17 March 2004


Many people will today be celebrating St. Patrick's Day. (I always wear some particularly ugly orange-and-green-striped socks, so that I've got all bases covered.) I noted very, very little coverage of a legally significant and shameful anniversary that passed yesterday.

16 March 1968. A complex of three villages in Vietnam. A platoon leader who had about one year of college and worked as a unit clerk before going to OCS. Civilians.

My Lai.

I find it curious—and more than a little bit disturbing, given the events in Southwest Asia for the past couple of years—that the legacy of My Lai has gotten so little attention. I would like to think that it can't happen again. That's about as likely as "It Can't Happen Here!" Combat zones do funny things to orders and perceptions.

Part of the price of warfare, particularly when it is asymmetric, is the occasional atrocity. It's not an acceptable price; but trying to pretend that they won't happen because one side (or the other) is Inherently Virtuous is rather foolish. On the other hand, failure to take reasonable steps to minimize them isn't acceptable, either.

A large part of the problem is that too many of our civilian leaders micromanage that which they don't understand. Desert One comes to mind, but that is far from the only example. In our system, the military must be subordinate to the civilian leadership, and that's a good idea even without Clemenceau's aphorism. That does not mean, though, that merely because modern command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) enables the White House to micromanage tactical and operational actions makes such management a good idea.