‘Belambai’ is Afghanistan’s ‘My Lai’

The US loves to fight wars against monsters – which is how it comes to do monstrous things, writes Paul Rosenberg.

Both Vietnam and Afghanistan were lost wars from the very beginning, critics say [GALLO/GETTY]

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you  – Friedrich Nietzsche

San Pedro, CA – I immediately thought of the My Lai Massacre when I heard the news of a US Army sergeant who murdered at least 16 civilians, including nine children and three women, burning most of their bodies after murdering them, in their homes near Belambai in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

As with My Lai – where 504 unarmed civilians were murdered on March 16, 1968 – it was a single bloody incident that seemed to epitomise the entire misbegotten war.  Whatever illusions or delusions might have been harboured early on, had by then either faded or been violently stripped away. The massacre of innocents came as no real surprise, however much some might still pretend to be shocked or surprised.

Also like My Lai, Belambai is clearly a massacre after the war has already been lost, but before the generals and politicians are prepared to admit it.

To be honest, both Vietnam and Afghanistan were lost wars from the very beginning, as futile as they were immoral, begun by men abysmally ignorant of history, culture and geography, who might just as well have waged a war against the sky.

Fantasies and lies

What keeps the blood flowing, what ensures the horrific murders of women and children, all manner of innocents, is the enduring resilience of denial and its expression in all manner of wild-eyed fantasies and lies. 

The massacres are born, in part, of military despair, and yet after the fact, the exact opposite has been and will be reasserted – that “we” were on the verge of winning, if only… This was the lie the Germans were told, when they lost World War I – Germany didn’t lose, it was stabbed in the back by traitorous liberal and Jewish elites… the very same lie that gave birth to World War II.

Video: Mai Lai atrocity ‘fading’

The flip side is the myth of unvarnished military valour, something no flesh-and-blood human can ever live up to. And from that myth, sprang one of the greatest lies that flourished in the aftermath of My Lai: that it represented some sort of aberration, the same thing now being said about the Belambai massacre. 

This was expressed simultaneously with the exact opposite idea – that somehow all Americans were responsible for My Lai, even those who ceaselessly opposed the war. This idea – of citizen responsibility – had been routinely denied when it supported the logic of citizen’s anti-war protests, but when it served to excuse and shut down any discussion of the greatest single atrocity of the war, suddenly it was on all the war-defenders’ lips.

In response to this denial, a group of anti-war veterans – Vietnam Veterans Against the War – convened the three-day Winter Soldier Investigation in which they testified about atrocities that they had seen with their own eyes – or even participated in.

This was followed by a five-day demonstration in Washington DC, known as Operation Dewey Canyon III. During this, a young lieutenant named John Kerry testified to Congress about the collective horror these men had seen and responded to. 

This testimony was so upsetting to conservatives – particularly those who could not wait to start waging war again – that it gave birth to all manner of retaliatory lies: that those who testified were not real veterans, that there had never been any such war crimes, that those who testified were heinous traitors for besmirching the good names of patriotic warriors, and even, eventually, that Kerry himself had not been a war hero in his own right, but an elaborate trickster who somehow fooled the Navy into decorating him.

Historical truth

And yet, the historical truth is unmistakable, first that the Vietnam War was awash with war crimes on all sides, second, that hundreds of thousands of GIs turned against the war, first the ground troops, then, eventually even Air Force captains, who refused to fly bombing runs they knew to be illegal under international law.

You might not believe me when I tell you this, so consider a June 7, 1971 article from the Armed Forces Journal, “The Collapse of the Armed Forces” by Col Robert D Heinl. Heinl is by no means a fan of what he reports on, he sees it flatly as sedition.

Soldier accused of killing Afghan civilians named

But there’s no mistaking the extent of anti-war activity within the US military that he reports on, including “144 underground newspapers”, “at least 14 GI dissent organisations (including two made up exclusively of officers)”, “three well-established lawyer groups”, “at least 11 [perhaps as many as 26]… off-base anti-war ‘coffee houses'” and “a community of turbulent priests and clergymen, some unfrocked, [that] calls itself the Order of Maximilian”.

The history of the GI anti-Vietnam War movement has been erased from public memory – just one more lie (a lie of omission) among so many.

Also forgotten is that there was real heroism amidst the horror of My Lai. A helicopter pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr, and his team intervened directly and saved dozens of lives, even drawing their weapons to protect the innocent civilians they were saving.  

Because so much of this real history – epitomised by My Lai – has been forgotten, the US today is blindly repeating it. When Kerry ran for President in 2004, he tried to discretely downplay his anti-war role, which only made his enemies all the more intent to slander him.

Obama, in turn, cannot bring himself to say anything negative about the military. But the military he inherited was profoundly broken, filled with hundreds of thousands of broken men and women. What is broken can be fixed – but not without acknowledging that it is broken and not without seeking out the source of its brokeness, which would mean confronting a whole ocean of lies. That would take real courage, the sort Hugh Thompson displayed at My Lai, the sort Obama sorely lacks, the sort the US desperately needs if it is ever to find its way again.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg