In this post, I’d like to talk about M. Scott Peck’s discussion of the My Lai Massacre in his book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. Wikipedia defines the My Lai Massacre as: “the Vietnam War mass murder of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968, by United States Army soldiers of ‘Charlie’ Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the America[n] Division. Most of the victims were women, children, infants, and elderly people.” The American troops did this because they believed that these South Vietnamese civilians were helping out the Viet-Cong, which the U.S. was fighting.
To what does Peck attribute this act of group evil? Peck says that the American soldiers had become accustomed to bloodshed on account of their experience in war. He also states that they were under an extreme amount of stress, for they could be unexpectedly injured or killed by booby-traps, plus the enemy was hard to find. Peck also notes that the massacre occurred in 1968, which was before the U.S. military forces in Vietnam consisted largely of draftees, and so the Americans in the Vietnam War at that time were mostly people who wanted to be there (the implication perhaps being that some of them gravitated towards a killing role), or they may have included people who were sent there because they were troublemakers. Another consideration is the emphasis on following orders within the military culture.
But Peck also condemns U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in general. He believes that it was narcissistic, as the U.S. became more deeply involved in order to save face. Peck also disputes the narrative that we needed to contain Communism, as if Communism were an expanding empire, for Communist nations were not monolithic and often acted against one another. Moreover, the U.S. was disingenuous to criticize Communism for its repressive regimes, when the U.S. itself supported oppressive regimes. On a similar note, on pages 286-287 of The Different Drum, Peck portrays Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist up-riser against colonial imperialism, and Peck avers that the U.S. pushed Ho Chi Minh into the arms of Communist Russia by siding with Vietnam’s colonizers rather than Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist movement.
Another issue that Peck discusses in his chapter on the My Lai Massacre in People of the Lie is the avoidance of responsibility. For one, compartmentalization passes the buck and thus enables people to avoid responsibility, for it’s ambiguous where exactly the buck stops. This is especially the case in governmental institutions. Second, a number of Americans prior to 1969 were not invested in the Vietnam War, for they were not paying a significant amount of taxes to support it, plus not many of the American forces in the region consisted of draftees, but rather of volunteers. According to Peck, it was when the draft became more of a looming force in people’s lives that anti-war activism entered the mainstream. Peck’s point may be (and I’m open to correction) that the American people themselves bore some responsibility for the war in Vietnam, but certain factors enabled them to avoid recognizing their responsibility for it.
What are my reactions to Peck’s analysis? First of all, I could identify with Peck’s statement that extreme stress can encourage people to compromise their morality. Peck talks about when his wisdom teeth were pulled and he was especially self-centered and temperamental immediately after that experience! It’s a challenge to be considerate to others when one is under stress or in pain, physically and emotionally. Consequently, I admire people I know who do not feel well, yet they still manage to be kind. I stand in awe of that kind of strength.
Second, would I label the Vietnam War as evil? I don’t consider it to be an entirely narcissistic endeavor on the United States’ part, for the U.S. was fighting Communism, which was a repressive force, and it also sought to assist South Vietnam’s economy. But there were evils that came out of it, the deaths of Americans and Vietnamese people perhaps being the greatest. I agree with Peck that we were staying in the Vietnam War for a questionable reason, namely, to save face. I can understand the argument that we need for other countries to respect us if we are to successfully stand up to evil and be a peacekeeper, but I often wonder if saving face is really worth the cost and sacrifice. In The Different Drum, Peck says in his discussion about the arms race that someone needs to be the bigger person and back down (or Peck says something to that effect, if my recollection is accurate). When I read that, I thought about Gorbachev, who was willing to dismantle the Communist empire in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev probably had ulterior motives: he realized that Russia couldn’t continue its involvement in the Cold War and sustain its economy at the same time. But I admire Gorbachev for being a big person (which is not to say that I believe that leaders should always back down).
Third, do I agree with Peck on whether Communism was a real problem? I don’t know. I’ve long heard the leftist narrative that we pushed revolutionary forces in other countries into the Communist camp through our own failure to support them. But then there are right-wingers who come back and say that some of the revolutionary leaders made pro-Communist statements before we supposedly pushed them into the Communist camp. Some attempt to correct me when I call certain revolutionaries Communists, for they tell me that the revolutionaries were nationalists, not Communists. Whether they’re entirely correct on this or not, they may be on to something, for I doubt that people became revolutionaries simply because they desired the expansion of the Communist empire; rather, there were serious problems in their country that they wanted to redress. Do I agree with Peck that Communist nations were at odds with each other? There were right-wingers who argued that Communist nations also cooperated on projects. And yet, a significant assumption behind Richard Nixon’s foreign policy was that Communist countries were not necessarily on the same side, so he could use them against each other in conducting the Vietnam War.