Monday, January 23, 2017

Religion, Chivalry, and the American Experience in Vietnam

Despite the prevailing image of the modern American soldier as a dedicated professional bound by a code of behavior, the United States Army and Marine Corps continue to struggle with the reality of war crimes against civilians and combatants alike.  Explanations for the breakdowns in discipline war crimes represent focus on the dehumanization of the enemy, training to obey orders without question, frustration at the inability to engage the enemy in set-piece battles, and the desire for vengeance.  One factor missing from explanations for the continued occurrence of war crimes is that of religious difference between the perpetrators of war crimes and of their targets.  The issue of religion is multifaceted, having roles of self and group identification and as a belief system.  Both facets may play a significant role in the likelihood of individual soldiers’ involvement in war crimes against civilians.

Examining the responses of American paratroopers, William Cockerham and Lawrence Cohen argue that soldiers most committed to the military, soldiers who receive the most training designed to instill blind obedience, and soldiers from rural areas or the American South were most likely to obey an illegal order, even after Lt. William Calley’s conviction for failing to refuse the illegal orders of his commanding officer at My Lai.  Despite a high correlation of these factors and a soldiers’ willingness to obey an illegal order, Cockerham and Cohen acknowledge enough variance in attitude among the soldiers of the United States Army regarding illegal orders that there are obviously other factors involved.  Personal religious beliefs of the soldiers are an obvious variable missing from their study.[i]

Michael Bernhardt’s testimony before the Peers Commission regarding the My Lai Massacre provides additional insight into the social and behavioral sources of war crimes.  Bernhardt testified that the soldiers at My Lai viewed the Vietnamese as less than human due to cultural differences, and an inability to communicate.[ii]  Charlie Company’s soldiers learned these values through their experiences in Vietnam, through the tutelage of their commanding officer Ernst Medina, and through their preparatory training.  They were taught that the Vietnamese were less than human, culturally and biologically less valuable than Americans, one soldier reports, “throughout training they emphasized the animalness of the Vietnamese.  They were sub-human we were told.  We could do anything we wanted to them when we got there.”[iii]  The profoundly negative feeling found in these statements had far reaching effects, not only in terms of war crimes, but also in the ability to select soldiers or Marines for missions.  Bing West contends that when the Marine Corps created the first experimental Combined Action Platoon, which relied on close cooperation between Marines and local village militias, personnel selection was a problem.  General Lewis W. Walt insisted that the unit consists only of Marines who interacted well with Vietnamese, but surveys showed that at least forty percent of Marines actively disliked them.  The problem was particularly acute among junior officers and NCOs that led small units.[iv] 

When combined with Patricia Hill’s promotion of religion as an analytical tool for the cultural approach to diplomatic history at the state level this provides insight into how and why the analysis of the social and cultural bases for war crimes should include a systematic analysis of the religious views of private soldiers and their leaders.  If the missionary family origins of the leaders of the Cold War State Department influenced how they managed Cold War relations, religion might certainly exert an effect on the actions and perceptions of soldiers in combat.[v]

The work of social scientists into measuring religiosity and its affects on American attitudes and behaviors provide an entrĂ©e for evaluating it in the historical context.  James D. Davidson argues that different types of religious beliefs have a direct relationship to the individual’s conduct.  Religious belief fell into two categories, vertical belief which focuses on the transcendent aspects of belief and humanity’s place in that order, and horizontal belief which focuses on relationships with people.  Davidson found that individuals exhibiting a high level of vertical belief were most likely to derive comfort from their faith, while those exhibiting high levels of horizontal belief were most likely to become socially active due to religious belief.[vi]

The question, then, is what role does religion play in the likelihood soldiers will commit atrocities.  If religious variance plays a role is the primary motivating factor one of identification of civilians as “other” due to religious identification, or does religious belief itself provide the motivating factor?  Based on Michael Barnhardt’s testimony, it is reasonable to assume that group identification is the primary religious factor in creating the dehumanization necessary for soldiers to commit atrocities.  However, research into the complex relationship between religiosity and prejudice demonstrates a significantly more complex phenomenon at work.

The relationship between religiosity and prejudice, hence dehumanization of “enemy” civilians, is poorly understood.  Measuring religiosity is problematic.  How the variables “religiosity” and “prejudice” are defined and used in research instruments create wide-ranging variance in results, resulting in reports of positive relationships between religiosity and prejudice, negative relationships between religiosity and prejudice, or varied relationships between the two.[vii]  By using narrowly defined measures of both religiosity and prejudice and measuring each independently, Cygnar, Noel, and Jacobson, found that three standard measures of religiosity – orthodoxy, ritual, and knowledge – did not have a statistically significant relationship with indicators of prejudice.  However, two other standard measures of religiosity – fanaticism and importance – bore a significant relationship to expressions of prejudice.[viii]  It appears, then, that a definite relationship between religiosity and prejudice exists.  The relationship between these two factors is not definitive.  The variance between measures of religiosity and measures of prejudice clearly shows that individuals defined as religious are not a homogenous group.  Further, the manner in which measures are defined may influence the interpretation of results – religiosity follows the present theology, meaning that both the outward display of religion and the content of belief must be part of any analysis.[ix]

Ronald Palosari, who served in the infamous Americal Division from 1967 to 1968, reported atrocities performed by soldiers of that division based on the perceived religious beliefs of the enemy.  In an incident recounted during his testimony at the controversial Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971, Palosari claimed that members of the Civilian Independent Defense Group had cut an ear off a dead North Vietnamese Army soldier.  Their rationale was that of the commonly understood stereotype of trophy gathering, but because they believed “that according to Buddhism, unless your body is complete, you cannot go wherever it is that the Buddhists go to after they die.”[x]  The soldiers witnessing the grotesque task thought that it was humorous and manly to take part is the desecration of the enemy fallen.

The source of this anecdote raises serious concerns about the reliability and availability of information about the motives, especially religious motives, of the perpetrators of war crimes.  The controversy surrounding the Winter Soldier Investigation continues, as political opponents regularly argue that military authorities were unable to verify that the atrocities reported occurred, and that at least one organizer did not actually serve in Vietnam.  Winter Soldier detractors also argue that Senator John Kerry and other participants did not provide documentation of the crimes they witnessed or performed.[xi]

Sources for this research present other challenges.  Foremost among these is that information about participation and motivation for participation or reporting war crimes is usually self-reported.  This means relying on testimony potentially tainted by political motivations, such as that in the Winter Soldier Investigations, testimony before courts-martial or Congressional committee used to deflect or cast blame on others, or unwillingness to candidly discuss events for personal and professional reasons.  It is also possible that sources do not fully understand or remember their motivations in the heat of the moment.  Collections of letters from soldiers and Marines serving in Vietnam come under editorial pressure to present the conflict in a way that will not risk the displeasure of the primary market for such literature – veterans and their families.

Religious language does appear in these sources, however, providing a tantalizing glimpse of both religious identity and belief played a significant role for those serving in Vietnam.  Chief Warrant Officer Anthony De Angelis wrote to his wife that, “I’m sorry but I don’t know how it happened, but I lost the Saint Christopher medal you gave me; it must have come loose from the chain.  I feel real bad about it….”[xii] Similarly, Sergeant Charlie B. Dickey wrote to his wife in 1969 saying, “If the Lord decides He wants me with Him, I want you to know that I go into battle with a clear conscience and a very satisfied mind.”[xiii]  CS1 James C. Kline, a U.S. Navy Petty Officer, wrote to his seven year-old son to explain why he is fighting halfway around the world in specifically religious terms.  After asking him to faithfully keep the Ten Commandments, Kline writes,

“Jesus had a cross to bear and all of us over here have our cross to bear.  We may falter but must carry the load ourselves as Jesus did, but we can all on him anytime the load gets too heavy or we need help.  There are a lot of fathers here that are making their sacrifice so that their sons and you may have a free country to grow up in – to have the right to worship as you choose and to make yourself as you see fit.”[xiv]

Kline’s missive defines the war as both religious and ideological in nature, illustrating the role of religious belief in the motivations of some of the men serving in the conflict.  However, it does not provide insight into his behavior, or that of others, on the battlefield.

Enlisting in 1966, Barry Romo believed he was fighting to save Vietnamese Catholics from Communists, who he believed were the “new Nazis in the world.”[xv]  Joining the Marines allowed him to demonstrate his manhood, earn money for college, and fulfill his religious duty.  Marine Corps Sergeant Greg Moody similarly felt religious conviction in his experience of the war.  Writing back to his pastor, Dr. James L. Pleitz, Moody wrote:

“The Americans have taken for granted their wonderful freedom, which is a dream to the Vietnamese people here.  With God’s willingness and his protection, when I return home I will treasure my freedom I have been blessed with along with the Lord’s mercy and kindness he has bestowed upon our nation.”[xvi]

Moody also asked his pastor for assistance in understanding the Buddhist majority of Vietnam, referring to Jeremiah 20:2, discussing the ways of the heathen.  Moody’s belief is such that he not only turns to religion for solace, but also to explain the world.  Sergeant David L. Glading echoed Moody’s need for answers about Vietnam when he wrote to his girlfriend in 1969 wondering what the point of the war was, saying that he wonders “what God thinks about the whole situation.”  He is careful to state that he is not antiwar or a “longhair”, that he loves God and Country, but that it would be simpler, easier to have fought a world war to defend America.[xvii]
Soldiers involved in atrocities sometimes viewed the aftermath in explicitly religious terms.  When Paul Meadlo, a veteran of the My Lai Massacre, stepped on a landmine the following day, losing a foot, he believed that God was punishing him for My Lai.  After the incident, other soldiers heard Meadlo tell platoon leader Lieutenant William Calley that “God will punish you for what you made me do.”[xviii]  Long after the war veterans that participated in war crimes, as did W.D. Ehrhart, who killed an unarmed elderly woman fleeing from American soldiers and participated in a gang rape, wondered if his post-war tendency toward violence in personal relationships was a form of punishment, telling a friend:

“I think the stuff I did in Vietnam has left me-well, like something inside of me got broken and isn’t ever going to get better….If I believed in God, I’d think it was some kind of divine retribution for all the murder and mayhem.”[xix]

Other soldiers found that their experience in Vietnam drove them away from their faith.  When Joe Urgo returned from Vietnam on Christmas Eve in 1968, he immediately attended midnight mass with his family.  When the priest spoke only of divine grace, Urgo became angry that the suffering he ignored the real suffering in the world, and left the Church entirely.[xx]

Tying the historical concept of chivalry, and hence the fateful combination of honor, masculinity, and religion into the question of war crimes in Vietnam is challenging, but perhaps also the key to creating and understanding of any potential relationship between religion and war crimes in the conflict.  After the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, Georgia Senator Richard Russell contended, “Our national honor is at stake.  We cannot and will not shrink from defending it.”[xxi]  The problem with Vietnam and other conflicts with a large component of irregular warfare is that it cannot fulfill traditional Western understandings of honorable combat in which two equal forces face each other in decisive battle. 

Marine Corps General Robert E. Cushman, commander of I Corps in Vietnam complained that defensive fighting was not in the Marines’ makeup, arguing that  Marines digging in to defend were “like antichrists at Vespers”.  He contended that in the field where Army units would dig in, Marine units should not because training did not focus on constructing field works.  Instead, he believed Marines should focus more on the “fatal gesture” than mere survival.[xxii]  Marine leaders like Cushman fantasized about the glory of the frontal assault and the romance of “a line of determined men firing short bursts from the hip as they advanced on the enemy at a stately walk.”[xxiii]

The frustration being unable to come to grips with the enemy is the most frequent reason American soldiers gave for committing atrocities – the enemy did not play fair.  While the regular soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army fought in formation and with discipline, the more common opponent for American soldiers were the Viet Cong guerillas that used stealth, sniping, and booby traps.[xxiv]  The feeling that the main enemy was unknowable comes clearly from W.D. Ehrhart, whose poetry acts as a kind of catharsis.

It’s practically impossible
To tell civilians
From the Vietcong.

Nobody wears uniforms.
They all talk
The same language,
(and you couldn’t understand them
even if they didn’t.

They tape grenades
Inside their clothes,
And carry satchel charges
In their market baskets

Even their women fight;
And young boys,
And girls.

It’s practically impossible
To tell civilians
From the Vietcong;

After awhile.
You quit trying.[xxv]

Michael Barnhardt, who was a member of the infantry company responsible for the My Lai massacre, agreed with Ehrhart’s sentiment when he testified “There is a lot of frustration that is among the men over there, and these frustrations cannot be directed at those responsible for them, and so, they’re directed at what they can be directed at.  In other words, sort of making a whipping boy out of the South Vietnamese population.”[xxvi]   Some soldiers were also bewildered by the hatred and fear they saw in the eyes of the people they were there to protect.  When Bobby Muller arrived in South Vietnam, he thought of himself as “a hero and a liberator.”  He surprised by the civilian reaction to American soldiers, that his units was harassed everywhere it went, and by the lack of fighting spirit in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, where the enemy was implacable.[xxvii]  With these issues in mind, Western concepts of Chivalry may be exactly the analytical tool required to assess any potential correlation between religion and war crimes in Vietnam.

An apparent connection between Late Medieval chivalric notions of service in war and combat emerges in how World War II veterans, who fought a great Crusade against dictators and tyrants, portrayed war to their children.  Many taught sons that going to fight in Vietnam was their opportunity to become a man, to participate in an epic battle against evil.  Rather than merely an individual issue, these men turned participating in Vietnam a matter of “duty, obligation, and honor” that made going to war “a matter of moral debt.”[xxviii]  Even in individuals not professing strong religious beliefs, these ideals bear a religious overtone that mirrors that of an earlier age.

Not only were chivalric knights required to fight in the proper, honorable manner, against opponents of equal social rank and skill, but also they included a specifically religious code of conduct in their belief system.  The brotherly equality of equals was as embedded in the chivalric code, as it is in American culture, which soldiers in Vietnam would carry with them.[xxix]  The rite of passage and award of arms associated with Medieval knighthood may find its modern equivalent in graduation from Basic Military Training or other, more advanced schools of arms in the United States military.  This may be particularly true of the Marine Corps, which deliberately pursues an image of valor and honor in public media, and adopted the motto “Semper Fidelis” – Always Faithful to enshrine its ideals of service.

General Cushman’s comments on the Marine Corps’ ethos of combat particularly evoke the chivalric ideal of heavy, close, aggressive combat between equals.  His description of the stately walk of disciplined ranks advancing into the onslaught of enemy fire with grim determination calls to mind the charge of the heavy armored French knight.  Cushman’s rejection of defensive fighting and fortifications echoes the charge of French knights against the dismounted English at Poitiers.  Like the French, Cushman wanted his Marines to strike the lethal blow – safer tactics were left to lesser beings.

In this conception of honor and chivalry lays a potential danger for American troops.  By only acknowledging enemies that fight according to their rules, those that favor them, as equals deserving respect, soldiers and Marines cast all of those defined as other into a category, which deserved no respect or quarter.  W.D. Erhhart and Michael Barnhardt described the mechanism that created this scenario – all Vietnamese became the enemy, and those who did not wear uniforms or fight “fairly” lost the protections of the laws of war.

One significant challenge to the comparison of American troops’ behavior in Vietnam and that of Medieval knights is that of forms of etiquette toward each other and toward women.  Incidents of “fragging”, in which enlisted men attacked officers and NCOs fall outside the apparent code of honor implied by the use of chivalry as an analytical tool.  Reports of rape and treatment of prostitutes also seem to fail outside the chivalric ideal.  How then to reconcile this gap in behavior and code of honor?

A solution is to argue that the modern incarnation of the chivalric ideal in the American context extends only to the proper forms of combat as force on force without deception.  However, this understanding ignores the class content of Medieval chivalry.  Its dictates only applied to members of equivalent social class – the nobility.  When soldiers defined the vast majority of the Vietnamese populace as sub-human, they lost the protections a code of chivalry such as that of the Medieval knighthood afforded.  That meant that the women and girls raped at My Lai by members of the Americal Division fell outside the protections of normal soldierly codes of conduct toward civilians – they were not only associated with the enemy Other, but with an enemy that did not follow the accepted rules of honorable combat, and one defined as sub-human.  In this way, behavior that many observers believed fell outside the context of the laws of war and soldierly honor falls within the realm of earlier understandings of proper warfare.

The connection between these two analytical concepts: religion and chivalry become clear by comparing Geoffroi de Charny and Charles B. Dickey.  Charny, writing in the fourteenth century argued that knighthood was akin to a religious vocation, in which the knight undertook Holy Orders in service to God, and should go into battle with a clear conscience in order to be prepared to meet his maker.[xxx]  Writing from Vietnam, Dickey avers to go into battle ready to meet his fate if God so chooses, confident that he is following the correct course.

Despite the difficulties in coming to grips with the effects, if religious identity and belief on the actions of individual soldiers and Marines, it is clear that a relationship exists.  Due to the vagaries of individual human nature, however, how religious belief and identity manifest in battlefield behavior remains hard to ascertain.  More sources of information and more precise analytical tools focused on determining religiosity are needed in order to find patterns of behavior that may be generalizable across populations.

[i] William C. Cockerham and Lawrence E. Cohen. “Obedience to Orders: Issues of Morality and Legality in Combat among U.S. Paratroops,” Social Forces 58, No. 4 (1980), 1272.
[ii] James S. Olson and Randy Roberts. My Lai: A Brief History with Documents (Boston, Bedford St. Martins, 1998), 50.
[iii] Lloyd Lewis. The Tainted War: Culture and Identity in Vietnam War Narratives (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), 57.
[iv] Bing West. The Village: Fifteen Walked In.  Eight Walked Out. (New York: Pocket Books, 2003), 13.
[v] Patricia, R. Hill. “Commentary: Religion as a Category of Diplomatic Analysis,” Diplomatic History 24, no. 4 (2000), 634.
[vi] James D. Davidson. “Religious Belief as an Independent Variable,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 11, no. 11 (1972), 73.
[vii] Thomas E. Cygnar, Donald L. Noel, and Cardell K. Jacobson. “Religiosity and Prejudice: An Interdimensional Analysis,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 16, no. 2 (1977), 183.
[viii] Cygnar, Noel, and Jacobson, “Religiosity and Prejudice,” 186.
[ix] Cygnar, Noel, and Jacobson, “Religiosity and Prejudice,” 188.
[x] Winter Soldier Investigation, “Americal, Part 1.” 28 January 1999, 13 April 2009 <>.
[xi] Edward Epstein, “ 'Winter Soldier' testimony still fuels discontent
Bitterness lingers over young Kerry's Senate appearance,” San Francisco Chronicle 17 October 2004, 13 April 2009 <>.

[xii] Bill Adler. Letters from Vietnam (New York, Random House Publishing, 2003), 16.
[xiii] Adler, Letters from Vietnam, 84.
[xiv] Adler, Letters from Vietnam, 150.
[xv] Richard Stacewicz, ed. Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997), 34.
[xvi] Adler, Letters from Vietnam, 204.
[xvii] Adler, Letters from Vietnam, 226.
[xviii] Robert Jay Lifton. Home From the War: Vietnam Veterans: Neither Victims nor Executioners (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 57.
[xix] William H. Becker. “Spiritual Struggle and Resistance to It: The Case of Vietnam Veterans,” Journal of Law and Religion 13, no. 1 (1999), 95.
[xx] Stacewicz, 127.
[xxi] Leo Braudy. From Chivalry to Terrorism (New York, Alfred A Knopf, 2003), 528.
[xxii] Lloyd B. Lewis. The Tainted War: Culture and Identity in Vietnam War Narratives (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), 29.
[xxiii] Lewis, The Tainted War, 29.
[xxiv] Richard Burks Verrone and Laura M. Calkins. Voices from Vietnam (Devon, UK: David & Charles, 2005), 96.
[xxv] W.D. Ehrhart. Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1989), 57.
[xxvi] Olson and Roberts, My Lai, 50.
[xxvii] Kim Willenson. The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War (New York: New American Library, 1987), 113.
[xxviii] Lewis, 45.
[xxix] Jeremy duQuesnay Adams. “Modern Views of Chivalry, 1884-1984,” The Study of Chivalry: Resources and Practices, eds. Howell Chickering and Thomas Seiler (New York: Simon and Schuster 1988), 41-89.
[xxx] Keen, Maurice. Chivalry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 6-12.

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