Noto begins by exploring what conditions cause people to overcome their natural aversion to killing in the first place, recognizing that “[a] key difference in the psychology of killing is distance. It’s easier to kill when you cannot see your victim” (7). By contrasting people’s current emotional reactions to WWII’s Tokyo bombing against the Holocaust (vague sympathy versus outrage), he effectively illustrates the extent of the psychological obstacles the men who committed the massacres had to overcome to kill in such close quarters. This places those men in an interesting and unique position: in part, it makes them objects of sympathy, because the initial breaking down of their barriers to kill occurred at the hands of the United States’ military training and the harshness of the methods they used; in that light, the men were victims of circumstance. Conversely, it alienates them from sympathy because of the difficulty of the ordinary U.S. citizen to imagine the extremity of the conditions under which strong psychological boundaries could have been broken so effectively; viewed as such, the perpetrators become monsters with little resemblance to ordinary human beings.
Admirably, Noto does not even come close to taking one of these sides in his writing, but walks a fine analytical line that allows for exploration of both possibilities. To provide context for the events, he provides a detailed explanation of the many techniques that were used to condition soldiers to kill in much higher numbers than in past wars (the ultimate ratio of deaths was ten Vietnamese for every one U.S. citizen), and the specifics of the events directly before My Lai and Son Thang. Using court transcripts and the work of previous researchers, Noto constructs a factual, play-by-play account of both massacres that follows the main perpetrators and those who abstained from killing alike. One particular individual to whom he pays close attention is William L. Calley, the lieutenant of the so-called “Charlie Company” that executed the killings at My Lai, and the man who ordered and enacted many of those killings himself. By exploring Calley’s reasons for joining the war effort in the first place, his unpopularity among his men, the escalation of events, and the results of his military trial, Noto presents a fully-fleshed out character whose reasons behind his actions, though far from justifiable, remain understandable. This technique is far more effective than if he had simply assigned blame. In our still turbulent society, it is crucial to remember that a person’s actions are never the result of him or herself alone: rather, a plethora of factors come together to produce the end result. By making Calley a scapegoat (a popular view that was held at the time) and blaming the entire company’s actions on him, one could easily dismiss the case as an isolated incident, unlikely to happen again. By putting a very human face of Calley, Noto reminds us that, given the appropriate circumstances, any individual today could be pushed to the same extreme.
By presenting the events of My Lai and Son Thang side by side, he also provides an interesting parallel to Calley’s story: that of Randall Dean Herrod, the main actor in the Son Thang massacre. In the My Lai trials, Calley’s weak defense was torn apart, and he “was found guilty of murdering twenty-two civilians as well as assault with intent to commit murder” (43). Conversely, for a variety of factors, Herrod was found not guilty on all counts. The juxtaposition of the ultimate verdicts of these two men who played almost identical roles in the two atrocities allows Noto to communicate a crucial lesson on the subjectivity of evidence that can be cross-applied to the entire book. Indeed, despite his seemingly air-tight evidence, he fully admits that “[w]e may never know what really happened at My Lai and Son Thang” (103). A reader would do well to remember this in situations when it is all too tempting to reach hard and fast conclusions.
Despite the thoroughness of his analysis, there are parts of Noto’s book that must be questioned. For instance, he argues that “[i]deology played little role in the training of the military for service in Vietnam. Thus the massacres at My Lai and Son Thang had no ideological component” (78). This broad, blanket statement cannot be ignored, for to claim that the greatest atrocities of the Vietnam War derived from psychological components alone is far too reductive. In his memoir, Body Count, Calley himself explains, “We weren't in My Lai to kill human beings, really. We were there to kill ideology that is carried by-I don't know. Pawns. Blobs. Pieces of flesh.” Though one could argue that Calley made this statement simply to secure further sympathy from the citizen population, it still cannot be ignored that he draws an explicit connection between ideology and incentive to kill. For him, it appears that the Vietnamese who were murdered represented the communism that the U.S. soldiers were there to combat in the first place. Because of Noto’s careful research into many aspects of the events of My Lai, it seems strange that he would ignore such a significant and highly quoted statement from the very man whose story he tells.
Further, in the chapter following his broad statement, Noto presents his readers with the arguments of authors Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen, both of whom write about the Holocaust. As Noto explains, Browning dismisses ideological components, reducing the events to people’s personal needs to obey authority and conform within groups; Goldhagen far overstates ideology by claiming that the Holocaust was allowed because all Germans were anti-Semitic. As he is prone to do, Noto once again provides a middle ground, asserting that while ideology certainly played a role in the events of the Holocaust, many other factors came into play as well. His statement that ideology played no part in the massacres at My Lai and Son Thang, then, is overly reductive and not sufficiently backed up by evidence.
If one does accept Noto’s assertion as true, though, many interesting conclusions can be drawn both about the Vietnam War and war atrocities in general. Clearly, the Vietnam War was based in ideology: namely, to stop the spread of communism. Even when the war effort itself went sour, the U.S. government continued to preach the evils of communism and the value of fighting against it. To argue that the military training had no ideological component, and that when it came down to combat itself, soldiers acted out of instinct and social conformity instead of ideology is to argue that the anti-communist ideology worked in theory but not in practice. Preaching ideology provided an inspiring rhetoric for both the government and the citizen population, both of whom were far removed from the actual war effort, but failed in application. If this argument holds, it provides a terrifying assertion that warfare is solely exploitation of the United States’ citizen population to promote a governmental agenda. Though this argument has been made many a time, it falls apart in face of the many statements made by soldiers across the decades that they have fought to protect their country and firmly believe in the causes for which they fight. Despite the training tactics used during the Vietnam War, there were still soldiers who remained loyal to the anti-communist cause and justified their actions upon a strong ideological basis.
However, it must be noted that Noto does not declare that ideology did not play a role among the soldiers in Vietnam in general, but in instigating the actions at My Lai and Son Thang specifically. As these are undoubtedly the two worst atrocities to come out of the Vietnam War, it would appear that Noto is making an argument about specific motivation behind civilian massacres. From the beginning, Noto makes it clear that the closer the distance between a person and his or her enemy, the more difficult it is to kill. This argument can also be applied to the distance between U.S. citizens and the perpetrators of these two massacres in ideological terms. Because for many years ideology drove the United States’ support of the Vietnam War, to take away an ideological component from My Lai and Son Thang is to increase the metaphorical distance between the two, which allows the U.S. to effectively “kill” its association with the massacres with few qualms. If ideology is the main driving factor behind a war, any events not driven by ideology can be treated as a separate entity. On the one hand, this is admirable, because it admits that there was absolutely no justification for these events. This was not our intention for the Vietnam War, one could argue; we will not use our ideology to defend these actions. On the other, taking away ideology distances the potential to understand My Lai and Son Thang at all. As the only connection many Americans had to the Vietnam War was via ideology, to reduce these killings to solely psychological components undermines Noto’s effort to allow his readers to fully understand why they occurred in the first place. Though Noto tries to draw a line between understanding and justification, it appears that the two concepts are often more closely connected than they appear.
Regardless, it is doubtful whether a broad statement can be made about large scale, civilian massacres even if they are reduced to psychology. Within the U.S., psychologists have performed studies on mass murderers outside of war efforts in order to predict patterns and potential killers; however, because the circumstances and motivation behind these people’s decision to murder is so widespread, these studies have produced no reliable patterns. It seems unlikely, then, that any such pattern can be detected in a context of warfare either.
Naturally, this is not to say that there can be no application from Noto’s analysis to the events of today. In fact, the author himself devotes time to drawing comparisons between the Vietnam War and the current war in Afghanistan that, while acknowledging significant differences, provide a chilling circumstantial parallel between the two situations. Though brief, Noto’s declaration that we must understand My Lai and Son Thang in order to prevent similar events in Afghanistan is one of the most poignant of the book. Of course, besides war tactics, many significant factors have changed within society. Today, violence is far more mainstream than it was half a century ago, and children are indoctrinated from a young age into the ways of aggression and killing. Though the intense training methods used on soldiers to allow them to overcome their psychological aversion to killing are no longer as widely or obviously practiced, there is the distinct possibility that societal norms compensate for this apparent decrease of encouragement of violence within the military. If distance is the main factor in the ease of killing, having children exposed to the ways of slaughter from an early age in the forms of media and video games, for instance, decreases the distance that killing holds from social norms, increases its distance from taboo practices, and makes killing easier than before. Though whether children’s exposure to violence actually makes them more violent is an ongoing argument, one would be remiss not to acknowledge that if in fact it does, this violence in far more likely to come out in the context of warfare.
Noto’s argument has also increased in poignancy in light of the recent rogue shooter in Afghanistan, Robert Bales, charged with the murder of seventeen innocent Afghan villagers – tellingly, only one more than the number killed at Son Thang. By some accounts, it would appear that Noto’s fears have become a reality: despite our changing military tactics and our increased emphasis on a “hearts and minds” approach to Afghan citizens, mass murder of innocents is still being committed. Many of the same issues have come into play: the stress of combat that might have had an impact of Bales’s actions, the clash of ideologies between the two cultures, and divided support, sympathy, and blame directed toward Bales. As in Vietnam, this massacre occurred approximately ten years after the start of the war. The make-up of the victims themselves is even similar, with many of them being women and children. One would be justified in fearing that My Lai and Son Thang are happening once again.
Fortunately, though, many important differences exist as well, the most obvious being the United States’ response to the matter. Unlike at My Lai and Son Thang, there was no attempt to cover up the actions of Bales. He was arrested and charged promptly after the murders were committed, and it was absolutely clear-cut that he was not provoked in any way. Though naturally Bales’s actions will further set back the troops’ relations with Afghan civilians, the military’s official response has perhaps prevented the worst of this corrosion. As Afghans clamor that Bales be tried in their own country instead of the U.S., their voices are being heard. Though the actions of Bales are highly regrettable, hope remains that despite the violence, the U.S. military has learned from past massacres such as My Lai and Son Thang and is moving toward a state where such atrocities will become a thing of the past.