Good, Bad, My Lai, and Human Nature

Aug 26 2009 Published by under Iraq and the Military

PZ called my attention to the fact that former US Army 2nd Lieutenant William Calley has, for the first time, publicly apologized for his conduct at My Lai. Something that Paul wrote got me thinking, particularly while I was running some errands on base this morning:

There is no doubt that Calley was a bad man and a weak man -- he was the lieutenant who led the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians in 1968 -- but at the same time, he was one of the pawns in a game dictated at the highest levels of American policy.

I'm absolutely certain that PZ is at least half right - at a time and in a situation that demanded extraordinary strength and courage, William Calley exhibited neither. He was, at absolute best, weak. But I'm not sure about "bad".

There is no doubt that Calley was deeply, personally involved in carrying out an atrocity that beggars the imagination. He was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocents, and he personally killed many of them. It took him over forty years to apologize for what he did, and there is hardly any way that an apology could remotely be considered adequate.

On the surface, saying that William Calley is - or at least was - a bad person is a no-brainer. But we might be giving ourselves too much credit.

A bad person is someone who has done something that's beyond the pale - something that everyone knows is wrong, and something that only a bad person would do. When we talk about someone being a bad person, and not just a person who has done something bad, we're thinking about someone who is more flawed than most people.

Or at least more flawed than us. Because we know that we wouldn't do what he did.

We know that. But are we right?

There's actually good reason to wonder if we are - to wonder, in particular, if we would really be able to do what we know is right when the chips are down. The Milgram experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, the behavior of entire communities of Germans during the 2nd World War, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and far to many other cases suggest that we should not be quick to assume that we would be able to do what's right.

We, as a species, have a tremendous ability to do great wrong when told to by someone we perceive as a superior. It would be nice to think that most of us aren't like that. It's comforting to think of William Calley as a bad man, and not as someone who did something that many other ordinary human beings - people like you and I - might have done under the same circumstances. But we draw that comfort from our hopes, not our knowledge, and we do so at our own peril.

13 responses so far

  • dean says:

    I too wonder about the "bad". Although he was supposed to be a leader, he was young, involved in a war that was going over the edge to being uncontrolled - no real meaningful instructions to the men on the ground, no rational purpose, and no real purpose. He had seen things people really shouldn't have to see, and for one horrible day he, and many of those with him, snapped, losing control of their humanity. It was a terribly evil action, there is no doubt, and without any military justification. I don't know what he has been doing since then, or why he chose this time to give an apology, or even why it is such a lame apology. Without some information on his life since, I have a hard time condemning his whole life.
    On an ending note, I've never understood why, when we so correctly focus on the Mai Lai incident, there isn't more discussion of the entire "Operation Phoenix" program, which was essentially they same type of action, but carried out with official sanction by the CIA and its operatives.

  • Dunc says:

    On an ending note, I've never understood why, when we so correctly focus on the Mai Lai incident, there isn't more discussion of the entire "Operation Phoenix" program

    Because Mai Lai can plausibly be blamed on a "bad apple", whereas Operation Phoenix can't.

  • dean says:

    @2:
    I taught for several years with a former Marine who had been in Vietnam, volunteered for four additional tours after his first, and was initially involved in the early stages of what became Operation Phoenix. He told many stories, but stated that although he was scared
    often during his service, he was never terrified until the CIA and their employees took
    complete control of the operation, because "not one of those bastards had any humanity
    left in them. The players were told how many they needed to kill, and although they had
    names on lists, the important thing was making the numbers match the requests." Perhaps your "bad apple" answer is correct, and it simply isn't possible to reprimand an entire bushel basket of bad apples.
    Disclaimer: I realize my information comes from the word of one man, and his experience, but he was (and still is) an amazing person, and I take his descriptions of HIS experiences as true.

  • Thomas says:

    Is there a contradiction between stating that Lt Calley was a bad person and realizing that under similar circumstances oneself could become just as bad? Only by admitting to yourself that you are able to commit evil acts will you be on guard to prevent yourself from sliding into the abyss.
    What is also shameful is what happened to Hugh Thompson. The hero who did save people and expose the massacre and recieved scorn and death threats afterwards. No good deed will go unpunished.

  • Scott Hanley says:

    I sooooo agree with this post. We like to talk about how bad other people are, because it separates Us from Them. If you want an uncomfortable exercise, try to honestly picture how you and anyone you know might have responded in Vietnam, or Nazi Germany, or in slave-holding America, etc.

  • SharonC says:

    Yes, he's frigging bad. He personally murdered many women and children and ordered the murder of many others...as the testimony at his trial went:
    "And babies too?"
    "Yes, and babies too."
    Just following orders was not a defence at the Nuremburg trials. Why should it be now? Sure he was a "pawn in their game" but does that relieve him of responsibility for murder? Bullshit.
    Many of the commenters seem to believe that they're weak like Calley and want a pre-emptive pardon for any crimes they might commit under duress. Absolution in advance for poor miserable sinners. A very Christian view that we're all born sinful and can't be expected to be anything other than weak vessels.
    Actually, I'd like to think of myself as someone who would run into a burning building to save a child. I truly don't want to think of myself as someone who'd light the match...even under duress.
    Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I haven't been tested enough. But I sure as hell wouldn't want to START with the premise that I'm more killer than rescuer.
    As a friend of mine once commeneted, aim low enough and you'll never be disappointed. Come on, aim a little higher.

  • Dunc says:

    Perhaps your "bad apple" answer is correct, and it simply isn't possible to reprimand an entire bushel basket of bad apples.

    Oh, it's perfectly possible, it's just that people prefer not to. Most people never look too deeply (or indeed, at all) at the systemic or institutional reasons why things like this happen, because to do so would raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions about the sorts of things their governments get up to.
    Orwell called it "crimestop".

  • MPhil says:

    And that makes it all the more important not to have politicians promoting a mindset (by words or action) that makes this kind of stuff more likely - nationalism, patriotism love of an abstract 'country' and the conviction that "we are the good guys" as opposed to a feeling of gratitude and responsibility to one's society - as the former engenders arrogance, a conviction that one is 'doing the right thing' because, after all, one is on the side of the "good guys" - and dehumanization of not just enemy combattants but entire nationalities or cultures.

  • Eamon Knight says:

    Actually, I'd like to think of myself as someone who would run into a burning building to save a child. I truly don't want to think of myself as someone who'd light the match...even under duress.
    Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I haven't been tested enough. But I sure as hell wouldn't want to START with the premise that I'm more killer than rescuer.

    I don't think any of us know what we'd do unless and until we face such a situation (which for most of us who are not military, is likely never). But I don't see it as a case of expecting the worst of ourselves, so much as being aware that we can't automatically expect the best either -- and therefore must be vigilant against the danger our darker nature presents.
    Nor do I think it means we should "go easy" on those who do fail, like Calley. They should receive punishment commensurate with the magnitude of their crime -- but paradoxically it needs to be administered with a kind of judicial dispassion. I think the outrage and disgust often expressed at those guilty of heinous crimes is to some extent a form of scapegoating: we transfer to the guilty party our insecurities about our own moral uprightness. They are evil, therefore we emphatically are not. Which, as Mike and several of us have pointed out, is not as certain a fact as we would like it to be. And hiding from that uncomfortable uncertainty is dangerous.

  • orion says:

    There are two important issues here.
    Firstly, there is no such thing as a 'bad' person - only 'bad' actions. The world is not Hollywood and people don't ride around wearing black hats or white hats. Sometimes people do good, sometimes they do bad. But in the end they are just people.
    Secondly, and more importantly, is the concept of systemic failure and command responsibility. I was an officer in the military for 23 years, and I understood only too well that I was personally responsible for the actions of the people under my command. As such, in many ways Calley is personally responsible for everything that hapened.
    However, it is never that simple. If Calley was a weak ineffectual leader, as he obviously was, he should never have been placed in the position he was by his superiors. They should also bear that responsibility - and that goes right up the command chain. It also includes a system which puts poorly trained individuals into positions of power and responsibility.
    Calley failed in his command responsibilities, but the system failed him by putting in a position that he could not handle.

  • konrad_arflane says:

    @orion:
    Or in other words, there's plenty of blame to go around. It's an unfortunate tendency of human thinking to prefer each event to have a single, unitary cause. It's especially unfortunate in cases like this, where assigning blame exclusively to one person means that we don't learn from our mistakes.

  • Alex says:

    orion, you're right on the mark. =)

  • Lab Rat says:

    @Thomas: "Only by admitting to yourself that you are able to commit evil acts will you be on guard to prevent yourself from sliding into the abyss."
    So damn right. If you believe that you will automatically do "good" deeds when tested you don't watch out for it. If you realise that the potential is in yourself you can watch yourself. All the damn time. Every joke you make, every action you do, every flippant remark, you've just got to watch yourself, and make sure noone is hurting becuase of it.