How Can Professed Christians Defend Wartime Atrocities?

50 years ago today, on March 16,1968, a company of green, battle-untested US Army combat soldiers from the Americal Division, swept into the un-defended Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, rounded up the 500+ unarmed women, children, babies and old men, and efficiently executed almost all of them in cold blood, Nazi-style. No weapons or Viet Cong soldiers were found in the village. The entire killing operation took only 4 hours.


Although there was a prolonged attempt to cover-up the operation (which involved a young up-and-coming US Army Major named Colin Powell), those who participated in the massacre did not deny the details of the slaughter when the case came to trial two years later. Despite the cover-up, the story did eventually filter back to the Western news media, thanks to a some courageous military eye-witnesses whose consciences were still intact. An Army court-marital trial eventually convened against a handful of the soldiers, including Lt. William Calley and Company C commanding officer, Ernest Medina.


According to many of the soldiers, Medina had ordered the killing of “every living thing in My Lai”, which was interpreted, of course, to mean all the civilians as well as their farm animals. Calley was charged with the murder of 109 civilians. And convicted of murdering 20. In his defense statement he stated that he had been taught to hate all Vietnamese, even children, who, he had been told, “were very good at planting mines”.


The end-result of the My Lai raid, which was part of a larger mission called Task Force Barker, had been recorded by military photographers, and eventually the Army had to abandon its cover-up. The military tribunals were conducted in censored military courts with juries of Army officers who had no legal credentials to try war crimes, which is still standard operating procedure in the US Army.


All the charges against the soldiers involved were dropped, except for Calley’s murder charges. Medina and all the other shooters of the 500 dead Vietnamese went free. Out of the initial 109 murder charges, Calley was convicted of the murders of “at least 20 civilians”, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his crime. However, under pressure from thousands of very vocal, very patriotic, and very pro-war Americans, President Nixon pardoned him within weeks of the verdict.


By the time of the trial, many thoughtful and ethical Americans, including many soldiers and veterans, were sick and tired of the war and the killing. And after everything that had happened since 1968, it was clear to thoughtful people that the psychological and physical costs to the returning wounded soldiers were unacceptable. The Calley trial provoked a lot of interest because it occurred at the same time that the antiwar movements around the world were ramping up. The Vietnam War was becoming widely acknowledged as an “overwhelming atrocity”.


At the time of the trial, 79% of Americans, according to one poll, objected to Calley’s conviction. Some veteran’s groups even voiced the opinion that instead of condemnation, Calley should have received the Congressional Medal of Honor “for killing commie gooks”.


Just like the Jewish Holocaust during World War II or the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the realities of the My Lai Massacre deserve to be revisited so that perhaps none of those atrocities will never happen again. The Vietnam War was an excruciating time for both conscientious civilians, soldiers and veterans because of the numerous moral issues surrounding the mass slaughter of millions of civilians in a war that also physically killed 58,000 American soldiers, physically wounded hundreds of thousands more, spiritually wounded millions and psychologically traumatized uncountable millions of others - on both sides of the conflict.


Of course, the Vietnam War was much worse for the farm families of that doomed land than it was for the American soldiers who could at least go home to intact homes, jobs and infrastructure. Over the previous century, the Vietnamese people had been victimized repeatedly by invading and occupying armies. Brutal, trigger-happy, frightened, racist, adolescent soldiers from foreign lands such as China, France, Japan, and then France again before America foolishly stepped into the quagmire. All the soldiers were taught that the “little yellow people” of Vietnam were somehow sub-humans who deserved to be killed - with some of the soldiers soldiers preferring to inflict torture or rape before doing the killing.


“Shoot first and ask questions later” is, all-too often, standard operating procedure for frightened, well-armed combat units, and it is that fear that motivates the willingness to kill of every soldier, of every era, of every political persuasion, especially in jungle warfare.


<<<Multiple My Lai-type Massacres>>>


Many Vietnam veterans that I have talked to or read about have said that there were scores, maybe hundreds, of smaller My Lai-type massacres in that futile war that were never written about in the mainstream press. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon refused to acknowledge that reality. Execution-style killings and torturing by American soldiers, Marines and Special Ops units were not uncommon in that war, nor has it been uncommon in America’s current wars all around the globe.


In Vietnam, many combat units “took no prisoners” which is a euphemism for murdering captives, rather than having to follow the nuisance Geneva Conventions which require humane treatment for prisoners of war. The only unusual thing about the My Lai Massacre was that it was found out, despite the above-noted cover-up attempts by the Pentagon.


There is something about a cover-up and the web of lies necessary to sustain it that proves the cowardice of the orchestrators of the cover-up. Truly honorable soldiers that have taken seriously their oath of allegiance to the US Constitution, will, instead of lying, admit their guilt and submit themselves to the appropriate punishment. Avoiding just punishment by cheating, lying or hiding is what cowards do. Admitting one’s guilt and “taking your punishment” is the honorable, manly thing to do.


Very few soldiers ever get punished for the all-too-frequent war crimes that they commonly commit – and get away with - in the dense “fog of war”. Those in charge of giving the orders to kill always rationalize the raping and pillaging, killing and torturing of innocent civilians as having been necessary “to save lives”. The euphemism used for the killing of civilians is “collateral damage”. Another phrase that is another euphemism for collateral damage is ”stuff happens” which was made popular by the lamentable Chicken Hawk (who received 5 deferments during the Vietnam War, the one-time US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and eventually Vice President of the United States.


Water-boarding, the infamous torture technique that we know is an international war crime, but, nonetheless, it was aggressively used in Viet Nam. The “stuff that happened” to the suspects that were indiscriminately imprisoned and falsely charged at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay is nothing new in the history of American wars.


<<<How can the Followers of the Nonviolent Jesus be Willing to Kill “the Least of These my Brothers”?>>>


Those who plan wars, profit from them, and send their unaware sons or daughters into war and yet profess to be followers of the nonviolent Jesus, have huge ethical problems that seem to be totally ignored. Professed Christians who are willing to kill combatants but know the great risks of also killing non-combatants have to studiously ignore the stated ethics of their Jesus that are so clearly outlined in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6 and 7 and Luke 6) and in Matthew 25:31-46.


Professed Christians who are also war supporters have to explicitly reject what their religion’s namesake repeatedly taught about the issue of homicidal violence. Jesus taught, in so many words, that “violence is forbidden for those who wish to follow me”. And of course, what is equally blasphemous for Christian killers in wartime is the fact that pro-war Christians also have to reject Jesus’ Golden Rule command to “do onto others as you would have them do unto you”.


The moral conflicts felt by Christians who try to both follow Jesus’ ethical teachings while simultaneously engaging in acts of cruelty and homicide against fellow children of a loving god must be enormous, indeed, impossible to do without tremendous cognitive dissonance. It is impossible to be willing to kill upon command while also following the command to be merciful and hospitable to the stranger, the hungry, the naked, the captive, the enemy and any person that is in need of mercy and understanding.


The follower must choose between two irreconcilable realities – homicidal violence or nonviolence.


Full understanding of the gruesome realities of war (and the inevitability of the resultant physical, spiritual, psychological and economic consequences for both the perpetrators and the victims of violence) usually doesn’t happen before the unaware soldier enlists and is trapped in the killing machine with few options of escaping. Church leaders have to accept responsibility for that reality. If civilians ever truly experienced the horrors of combat war before enlisting, the abolition of war would become a priority.


If grown-up, clear-headed Americans could simply comprehend the immorality of the nation having wasted trillions of dollars on war and war preparations over the 50 years since My Lai while hundreds of millions of people were starving and being made homeless, they would refuse to cooperate with the things that make for war. If that totally rational notion will never become reality because world peace is not good for war-profiting corporations, their banks or the uber-wealthy investors that make money in the many war industries.


There are many lobbying groups for the many “merchants of death” that are fearful about the prospect of world peace. Those lobbying groups will always try to glorify America’s wars while simultaneously hiding the gruesome realities of war from our eyes in order to make the average voter unaware of the lethality and deviousness of our military machine.


These well-paid pro-war propagandists in every manor political party try to convince the soon-to-be-childless mothers of doomed, dead or dying child-soldiers that their loved one had died fighting for God, Country and Honor instead of for profit-making corporations and their unquenchable selfish desire to control the world’s oil, gas, water, minerals, opium, cocaine, lithium, etc and the building of more permanent US military bases around the world.


Let’s face it, the US’s standing army system that is continually training, engaging in war games and seemingly itching for another war, has been bankrupting America at the rate of 500 to 700 billion dollars a year, even in times of so-called “peace.” The cost of maintaining one soldier in a war zone for one year is $1,000,000! The warmongering spirit of the Pentagon (not to mention the White House and the Congress) is alive and well, particularly in those who had wanted to “nuke the gooks” in Viet Nam.


Un-elected policy-makers of the ChickenHawk persuasion (politicians or policy-makers who never served in the military but who still loved to play war games) are still in charge of US foreign policy today, and they have been consolidating their power with the huge profits made off the blood, guts and permanent disabilities of those hood-winked soldiers who were deceived into believing that they were ”making the world safe for democracy” when in fact they were making the world safe for predatory capitalism and obscene profits for the few. And the politicians, most of whom are well-paid lapdogs for their war profiteering campaign “contributors”, don’t want the gravy train to be derailed either.


It is obvious that things haven’t really changed much from My Lai when one witnesses the political mentality that allowed the massive numbers of deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians in the aftermath of Gulf War I or the millions of civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq in Gulf War II or what is happening in Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Kurdistan, Congo, etc, etc.


It is obvious that our military and political leaders haven’t really learned much since My Lai. And neither have the so-called Christian churches that are quite comfortable just existing in our highly militarized, flag-waving nation that refuses to either teach about of follow their nonviolent Jesus.


And as long as America’s professed Christian leaders and their followers refuse to renounce war and violence (as their Jesus surely would have had them do), humanity will be condemned to engage in future My Lai massacres and the victims will have to endure the poverty, pain, pestilence, starvation and homelessness that inevitably follows, the perpetrators will have to continue to endure the spiritual deadness, the psychological trauma and the physical pain and the planet will become increasingly unlivable and increasingly unendurable.


What has happened to all tyrannical militarized nations and empires throughout history will inevitably happen to the highly militarized United States that cannot afford to finance both its bloated military and fulfill the needs of its people simultaneously. There will be serious blow-back consequences for the perpetrators of the great evil that our tyrannical empire-builders have perpetrated upon the earth.


International war crimes such as My Lai, Nagasaki, Fallujah and Abu Ghraib will somehow be avenged, but our current leaders, both political and religious, seem incapable of comprehending that and then doing the ethical thing.



Dr Kohls is a retired physician from Duluth, MN, USA. He writes a weekly column for the Duluth Reader, the area’s alternative newsweekly magazine. His columns deal with the dangers of American fascism, corporatism, militarism, racism, malnutrition, Big Pharma’s psychiatric drugging and over-vaccination regimens, and other movements that threaten the environment, prosperity, democracy, civility and the health and longevity of the planet and the populace. Many of his columns are archived at;; or at