Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Memorial Day

Apparently the local PBS station ran The American Experience: My Lai this past Monday night.  A Wisconsin State Journal reader has taken exception.  His letter to the editor is here:

On Memorial Day, Wisconsin Public Television choose to show "American Experience: My Lai," a programming choice that was insulting to the men and women of America who have served and died for freedom around the world.

Using such a notorious incident as symbolic of all military service is deliberately provocative. No one would argue that America's actions throughout the years have been blame free. However, the highlighting of My Lai on the day we choose to honor our fallen is beyond bad taste. It is the deliberate pursuit of an agenda that is contemptuous of the beliefs, values and traditions of our country and the millions of soldier who have faithfully served it.

My father, father-in-law, brother, other relatives and friends did not ask to be placed in harm's way. They served where they were ordered. They did their duty and served their country from Okinawa to Berlin with honor, dignity and humility. They were and are truly citizen soldiers. They do not deserve the slap in the face that public television gave them.

It is especially repugnant to realize that my tax dollars were used to insult the people I honor and respect. More significantly, it must be infuriating to them to realize that their tax dollars were used to gratuitously denigrate their selfless service.

I decided that I didn't agree with him and sent in the following letter, hoping to possibly give him a different way to look at this "outrage."

A Wednesday letter writer claims that the showing of American Experience: My Lai, by Wisconsin Public Television on Memorial Day was "insulting to the men and women of America who have served and died for freedom around the world."  He claims also that WPT was using My Lai as "symbolic of all military service"and that it was "deliberately provocative."  And, oh yes, tax dollars were used to do so.

Perhaps.  Or maybe nobody else assumes this intent.  Maybe others realize that March 16, 1968 was not a typical day for the U.S Army.  Maybe it IS important that we remember the bad things about war, too.  It's not all about heroes and valor and glory.  Sometimes it's about horror and slaughter and "payback."  And yes, My Lai was your tax dollars at work, too.

Maybe one of the reasons we would like to forget My Lai is because we never really dealt with it.  Blame the lowest ranking officer involved, commute his sentence, try to forget the whole thing.  Because really, who was to blame?  How far from "official policy" were the events of that day?  My Lai was a "free fire zone."  In Vietnam, everyone not wearing our uniform was at least suspect, if not presumed enemy.  This was hardly the only village that was burned to the ground, certainly not the only instance in which civilians were killed.  Who was to blame if not the war policy itself.  And who is responsible for the war policy?  Better to just forget, right? 

Is Memorial Day about collective memory or selective memory?  Maybe taking a minute, or ninety, to remember the other side of the coin is not such a bad idea.

So, is Memorial Day supposed to be only for "good" memories?


  1. Kevin,
    I don't mind the picture that you are painting as it has some truth to it - what concerns me is the width of the brush you use.


  2. NAC.
    When spreading truth, size matters, use as big an applicator as you can swing.

  3. Grrrrr...


  4. Sarge, are you referring to my statement that the massacre was pretty close to official policy?

    Wasn't it?

    When we go to war we tell ourselves that our reasons are good. We "need" to defeat those other bastards. They, of course, will not "go quietly." So we decide, any means necessary.

    Since our reasons for war are good it follows that anything we do in pursuit of our war aims is OK. Perhaps regrettable but the "greater good" is being served, so ...

    So we either accept My Lai as just the cost of doing (war) business and move on, or we try to learn from it. How can we avoid future My Lais?

    The obvious answer to me would be to stay out of future such projects. We will never station a force in a foreign country with their "hands tied" sufficiently to ensure that something like My Lai could never happen. It would be unfair to the force, you'd never get anybody to sign up, they wouldn't stick to it even if you could get some; it'll just never happen.

    I wish there were an easy answer.

  5. Kevin,
    When shit happens like AbuGhrab and that rape and murder thing - I wonder where were the Lts
    and the senior NCOs. What happens without discipline in the field is that folks run amock.
    Okay, your buddy you went through basic at Parris Island with gets smoked by a sniper - You catch the dude that killed him. Don't you imagine that the temptation to kill that fucker is huge - I mean like, mega fucking huge?

    Oh, staying out of future conflicts is what we all want. Nobody wants to send their sons and now daughters into harms way. Is that realistic? No, and you know that this planet will never be without wars. Shit, Chile and Argentina exchanged artillery rounds over a damned soccer score.

    And, there is no easy answer. Never will be.



  6. How about my Bro from the Island gets smoked and I catch some dude that might have killed him? Lots more likely, right? Or how about we lose twenty guys to booby traps and land mines and somebody tells us that the perpetrators are hiding in this little village (disguised as women and children and old people)?

    What we want is justice, right? Police forces, courts, laws, all about establishing justice, right?

    Back in the day, justice was achieved via blood feuds. They kill one of us, we kill one of them. Or two, or five. And it's never "even."

    Which of those two methods is war closer to? We like to think we're imposing justice "over there," but aren't we maybe just imposing our advantage? Because they very seldom see it as "justice," do they?

  7. NAC,
    Nelson Demille wrote a novel titled "Up Country" about a Vietnam vet who returns to visit the country years later. (Demille is a Vietnam veteran and did make a return visit.) For a truly horrific but insightful look at what occurred there during the war years, I recommend the book most highly. The frightening thing is that by changing the setting from jungles and mountains to desert, it is easy to see the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. In fact, I will not be at all surprised when a similar novel by an Iraq War veteran appears.

  8. I've read a couple Nelson DeMille, Mr. O. I'll have to look for that one. I also have a different one called Up Country, by Bobbi Ann Mason, around here somewhere.

    Have you read any Tim O'Brien? A Vietnam vet who was at My Lai, on that day.

  9. I was kinda thinking the same thing when I saw all the Memorial day programs, and all the new reports with politicians and others worshiping the military. I think we've become too militarized now, and I think it is important to present the realities of war and not just puff pieces to glorify war.