When Presidents have low approval ratings, one way to "unify the country" is to enter a war. When the "commander-in-chief" attacks somebody called an "enemy," people in politics and in the media tend to hesitate to criticize, even if the war is unnecessary, cruel, or foolish. The military does what it's told, people die, the expense is enormous, and some of the survivors are ruined by PTSD or losses that are more physical. People who stay home thank the brave soldiers for their "service." The military-industrial complex wins renewed acquiescence for absorbing, if you include nuclear weapons and veterans' benefits, way more than half of the Federal budget. And people in distant countries suffer.
The anniversary of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam is March 16. (That date is easy for me to remember because it happens to be my birthday.) For months the massacre was hidden from the U.S. public, until the Cleveland Plain Dealer revealed it. Ghastly photos were published.
It was this event that inspired Nevitt Sanford and a collaborator to hold a conference at a cathedral in San Francisco on "human destructiveness" and then to assemble a book called Sanctions for Evil. With colleagues, some of them victims of the Nazis, Sanford had earlier given us The Authoritarian Personality, a landmark in a research tradition that is newly relevant. For example, it led to a critique and extension by Robert Altemeyer.
My Lai was not the only village that the U.S. "destroyed in order to save it." Among other lessons, My Lai stands as a monument to the enormous difficulty of separating backers of the indigenous enemy from other ordinary villagers, a difficulty not limited to Viet Nam. Instead, soldiers are instructed to send people off to camps where they can be controlled or, as in the case of My Lai, just shoot them and burn their houses.
Okay, Vietnam was a special case, where we took over from the colonial French; not to be confused with Iraq where we defeated a regime that had taken over from the colonial British. Okay, the current prospects for occasioning attack are different, including in Syria, Yemen, parts of Ukraine, North Korea, and China (perhaps over what is known as the South China Sea but is bordered by several other countries and is the site of artificial islands).
Even if the U.S. regards itself as "exceptional" and "the last best hope of mankind," by what right do we intervene in and even cause far-away conflicts and lapse into practices revealed, fort example, in the My Lai massacre? This may be tempting to a President who is failing or truculent or both, but at what cost to the country?
In Sanctions for Evil (1971), the authors noted at the start that "when the My Lai massacre was finally reported, many of us saw in the fate of that hamlet not an isolated atrocity distinct in its effect from the rest of the war but an emblem of the larger destructiveness to which our country was contributing in Vietnam." They continued: "while taking issue with critics who argue that the U.S. purpose in Vietnam was genocidal or that our society is now fascistic, we do find disturbing similarities between the mass victimization of another people in Vietnam and the way black people in our country have been treated as if they were things and even the way the Nazi regime set out to eliminate 'inferior races'."
At the time we were warned that the countries of Southeast Asia were poised like "dominoes" that would fall to the communists one after the other. Today Vietnam is a tourist attraction. No doubt there are very bad people in the world, but is acting "tough" necessarily the wisest way of dealing with them? The truly patriotic act is enduring skepticism.