MORAL INDIGNATION over the "Song My Massacre" has welled up all across the country. Few scandals have served so many purposes for so many people. It provided Time and Newsweek with striking covers last week; it has sold record numbers of newspapers. Politicians are quietly incorporating it into their arsenals of non-alienating polemic.
The scandal has been expansive enough to leave room for all kinds of crusades. Senator Thomas Dodd even smuggled in a swipe at the Demon Weed. Must be that Vietnam marijuana, he sagely reasoned, that turned American soldiers, traditionally "well-mannered, loyal, kind to a fault," into maniacs. "Heaven knows," he went on, "we've seen the violence wrought by marijuana here at home." If you've seen photos of Lt. William R. Calley, awaiting trial for the murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians, you can picture the type of salivating addict that Dodd is talking about.
But we must avoid digressing into Dodd's Dope Determinist Theory of History. The more important point is that the Song My massacre provided a little something in the way of self-affirmation for everyone. It is proving that a 90 per cent consensus of the American people can still be mustered on a clear-cut political issue. I. c., the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of women, children, and old people is dishonorable. Even if they are Orientals. One is reminded of Pat Paulsen's presidential campaign.
THIS MEANINGLESS consensus, however, is not as harmless as it looks. It has, in fact, the potential to undercut anti-war sentiment in two significant ways. It vindicates and humanizes supporters of the administration: See, they say with a complacent shrug, we're not so bad. We, too, oppose barbarism.
But beyond that, striking closer to home, is the tendency of this flood of moral outrage to legitimize the U. S. presence in Vietnam. For as soon as we focus our concern on how the war is being fought, we implicitly concede that it should be fought. Without this concession, indignation over the tactics of the war has no meaning.
And we are justified in classifying the Song My massacre as a "tactic" of the war. The press, by the very quantity of its coverage, implies that the incident is an unprecedented misfortune. Americans can rest assured, therefore, that the whole episode was unique, the work of a handful of deranged criminals who disgrace their uniforms.
But in fact this criminality is institutionalized in our war strategy. The guerrilla tactics of the NLF have prevented us from fighting a conventional war: we simply can't hold any territory long enough to "win" the countryside (the Hamburger Hill/Huc syndrome).
We have therefore chosen to deprive the guerrillas of their rural bases, to cut off their sources of food, ammunition, and sanctuary. These rural bases, it turns out. include most of the villages between the DMZ and the Mekong Delta. Since the inhabitants of these villages support the NLF-they continue to supply them and to withhold information from the Americans. at any rate-we come to the curious American tactic of "destroying a village in order to save it. "Those are the words of the Air Force colonel who supervised the destruction of Ben Thai (and the lives of most of its 12.000 inhabitants) in 1968.
So the tactic of mass annihilation (the military term is "depopulation") of women and children wasn't invented by William Calley or Ernest Medina or any of the other Song My protagonists. The killing of large numbers of noncombatants dates back to the advent of the bombing in 1965. At least two pilots in the Air Force and one in the Navy have admitted annihilating villages ("suspected VC hideouts") containing exclusively women and children. The only possible innovation that came out of Song My is methodological: napalm had been, up to then, the main weapon of depopulation.
It is no small temptation, as you can see, to be diverted by tactical questions of the war. The fact that the Song My incident is far from unique should intensify, rather than obscure, our condemnation of any American presence in Vietnam.
ONE ADDED feature of the Song My issue is the insight if offers on the way we as a nation evaluate human life. Our justification to kill a human being defending his own country apparently depends on his sex and age. We are outraged at the death of a child, it seems, to a degree proportional to the bigness and brownness of his eyes. It is evil to kill women and children, but not to widow and orphan them. We publicly empathize with them while we sanction the killing of those who would free them from foreign occupation.
As soon as a civilian gets a gun and joins a liberation unit, we call him a VC and try to kill him. But he is the same man he was before. So logically, the only reason to kill him (which we didn't want to do before he armed himself) would be self-defense, as he plans to shoot at us.
There is one way to avoid his shooting at us. It is not to murder his wife and children while he is away. It is to give him his country back.