By: Robert Jay Lifton
My Lai is very much with us again. Its name was first invoked, in the context of the current war in Iraq, at the time of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, by Colin Powell among others. He cited the My Lai incident — as many as 500 civilians were slaughtered in the Vietnamese village by American soldiers in March 1968 — as the kind of thing that can happen in wars.
Now we have the alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians in Haditha, followed by bulletins about other possible atrocities. Is it enough for the media to accept that such tragic incidents are inevitably a part of war?
The alleged crimes in Iraq, like My Lai, are examples of what I call an atrocity-producing situation — one so structured, psychologically and militarily, that ordinary people, men or women no better or worse than you or I, can commit atrocities. A major factor in all of these events was the emotional state of U.S. soldiers as they struggled with angry grief over buddies killed by invisible adversaries, with a desperate need to identify an “enemy.”
The military environment in Iraq, once so different from that of Vietnam, now holds striking parallels. Iraq is also a counterinsurgency war in which U.S. soldiers, despite their extraordinary firepower, feel extremely vulnerable in a hostile environment, and in which high-ranking officers and war planners are frustrated by the great difficulty of tracking down or even recognizing the enemy. What ultimately drives the dynamic is an ideological vision that equates Iraqi resisters with “terrorists” and seeks to further justify almost any action against them.
In the case of My Lai, there were deaths of many buddies, and then on the day before the massacre a much-loved sergeant was blown up by a booby trap. In the case of those responsible for the atrocity at Haditha, there was the death of 20 marines from a different unit three months earlier, which the new unit undoubtedly experienced as a legacy. Then, three days before the killings, the first death in the unit occurred, and on the day of the massacre, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas was killed when a bomb exploded near his Humvee. As at My Lai, the combination of angry grief and military vulnerability led to the slaughter.
At My Lai, the night before the killings there was a ceremony, consisting of a memorial for the dead sergeant and a military briefing in which the men were encouraged to kill randomly. We don’t have any such information about Haditha. There will undoubtedly be more to learn about the relationship between the sergeant who led the Haditha killings and higher-ranking officers and military policy.
My Lai was covered up for about a year and then was revealed through a grapevine of soldiers and reporters. Haditha remained hidden for several months before being reported by Time magazine, although several more months passed until the recent, much fuller, emergence of the story. Significantly, the Haditha atrocity was made known through interviews with Iraqi civilians, with the help of human rights workers and American journalists.
This access to Iraqi civilians, and growing awareness of the climate for wrongdoing, is likely to uncover other atrocities. Already today the BBC is reporting another alleged massacre of 11 Iraqi civilians.
Recognizing that atrocity is a group activity, one must ask how individual soldiers can so readily join in? I believe they undergo a type of dissociation that I call doubling — the formation of a second self. The individual psyche can adapt to an atrocity-producing environment by means of a sub-self that behaves as if it is autonomous and thereby joins in activities that would otherwise seem repugnant.
In environments where sanctioned brutality becomes the norm, sadistic impulses, dormant in all of us, are likely to be expressed. The group’s violent energy becomes such that an individual soldier who questions it could be turned upon. (A Vietnam veteran who had been at My Lai told me he had felt himself in some danger when he not only refused to fire but pointedly lowered the barrel of his gun to the ground.) To resist such intense group pressure requires an unusual combination of conscience and courage.
This kind of atrocity-producing situation can exist, with most of the characteristics I have described, in some degree in all wars, including World War II, our last “good war.” But a counterinsurgency war against a nonwhite population in a hostile setting, especially when driven by profound ideological distortions, is particularly prone to sustained atrocity — all the more so when it becomes an occupation.
To attribute the likely massacre at Haditha to “a few bad apples” or to “individual failures” is poor psychology and self-serving moralism. To be sure, individual soldiers and civilians who participated in it are accountable for their behavior, even under such pressured conditions. But the greater responsibility lies with those who planned and executed the war in Iraq and the “war on terrorism” of which it is a part, and who created, in policy and attitude, the accompanying denial of the rights of captives (at Abu Ghraib and Guantanomo) and of the humanity of civilians (at Haditha).
Iraq antiwar veterans to whom I have spoken have felt an immediate connection with their Vietnam predecessors. When an organizer of one group of Iraq veterans declared, “We were lost — we had no idea what we were doing,” he sounded very much like many of the Vietnam veterans I once worked with. He and others have described an atrocity-producing situation all too reminiscent of Vietnam.
Psychologically and ethically, responsibility for the crimes at Haditha extends to top commanders, the secretary of defense, and the White House. Those crimes are a direct expression of the kind of war we are waging in Iraq.