The Challenge of Staying Human

Listening to a recent episode of the excellent Behind The Bastards podcast by Robert Evans, How Nice, Normal People Made the Holocaust Possible, I was struck again by how many regular, decent people merely go along to get along, try to keep their heads down, not make waves, get what they can from an unfair world. Yes, we reason, it’s bad to (insert the worst thing you can think of here) and we don’t support that, of course, but on the other hand (insert other hand here). Take rapper and actor “Fitty Cent”, he doesn’t condone the overt racism and divisiveness of President Trump, but he got a very generous tax break from the man, got to keep a bundle of his own money, so how can he say the man is all bad?

Nobody likes to admit that the party they support, the community they feel part of, does terrible things. We all consider ourselves good people who want the best for ourselves and our loved ones, the best for everyone. We are masters at justifying our actions, even hard to defend things we may do are done for the greater good. Robert Evans, a man fascinated by the lives of powerful bastards, gleefully mocks their justifications for being a piece of shit in every episode. The one I heard the other day focuses on the “little Nazis” who made Hiterlism possible, the millions of small, humble citizens, with no particular strong beliefs or philosophy, who supported the Nazi movement because, even if Mr. H’s rhetoric about the need to cleanse the world of Jews, Communists, Roma, etc. was a bit over the top, he was undeniably making Germany great again.

I woke up full of regret today, with the news of extremist Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination being voted out of committee in preparation for putting her in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recently vacated seat in time to rule on the legitimacy of the 2020 election, that I didn’t dedicate my life to investigative journalism, human rights advocacy, environmental activism, that I didn’t find a meaningful way to join with others of like mind, to step meaningfully into the fight against the destructive forces I hate. Fighting bullies in my own life, and working to become less angry and violent, were small, all-consuming battles that distracted me from the larger war going around all around me. I won’t dwell on any of that now, just put this out there today.

I heard someone recently cite the murder conviction and sentence of Lieutenant William Calley, for the killing of twenty-two Vietnamese civilians (among hundreds he and his men murdered that day), as an instance of American justice. For his war crime, the slaughter of an entire village of unarmed men, women and children, the American justice system sentenced him to life in prison [1]. With Nixon’s help, Calley was free after three years of house arrest.

When I was teaching elementary school a lifetime ago, I heard an inspirational educator tell this story at a teachers’ conference:

A young boy is walking down the beach at low tide. There are thousands of starfish washed up on the beach, slowly drying out, as far as the eye can see. The boy is picking up starfish and flinging them back into the ocean. A man shakes his head and says “you think you can save all these starfish? What difference does it make if you throw a few back?” The boy picks up another starfish, says “it makes a big difference to this guy” and tosses it back into the ocean.

This was a moral lesson to teachers, depressed about the impossibility of helping most of the students in their overcrowded, underfunded classrooms, reminding us that our efforts were not wasted. The Talmud states that saving one life is like saving the entire world, we can only do what we can do, our responsibility is to do the best we can for those we encounter. Our duty is to fight for good no matter how terrible the odds for success may be.

The Lieutenant Calley morality tale is kind of the starfish story in reverse. The rare case of temporary justice for a mass killer in uniform who orders his men to kill women and children and being put away for life — followed by the typical injustice of a politician freeing him to score political points with that good, decent Silent Majority who don’t think the murder of some anonymous gooks in some far off godforsaken hellhole means that a decent American boy’s life has to be destroyed [2].

We see, daily, that the president we have now is prepared to do far more dastardly things than even Mr. Nixon, to stay in power. To pluck one example by a starfish leg, he pardoned a Navy officer whose men turned him in for, among other things, torturing and killing a captive Iraqi teenager then posing for a photo with the corpse.

The massacre at My Lai, a war crime by any definition of the term, was at first covered up by the military. It only came to light because a helicopter pilot named Hugh Thompson and his crew, gunner Lawrence Colburn, and crew chief Glenn Andreotta, (who landed to stop the killings, risking their own lives) and a few dogged soldiers who could not unsee the horror they’d witnessed that day, including Army photographer Ronald Haeberle pushed ahead. Their cause was assisted by journalists, including Seymour Hirsch, who pressed to make the story public The scope and brutality of the atrocity was undeniable, it had been documented in real time in the photographs of GI war photographer Ronald Haeberle.

Vietnam veterans report that the massacre was one of many, perhaps hundreds, that took place during that misguided, un-winnable, depraved war. The slaughter at My Lai would have to stand in for all of them. In the fog of war, all kinds of nightmares play out all the time, that’s why they say “war is hell”. In more recent times, we’ve had a military whistle-blower tried as a spy and sentenced to a long prison term for disobeying orders to keep secret video of an American helicopter crew receiving permission to massacre civilians in Iraq. NOTHING TO SEE HERE.

Just two Ronald Haeberle photos [4], then, and another weak-ass reminder to get out to vote.

As my father, overwhelmed by his young son being so upset to learn about the murder of his own family back in Eastern Europe not many years earlier (in a manner quite similar to the slaughter in My Lai, actually), angrily said: THOSE PEOPLE WERE ABSTRACTIONS, NOBODY KNEW THEM, WE DON’T EVEN KNOW ANY OF THEIR NAMES!

A group of abstractions in My Lai, March 16, 1968, waiting to be killed:

A few moments later:


William Laws Calley Jr. is an American war criminal and a former United States Army officer convicted by court-martial for the premeditated killings of 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the Mỹ Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War. Wikipedia

[2] the reporter who got to know Calley during the trial writes:

There was nothing about Rusty Calley, as he was called, that would make you say that he was an explosion waiting to happen. He didn’t have killer instincts. He didn’t love guns. None of that was the case. He was a young guy from South Florida who loved being around people and going to parties. He was fun to be around. He was not the kind of guy who should be commanding other men in warfare, in my view. But he was probably not the only one out there like that, either.


[3] These photos, by soldier/war photographer Ron Haeberle, and the following, are from an article published in Time Magazine on the fiftieth anniversary of this notorious American war crime:

It was 50 years ago — on March 16, 1968 — that a group of American troops killed hundreds of civilians at the hamlet of My Lai, in what would become one of the most infamous atrocities of the Vietnam War. Months passed before the news of that event began to spread, and it would be years before anyone involved would face possible punishment. Though several of the men involved faced courts-martial, only one—1st Lieut. William Laws Calley Jr.—was ever convicted. He was found guilty in 1971 of murder and sentenced to life. (President Nixon changed Calley’s sentence to house arrest, and he served about three years. He apologized in 2009.)


Only 41 years between the mass murder and the apology, but he DID apologize! Here’s the motherfucker’s actual apology:

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus on Wednesday. His voice started to break when he added, “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”


Note the killer’s repeated use of the passive voice to distance himself from his own deliberate, atrocious actions “what happened that day in My Lai” and “Vietnamese who were killed” and “the American soldiers involved”. He did the best he could to express how sorry he was, as shown by his voice starting to break, but, seriously– fuck him.

Then have done to him what happened that day in My Lai, have him tortured him a bit, scalped, shot, once or twice in each hand and foot, a couple of times in each leg, and left in a ditch, with a sobbing infant clinging to him as he bleeds out.

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