Imagine yourself in a newly strange, unfamiliar tropical jungle environment. The catch is, your purpose is not to take eye-catching photographs for National Geographic magazine. Instead, you are assigned to kill people of a foreign land you have never seen before, because your government tells you it is the patriotic, honorable duty you owe your country. Everything is all right in the beginning. You arrive in Vietnam, familiarize yourself with your platoon, acquaintances and close friends alike. The worst things so far are the irritating, annoying insects that buzz around you in the midst of the tropical heat while wearing a hot, uncomfortable marine uniform, while carrying a heavy backpack and a semi-automatic weapon, and fatigue from hiking and digging numerous trenches. Until one night in the jungle, someone you are perhaps close with is blown to pieces before your eyes. Its possible the only thing left of them is sadly their lower half. It is the first time you have witnessed another human being violently, grotesquely mutilated to unexpected death in only a matter of a second. Emotions are raging through you: fear, anger, shock, frustration, paranoia, sadness, and maybe after seeing this numerous times, you might actually, but sickly enough begin to laugh. Not at all the death that is around you, but realizing that the fighting never seems to end and that this is the life to which you must be accustomed. You can not tell apart the Viet-Kong from regular civilians, since they can be anyone-even women and children. You are unable to communicate with anyone in this land because they do not speak your language and you do not speak theirs. You do not know exactly what intentions any random person of this foreign land may have; you only know you are there to carry out one specific task-kill the Viet-Kong. This is difficult when they are indistinguishable from regular civilians. Now imagine experiencing this every day for a year, or until you are the one who becomes a statistic. The people here are no longer people, but instead referred to as gooks, slant-eyes, or Charlie: the enemy.
Many soldiers who committed unspeakable acts of brutality against the people of Vietnam are not responsible for their actions and were heavily influenced to do so against their conscience and will. We as a nation may view the soldiers who partook in incidents such as the My Lai massacre with disgust, embarrassment, and disappointment, as they are representative of our country. Nevertheless, we must consider the unexpected motives and circumstantial situations that led them to do so. Constant exposure to daily routine violence and death among fellow soldiers/friends, the inability to distinguish the enemy from regular civilians, and the US government itself all contributed to the commitment of atrociously brutal and ruthlessly violent acts against Vietnamese civilians.
There were thousands of soldiers who experienced pressures and conditions that influenced the gradual alteration of their state of mind. Many soldiers experienced fellow platoon members getting so horrifically wounded from battle to the point of permanently intense disfiguration and more commonly death. Of these statistics, some would no longer partake in the fighting against the Vietnamese or normal routine life the way they knew it before the war-forever handicapped. The majority however, would no longer live to again embrace their families, friends, significant others, and perhaps even children. According to Kregg P.J. Jorgensons Beaucoup Dinky Dau: Odd, Unusual, and Unique Stories of the Vietnam War, Peter Martinsen, a former Vietnam veteran recalls of a fellow platoon member: He just sat there in the grass just laughing. He’s laughing and he’s yelling. Goddamn, I’m hit. You know what this means? I’m getting out of this *censored*! He’s pointing to his missing leg and he’s laughing. This is my way out of this *censored*! Out. Out. In Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, A sergeant in Caputo’s platoon states I have a wife and two kids at home and I don’t care who or how many people I have to kill to see them again. (156).
In addition to standard combat, the Vietnamese were very brutal towards the Americans. Many American soldiers were tortured and killed by the Viet-Kong. Any captured American P.O.W was shown little if no mercy. According to Caputo, The Viet-Kong went down the lines of fallen Marines, pumping bullets into any body that showed signs of life-including his classmate (160). In Jorgensons Beaucoup, one veteran recollects that he witnessed a friend beaten with the butts of rifles and then cut with knives until he almost bled to death. Finally, he was shot and killed after about ten minutes of cruel and unusual torture by the Viet-Kong (279).
Witnessing friends and fellow platoon members violently killed and tortured, whether in battle or individually inhumane situations, will often set any normal persons state of mind into one that is not rational. Events like this-especially in war, create an intense flow of simultaneous emotion. These include confusion, disbelief, sadness, fear, followed by anger all lead to increased hatred for the enemy after experiencing violent events on a daily basis. Everyone has a threshold for tolerance. The question is a matter of who cracks first and loses their right mind. Those who committed war atrocities against innocent Vietnamese civilians were most likely those who had witnessed the most violence and death among their fellow friends and platoon members. In Bernard Falls Last Reflections on a War, one soldier states, I couldnt handle it anymoreall the death, all the bloodshed. I just wanted to get out of there. Looking at them made me sick-no matter who they were. Every last one of em was our enemy, (54).
While in Vietnam, many soldiers had difficulty telling apart regular Vietnamese civilians from the Viet-Kong. Often, the Viet-Kong would dress like regular civilians. Some of them were. They would use leaves to disguise themselves from the American soldiers instead of traditional military camelflouge uniforms.
When soldiers would travel through Vietnamese villages, some apparently regular civilians would attack the Americans with grenades or other explosives, sometimes killing themselves in the process. To some Vietnamese, self-sacrifice was essential in order to kill American soldiers. Some of these Vietnamese were women and children. A soldier might go up to a civilian to ask for directions, usually with a Vietnamese interpreter, and ask for directions, or buy cigarettes and even marijuana, and the civilian would hand the soldier a grenade and run. How did the American soldiers know whom to trust? They did not-especially when people trying to kill them were Vietnamese women and children. I came across a young gook boy. I gave him a buck to buy a pack of smokes, then he handed me a grenade instead. I threw that *censored*er away, and thank Jesus, it didnt explode when it did. My life flashed before me, stated Keith Martin-a former Vietnam veteran interviewed in Joseph A. Amters Vietnam Verdict: A Citizens History (247).
The inability to know who was the true enemy and who wasnt greatly frustrated the American soldiers. Many could not trust any of the Vietnamese since even regular civilains attacked them. Skepticism of everyone in a strange land leads to insecurity, which could well be considered a contributing factor to American soldiers committing violent acts of brutality against Vietnamese civilians. The feeling that the enemy was everywhere and unawareness of the enemys identity created emotional pressures that built to a point of trivial provocation that made men explode with the blind destructiveness of a mortar shell, states Caputo(155).
Finally, the US government itself was at fault for soldiers committing random acts of brutality and violence against Vietnamese civilians, such as the My Lai massacre. Terriotrial conquest was less essential to American victory. Body count was the more preferable objective. It was more important to kill as many Vietnamese as possible as the means of winning the war. Killing as many Vietnamese as possible was punctuation on American victory. The government felt that not only was it necessary for America to claim victory in Vietnam, but to claim victory by a large margin. This would show the rest of the communist world who was in charge and that capitalism would reign supreme if we wanted to live in a harmonious global society. Instead of helping the Vietnamese stray from communism as originally intended, we attempted to use them as an example of what would happen to the rest of the communist world if they defied the United States. Naturally, the US knows whats best for the rest of the world.
During the draft, many young men were recruited to boot camps and military training in order to prepare them for the war. In many US military training camps, drill sergeants and other heads of command stressed to hate the Vietnamese at all costs, for they were the enemy and enemies deserve no mercy. According to Caputo, this led to counting civilians as Viet Cong. If its dead and Vietnamese, its VC. As a result, some men acquired a contempt for human life and a predilection for taking it, (156).
Commiting violent acts against Vietnamese civilians was wrong, but how so are the American soldiers responsible if their government was telling them that all Vietnamese are the enemy? Its just a matter of following orders, no? Infact, many followed orders under Lt. William Calley, who led the My Lai massacre. Some soldiers worried what would happen if they defied the orders of authority and were pressured into partaking in the massacre. Others considered the consequence of humiliation among fellow soldiers; being labeled as cowardly or communist, as some soldiers overshadowding the deed of killing innocent civilians. These can not be sole reasons, but rather a contributing ones. FromSanford Wexler, Roger H. Hull and John C. Novogrods Law and Vietnam, according to CM 374314, Floyd, 18 CMR 362, 366 (1955), (Pet. den.), it is stated that in addition to controlling and supervising his subordinates, an Army officer, due to his superior rank and senior position, must conduct himself in an exemplary manner (17). It is the responsibility of a company commander to control and supervise his subordinates during combat operations. It is also the responsibility of the US government to make sure that the properly qualified and mentally stable leaders are instilled within the proper rankings of military authority.
In conclusion, many soldiers who committed unspeakable acts of brutality against the people of Vietnam are not responsible for their actions and were heavily influenced to do so against their conscience and will. All these factors contributed to the irrational mind sets of the soldiers who committed such hianeous and atrociously violent crimes against the civilians of Vietnam. However, we did not experience the same events, so therefore we may not relate or understand the lives of the veterans of the Vietnam War. But at least we have an idea of how Vietnam affected them. Who knows what Vietnam may have done to any of us?