Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Revising My Lai

For the folks who follow my twitter feed, it's no secret that I'm finding writing my dissertation a far greater challenge than I imagined. This experience puts me in awe of the two most prolific historians I know - Howard Jones and James Olson. That they can crank out high-quality scholarship at a quick pace while shouldering a normal teaching load is simply amazing. Since this is my second career, it won't be near as long as theirs, so I can't pretend to reach their output. In fact, I'm hoping to achieve just ten or fifteen percent of their book totals - two or three books will be enough for me, and I don't dare hope to write anything nearly as popular as Amistad.

Writing is now a chore. Getting the initial ideas on paper was not the hard part. The problem is definitely revising this mess into something coherent in which the evidence I have fits a logical argument that adds something to our understanding of the Vietnam War, veterans, and the domestic struggle over how we fought the war. When I step back from the actual writing and revision, it is clear that the problem is largely that I had one conception of what my dissertation would be about, but have had to change directions two or three times. My initial focus was on the atrocities themselves and the menalite of the soldiers who committed them. That changed after reading Nick Turse's dissertation, which is now the book Kill Anything that Moves. There was little need for me to add another three hundred or so pages on top of his 1,000 page tome.

Still fascinated with Vietnam and with the topic of atrocities, I next turned to the soldiers who did not commit atrocities. This made a lot of sense given that Turse gives the impression that the soldiers who didn't commit atrocities were a tiny minority. He didn't actually write that, but the tone of his dissertation (I haven't yet had time to read his book) and his very broad definition of atrocity makes it feel that way. It turns out that the evidence just doesn't support the idea that most soldiers in Vietnam committed atrocities. Indeed, at My Lai less than twenty members of Charlie Company raped or killed noncombatants (that number leaves out the men who shot livestock, burned huts, or destroyed wells). That leaves a much broader group of people who passively or actively avoided participating in atrocities, the ones who saw things and never reported them, and even the folks who variously intervened, protested, or reported the war crimes they saw.

I'm sure that everyone reading this (few though you are) can see a huge problem for figuring out why these non-participants did not commit atrocities. How do you prove a negative? What evidence is there for what they were thinking? How do you find any evidence that exists? It took me six months of fruitless writing to figure out that it's almost impossible because most of it is not preserved in archives in a way that is easy to ferret out. That's especially true when you look at the evidence I've gathered: oral histories, courts-martial documents, CID investigations, letters, newspaper articles, congressional (and other) testimony. Most of the evidence I have relates more to why the people who got caught up in some events didn't join in, why they reported it, why they wrote to members of Congress, why they contacted the media, and why they joined the antiwar movement, and who those things relate to atrocities. How do you develop an analytical framework for that, and what does it have to do with My Lai?

So here's what I came up with: dates and methods of reporting are important, as is how those things relate to when My Lai became public. Despite the common perception, the U.S. media largely avoided reporting about American atrocities in My Lai until after it became public in November 1969. The exceptions are few, but vivid - Morley Safer reporting the burning of Cam Ne in 1965 and the Green Beret case that became public right before My Lai did. There's a four-year gap between those events. The big change was the high number of American casualties and the change in American reporting of the war after the Tet Offensive in February and March of 1968. It turns out how soldiers and veterans reported atrocities (if they did) relates to that pattern. Before November 1969 (and definitely before February 1968) soldiers who reported atrocities generally did so within the normal chain of command. After that, their reporting of atrocities seems to follow their levels of disenchantment. Guys who still believed in the war or the military hierarchy, reported war crimes through the chain of command. Those who didn't want the Army damaged by their reports, but didn't believe in their chain of command sought out Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor, or Chaiman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff William Westmorland. If they were a little more disenchanted they contacted their members of Congress. Soldiers and veterans who still believed in the American system, but not the Army or the government tended to report war crimes to the media. The really disenchanted soldiers, who had lost faith in the whole system and wanted to mobilize the public joined the antiwar movement - they joined VVAW or worked with CCI.

It all hinges around a kind of triad of issues - Tet, My Lai, and Vietnamization. That's what I'm trying to fix this My Lai chapter to deal with, and keep getting stuck on providing interesting, but unnecessary details about the massacre itself. I think I may just have to scrap what I have a rewrite it from scratch because the editing process just isn't producing results.

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