The Magazine

Bob Kerrey's Vietnam War

The fine line between combat and atrocities

May 14, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 33 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

My Lai was an extreme case. Nevertheless, anyone who has been in combat understands how thin is the line between permissible act and atrocity. The first and potentially most powerful emotion in combat is fear arising from the instinct of self-preservation. Soldiers overcome fear by means of what the Greeks called thumos -- spiritedness or righteous anger. Unchecked, thumos can engender rage and frenzy. It is the role of leadership, which provides strategic context for killing and enforces discipline, to prevent this outcome. Such leadership was absent at My Lai.

But My Lai also must be placed within a larger context. As the testimony of James Webb and many others illustrates, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong frequently committed atrocities, not as a result of thumos run amok, but as a matter of policy. While left-wing anti-war critics of U.S. policy in Vietnam were quick to invoke Auschwitz and the Nazis in discussing alleged American atrocities, they were silent about Hue City, where a month and a half before My Lai, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong systematically murdered 3,000 people. They were also willing to excuse Pol Pot's mass murder of upwards of a million Cambodians.

My Lai, while inexcusable, was at least understandable as a consequence of the psychological stress of combat. Hue and Pol Pot, on the other hand, were instances of a defining phenomenon of the twentieth century: mass murder generated by the attempt of social engineers to remake human nature according to an abstract ideology, whether Communist or National Socialist. Those who have been quick to judge Kerrey and others caught up in the chaos and confusion of the Vietnam War need to keep this in mind.

Mackubin T. Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam 1968-69.

May 14, 2001; Volume 6, Number 33