of absolute power over helpless civilians in a war situation replete with moral ambiguities; it has been forced to confront its own worst impulses and make ethical choices. Will American soldiers in Iraq emulate the good sergeant depicted in Platoon or the bad sergeant? Will they respond to "the better angels of our nature," as Lincoln phrased it, or will they gradually sink into the degraded state of mind that pervaded Abu Ghraib prison and led to multiple violations of the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners?
The longer we stay in Iraq as conquerors and occupiers, the likelier it is that it will be the latter. It appears more and more that Abu Ghraib was not a unique case, that it may, in fact, have been the rule rather than the exception. And why should anyone be surprised? From the beginning, the political leadership of this country, from the president on down, has implied, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that the people who oppose us in Iraq were involved in the 9/11 attacks. Young Americans in uniform, who see themselves as avenging 9/11, have taken their cue from those in authority. The Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib, former fighters or innocent bystanders, confirmed resisters or merely suspects, have been uniformly branded as terrorist agents or sympathizers, an untrustworthy and duplicitous species for whom no humiliation or mistreatment is too severe.
In short, Iraqis, starting with those rounded up in random security sweeps, are in the process of being dehumanized by a significant portion of the American military and, like the Vietnamese "gooks" of a generation ago, are increasingly seen as acceptable candidates for brutalization. This usually happens, sooner or later, in counterinsurgency wars, where the occupying power does not know who the enemy is and, after a while, ceases to care, simply lumping everyone together. The operable and cynical phrase in Vietnam was, "Kill them all, and let God sort them out."
The obvious lesson here is that nations should not go to war and immerse their young people in a moral morass, unless it's an absolute last resort. That requirement was not met by the elective, precipitant and wholly unnecessary Iraq campaign. Now, the concern is that Abu Ghraib, which already ranks as a lesser My Lai, may have been replicated many times over, producing a national stain that can't be expunged with rhetorical Bushisms of patriotic self-congratulation. The higher-ups who established Iraq's interrogation program -- and set the parameters for the behavior of Abu Ghraib's corrupted MPs -- are on record as having looked askance from the very outset of their war on terror at the niceties of the Geneva Conventions, flouting them initially at Guantanamo Bay with respect to Taliban prisoners.
So far at least, there appears to be no Iraq Tiger Force waiting to be exposed. If we're fortunate, and if we call a halt to this mistaken policy soon enough, perhaps there won't be. In the meantime, let's stop romanticizing the troops. They're just like us, and we know from past experience what we're capable of becoming. But let's also remember that someone close to the top fixed the policy, gave the orders, and set the Devil loose. That's the someone we really need to call to account.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.