The issue at Pinkville

Whatever the incident at My Lai might have been, there is more to it than simply the question of whether it happened, and if it did who was responsible, and how many were killed as a result. More, even, than the Vietnam war itself; the massacre has caused the very concept of war—its motives, its morality, its justifications—to be questioned.

This is not the first time such questioning has happened, as anyone who knows about the murder of Dresden is aware. But at least it is hopeful, that the questioning takes place; if the Pinkvilles of capitalism were let pass without anyone trying to find the reasons why, the outlook for human society would be dark indeed.

The massacre is yet to be judicially proven but meanwhile the advance trial which is taking place in the newspapers, radio and television has allowed ample statement of both sides’ cases. The prosecution say that the killings were wholly unjustified, that if the men who are alleged to have actually fired the shots did so under orders, they should have disobeyed. This side says that soldiers should always show a proper restraint when they are in action, sparing as far as they can any wounded, or civilians, or prisoners they come across. These arguments are powered by strong emotions. It is difficult to imagine how even the most debauched war lover could justify what is said to have happened at Pinkville, and in the other incidents in Vietnam like the rape and murder of a young Vietnamese girl by an American patrol on Hill 192, in the same way as it was difficult to imagine any justification for Lidice.

The defence, which is by no means weak, disputes the story of a cold-blooded mass killing but perhaps betrays its own lack of confidence by pointing out that the fighting conditions in Vietnam are especially stressful, with the Americans having little quick means of distinguishing Vietcong soldiers from non-combatants. (A similar argument was used to excuse British soldiers’ trigger-happiness in Ireland about fifty years ago). Then the defence cites the provocation suffered by the platoon— the loss of a popular member in a booby trap, the sniper fire which greeted their approach to My Lai. Finally, there are the atrocities and murders by the Vietcong which, even when they have been sifted through all the usual modifying allowances, have clearly been ferocious.

In truth supporters of the war, whichever side they are on, fall in behind prosecution or defence according to their own allegiances. That is why, over Pinkville, it is the Vietcong supporters who are raging about the morality of war while the hawks in America try to avoid the issue. When the Vietcong atrocities are under the searchlight, the positions are reversed.

To make any sense in this confusion, it is necessary to recognise that there is a morality of war—a morality which quite simply justifies everything. A socially organised effort to kill and destroy cannot be gentle or humane. Once war is accepted then it follows that a Dresden, a Hiroshima, a Lidice, a Pinkville must also be accepted. Modern war has no non-combatants; the morale and well-being of the civilian population are as legitimate as targets as any military installation. Battle is a terrifying experience, in which human beings—those nice, clean-cut boys next door — are required to act like wild beasts. There can be no frontiers beyond which they are expected instead to act like sane, humane people.

Of more importance is the fact that support for war cannot be separated from support for capitalism. In a social system which has a basic affiliation to dispute, violence cannot be avoided. War, then, cannot be separated for whatever cause. Capitalism is a society of violence and the guilt for whatever happened at Pinkville extend a long, long way beyond a few soldiers.