How to Kill Innocent Women & Children

A page from a sniper’s logbook.

It’s easy. You just lead them a little less. It’s an old joke, born in the Vietnam War, and first recorded by Michael Herr, though Kubrick made it famous with his portrait of the crazed US Marine door gunner in Full Metal Jacket. In layspeak, a shooter “leads” a running figure so that he’s aiming at where the target will be when the bullet reaches it. Women and children run slower than an adult male.

It’s not so funny anymore though, when we’re fighting a war in which the uniformed enemy often is a woman or a child. Earlier this week, a US military court sentenced Sgt Evan Vela, a 24-year-old Army sniper, to ten years imprisonment for killing an Iraqi civilian. Funnily/sadly, the reason he was convicted was because he lied about planting a weapon on the dead man. The Iraqi and his teenaged son stumbled into a sniper ‘hide’, where Vela and his team were sleeping. The Americans took them prisoner, and later killed the father (it’s claimed he tried to warn some passing insurgent suspects of the American position) after releasing his son. They then planted a rifle on the body and claimed he was an insurgent. If they had killed the two Iraqis immediately, probably nothing would have happened, as it would have been passed off as a simple case of mistaken identity. Sad, but an inevitable part of a dirty war.

In Afghanistan, in 2005, a US Navy SEAL team’s hide was discovered by local goatherds. The team leader decided to let the goatherds go, but the latter then alerted nearby Taliban troops who attacked the team, killing several, including the team commander Lt Michael Murphy. A Chinook helicopter coming in to rescue the team was shot down, killing the eight SEALs and eight Army Special Forces soldiers on board. Back in 1991, the British SAS patrol, Bravo 20, was spotted by an Iraqi goatherd, who alerted the authorities. In the resulting search operation, some of the British soldiers were killed and others captured and tortured.

(L/R) Sgt Evan Vela (AP), Lt Michael Murphy (courtesy US Navy), and the Bravo 20 patrol.

It all seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Kill or be killed; but not quite. Kill, and you might be a murderer, don’t, and you might die. Or not. The unfairness of it all is what struck me most when I first read about Evan Vela. Unfair on the sergeant himself, unfair on his Iraqi victim, and unfair on both families as well. I myself have never had to make that life-or-death decision, mostly because of geography. Elephant Pass was a fairly isolated base, and most civilians who had any sense had left the area, so anything we saw could be killed. When I first arrived in EPS in December 1990, the garrison was securing the base’s perimeters after the LTTE onslaught of the previous months that had started off the Second Eelam War. During this security operation, the base perimeter had been expanded to swallow several small hamlets that, upto the end of  the ceasefire, had been populated. The civilians had obviously left in a hurry, leaving most of their stuff behind, and my platoon was detailed to clear the houses. We burned everything we couldn’t use, and watching all those saris and flowery frocks burning, I was also struck by how unfair it all was. Sometime in ’91, I was spotting for a sniper, and he called in mortars on a Tiger column that was on a road. There were civilians on the road as well, and some of them were hit too. Afterwards, we watched through our scopes as a foreign doctor or medic (we could see his blonde hair even at six-hundred yards) tended to the fallen, including the Tigers. My partner then shot him. Unfair?

They say all’s fair in love and war, but it isn’t in either. We all know that. There are thousands of war stories, millions, and they’re all unfair if you look at them too closely, or from a different angle. So why I am I writing this? This isn’t about the Geneva Conventions or playing by the rules. We know that doesn’t always work. Maybe it’s about conscience, and doing the right thing. Military training, however, strives to first and foremost destroy the conscience and replace it with a value system different to that of the normal world. Following one’s conscience, too, has its dangers, as can be seen in the SEAL and SAS incidents, and in at least one situation, the man with the scruples paid with his life.

One thing the military drills into its recruits, on the other hand, is courage and decisiveness (the Singha Rifles motto, Nirbheetha Vegavath can be translated as With Speed and Courage). Shoot first and ask questions later. Then take your punishment like a man. That seems to be something that Sgt Vela — and perhaps the US Army at large — seemed to have forgotten. Vela’s team was asleep when it was discovered by the two Iraqis, and if they’d had a man on stag, the intruders would have been shot or warned off before they discovered the team. Once captured, the civilians should have been released, or if that was impossible, killed. The latter would still be a war crime, but Evan would have still been dealt with more leniently since his team was at risk. Planting evidence sealed his fate. In other words, dishonesty convicted him. Sgt Vela claims he asked his commanding officer for instructions and was ordered over the radio to shoot the prisoner. The fact that Vela was the only one convicted means that his CO denied this claim and the court believed him. Shades of My Lai — on March 16th 1968, a platoon of the US Army’s Americal Division murdered roughly five-hundred civilians, including old men, women and little children. Only the platoon commander, Lt William Calley was convicted; his company commander, Captain Ernest Medina, who Calley claimed gave the initial orders that sparked the massacre wasn’t charged. Calley received a life sentence, but was paroled after two years of home arrest. And Kokkadicholai — in January 1991 a SL Army platoon massacred between sixty-two and one-hundred and twenty-three civilians (depending on whose version you believe) in the Eastern Province village of Kokkadicholai. The platoon commander and nineteen soldiers were charged with the crime, and all twenty were acquitted. The platoon commander was later found guilty of dereliction of duty and losing control of his men, and dishonourably discharged from the service. No higher ranking officers ever faced charges.

(L/R) Lt William Calley (Ronald Haeberele), the My Lai massacre in 1968 (Ronald Haeberle), memorial erected to the victims of the Kokkadicholai massacre in 1991 (Tamilnet).

Some would say that this dishonesty is a natural human trait, the desire to escape retribution for one’s crimes, and that’s true enough. However, an army is not a natural organisation. To quote Alfred de Vigny’s Servitude et Grandeur Militaire, “An army is a nation within a nation”. It is a nation in which normal civilian or even human laws don’t apply — there is no freedom of speech, no presumption of innocence, no right to ownership — and it’s citizens are subject to laws that would seem unbelievably draconian to a civilian. Every aspect of life in the Army is governed by official regulations — dress, food, shelter, hygene, language, marriage — and every regulation ultimately has but a single objective: to enable a commander to point his finger and say “Kill” and have that order instantly carried out. Given that focused need, one would assume that honesty would be regulated. And it is.

However, the intensity of that regulation decreases proportionately the further up the rank ladder one progresses. Young soldiers are constantly supervised, their every move scrutinised and regulated; right down to how long a daily shower may last — when I was in basic training it was three minutes. The same goes for subalterns; their dress, manners, and language, their leadership skills, are all constantly under close observation for command ability. But as officers and other ranks move up the rungs of rank, this scrutiny lessens, and freedom increases. Obviously, the reasoning is that with age and experience comes responsibility. And ambition; and there we have the rub. In the Army, as in any civilian corporation, there isn’t much room at the top, and ultimately three things decide whether a soldier will be a general — intelligence, ruthlessness, and luck. It’s very difficult to get to the top of a modern army without all of these three traits, and almost impossible without at least two.

Sri Lanka Armoured Corps officer on parade (MA Pushpa Kumara/epa/Corbis)

Any link to scandal will prevent an officer in a modern army from reaching the top, and this increases the pressure to disassociate himself from the failures of his subordinates. This has been a natural phenomenon in modern armies, and an incentive for officers to cover up scandals. The SL Army, until recently, hasn’t really been a merit-driven force. Promotion came with time in service instead of success. Selection for the very highest of ranks was a political poker game with cards dealt by the political masters. The only thing a potential Army commander had to worry about was failure on his record — it didn’t matter if you’d been successful, as long as you’d not been unsuccessful. The appointing of Gotabhya Rajapakse as Secretary of Defence and the rise of Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka to Army commander has changed the face of the SL Army. Promotion is now very much a case of merit, with battlefield success crucial to upward movement. This, however, will not in any way change a potential general’s inclination to cover up a scandal, for it in fact will increase it as it becomes more of a race for rank rather than an arse-kissing competition.

Some might say that to ensure higher rank doesn’t cover up, is to crack down hard on those that do. Give out sentences on par with those that the the trigger men get. But on the other hand, that might make the brass just better at covering stuff up. So is closer scrutiny of the armed forces the answer? The Army’s notorious for being inscrutable to the outside world, and for this to work, an internal mechanism such as the Military Police might be the best instrument for overseeing the whole cross-section of the Army. In other words, a secret service on the lines of the Soviet GRU. Obviously, a rather extreme measure, and one not really suitable in a democratic country.

In the US and other western nations, atrocities such as My Lai and Abu Ghraib are received with shock by the general population, as something alien to their society. This is less pronounced in the Third World, where violence is something more integral to the civil psyche. The Sri Lankan population is well aware of its Army’s capacity for brutality, particularly after the putting down of the 1987-89 JVP insurrection. This brutality is seen as a necessary evil in order to rid society of a greater evil — separatism, communism, etc. Therefore it’s possible to conclude that in a naturally violent society, or one that tolerates violence, the prepropensity towards atrocity will be higher in the armed forces, which in the end, are a reflection of the civil populace.

Talking to an Indian colleague last year, the discussion turned towards the February 2007 Pakistani train bombing, and he suggested that it was highly likely the act had been committed by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and he didn’t seem to think it was a problem. Whilst reading that online article about Sgt Evan Vela’s conviction, I browsed through the comments forum that followed it, and was struck by the number of people who excused the sniper’s actions, and often defended it, reflecting the increasing acceptance by American society of the need for brutality in war; an acceptance that my Indian colleague, and most Sri Lankans seem to have already arrived at.

So is there any point in lamenting the brutality of war, the atrocities it spawns, and the unfairness with which it treats its victims? Is there any purpose in bringing in new laws for war, or greater accountability in the armed forces? I think not. In the end, the question isn’t whether we can breed a society that will not tolerate atrocities and brutality by its armed forces, but a society that will not tolerate war.

25 thoughts on “How to Kill Innocent Women & Children

  1. There is always two sides, you showed one I have never even thought of, soldiers side. Damn, why can’t we shoot the goats and keep the people? The need for brutality in war, will it be carried into society when those soldiers return?, There are always misfits.

  2. Great post David… Can’t put into words what I feel… but just like to say, its good to read about reality of society, rather than some idealogical concept of what people should be feeling… People who write about standing up and stopping atrocities from on all sides may be saying what’s right, but don’t seem to understand about what most people in general really think. Its sad, but as people seem to be capable of tolerating a lot of violence done by ‘their’ side, as long as they feel it is necessary… And I truly cannot say I’m any different… 😦

  3. Nice article David.

    Well things like the sniper incident you have encountered are hard to oppose, personally i wouldn’t give a damn about anyone supporting the LTTE. Still from the civilians’ point of view, they might see the Army as devils. If some one lost a relative close to him/her cos of sniping the doctor, hence without timely medical attention, he/she might turn into a suicide bomber to kill dozens more. The cycle continues.

  4. Interesting reading David… and insightful. I must admit though that I was shocked at the sniping of the doctor. Poor guy, he had a family, and I admire his bravery in stepping out to the battlefield. Casualties are human beings, there should not be any them and us when tending to those who are injured. I’m sorry if I sound naive and idealistic.

  5. I wonder whether the “number of people who excused the sniper’s actions, and often defended it” only did so because the murdered civilian was a nameless, faceless Iraqi.

    Would they be as accepting if an American soldier was shot dead when he was searching a Iraqi house? Would they dismiss the death as a part of the “brutality of war”?

  6. “The need for brutality in war, will it be carried into society when those soldiers return?”

    Diordna, I think it’s the other way around — the more violent civil society is, the more tolerant it is of brutality, the more brutal and horrible war becomes. Soldiers aren’t some alien beings; they are taken from the civil populace. It was Europe’s hatred of Jews that spawned the concentration camps, not the other way around.

    “I wonder whether the “number of people who excused the sniper’s actions, and often defended it” only did so because the murdered civilian was a nameless, faceless Iraqi.”

    Java, while I agree that sentiment would be different had an American been killed, the Iraqi wasn’t exactly faceless or nameless. He was an Iraqi general (though off-duty at the time), and his 17-year-old son was flown to the US to stand as a witness at Vela’s court martial.

  7. Thanks David, one can always learn and you just sent me on another spin. I also have met soldiers returning from Iraq. Some are numb, some are still angry and hate everything about Iraq and some want to do the right by people. One of them is a teacher now teaching English to people who came from Iraq. There are always different people.

  8. It took me a while to understand what you were trying to say (infact, till I read the very last sentence, I couldnt figure it out. And still Im not sure if I got what you said or whether I think I got it.

    But I think your last sentence pretty much sums it up.

  9. Let me add something to it though. I dont think that the situational complications the organisation (i.e. the military) meets is any ‘excuse’ for slaughter.

  10. [quote]We burned everything we couldn’t use, and watching all those saris and flowery frocks burning, I was also struck by how unfair it all was”

    This shows both your intrinsic humane qualities and the inhuman act you were forced to carry out.Quotes like these really bring out the gist of a story without having to even mention actual incidents of gore or such.

    I respect your defence insights, Sri lanka as well as in general–for its knowledge and balance; esp in bigoted forums like Defencenet and Defencewire your posts stand out like stars in a dark night!

  11. Well Mr DB,

    The loss would be more theirs than yours, thats for sure!

    True, I have seen from sidelines how you were hounded by half-baked ,bigoted and abuse filled characters if you made a statement based on actual fact rather than what they wanted to believe.
    And yes, the ‘ news’ is now more political than military–with rehash of athas/weerakoon/jeyaraj etc served with a little bit of spice as ‘ our internal sources’ lol!
    bye and take care.

  12. Reading this and your comments in the SL blogosphere amplifies the feeling that there’s a big market for your auto biography.

    And not just locally. There’s plenty of military writing on conflicts involving the first world. Rarely from the point of view of a veteran from an army in the 3rd world fighting terrorists. I’m betting it will sell outside airports too 😉

    Naturally I’m saying this without doing any market research on it.

    But I can’t avoid the nagging thought that if you can get a international publisher for your autobiography, it will sell well. AND broadcast a rarely seen, complex yet readable view of 3rd world conflict.

    Since you write well I feel safe in making such “risky” assumptions.

    No pressure of course 😉

  13. Thanks for your confidence, Cerno, but writing non-fiction about the war isn’t the healthiest of pastimes in SL! Besides, I’m not sure my autobiography will be as interesting as you make out. I hope to write some more fiction (if I ever find the time), and as with my last novel, there’s sure to be plenty of firsthand experiences in it.

  14. Ah yes, there IS that little detail about writing military non fiction in Sri Lanka 😉 I’m sure it would filter in through your next novel. All the best with scraping the time for it. I’m lucky to peck out a blog post these days…

  15. As A soldier in the US Army i think that this is good to talk about, but what some civilians have to understand is that sometimes we as soldiers have to make decisions that dictate the lives of the men around us. I’m not justifying the actions that are taken during war but sometimes, they are necessary. I personally am stationed in Korea as of right now and i teach English to Korean children on my weekends but, i think it is important for Americans to know, we as soldiers know the risks we take every day leaving the safety of our FOBs and when life and death grips your mind for 1 year, we have to maintain the mind of a soldier and fall back onto the training we receive, because if we don’t, bad things can happen to us and our men around us, so, in the end we have to make choices, good or bad, right or wrong, regardless we need to make a choice or sit back and be killed.

  16. Thanks for your comments, Zach. I’m not disputing the fact that many unpleasant things are necessary in war. I’m an ex-soldier myself, and have seen my share of bad stuff. But my point was that the tolerance of atrocities reflects the civil society itself, and isn’t something that can just be dumped on the military.

  17. Duc Tran Van

    Dear : William Calley

    I’m Duc Tran Van, living here in Germany since 1983. Almost one month ago, I’ve read from your newspaper about “William Calley”. He said, he felt sorry about the “My Lai massacre”, where over 504 People killed.

    We are survivors from the “My Lai massacre” at March 16 1968 in Thap Canh.
    At this time, I was 7, my older sister 9 years old and my youngest sister 14 months. During the gunfire my mother protected me, and my little sister in her fall, by lying beneath us. When the gunfire ended, and the Americans were away, my mother told me to run away immediately.
    Despite her injuries in her leg and stomach, my mother has dragged herself to the street to see us running away. So she had to see her other two daughters lying dead on the other roadside. I ran away from this place, carrying my sister. At about 2km away, I heard a helicopter. I threw myself with my sister on the ground, and we played dead. The helicopter flew so low that I could clearly see the photographer. After the helicopter was gone, I ran with my sister again. Approximately 4 hours later, we arrived Son Hoi. Interrupted by repeatedly having to hide, every time a helicopter noise was heard, and also having rests from the strain of carrying my 14 months old sister.
    The next morning my older sister also arrived there. She survived the massacre by about 15 minutes of waiting under corpses in the rice field.
    Only in 1975, I find out that my mother, shortly after I ran away with my sister, was killed by headshot, through the press photograph of my mother in the “My Lai Memorial”. (As I previously said, this photo is exhibited there under a false identity)

    It was extremely hard in the following time for us to survive without parents and without any assistance.

    – 2 –

    I want to write to Mr. William Calley! He must know what his actions did to our families! And what it has done to the village of My Lai, to murder 504 people, mothers, children and elderly people.
    For this few (only a handful) of survivors that continued to live, it was definitely very hard. Especially there were only some children and a few elderly people. A terse “apology”, after over 40 years for the total destruction, not only the people but also their homeland, is simply a disappointment!

    Enclosed I’m sending you my recollections of the event, especially from this day, with several press, even from me and my family members, with corrections of the identity of the persons depicted, in Vietnamese language. I would ask you, if it is possible for you, to translate them into English, and also to send it to Mr. Calley.

    Yours sincerely,

    Duc Tran Van

    1. Thank you, Mr Duc, for your comment. I do hope your life in Germany is happy, especially after your traumatic experiences as a child. However, I very much doubt that William Calley has ever read this blog. Also, I have no idea how to contact him, or to forward your message.

  18. Duc Tran Van

    AN:William Calley

    wie ich Ihnen schon vorab schrieb, möchte ich durch Sie, Herrn William Calley einen Brief zukommen lassen.
    Mein Name ist Duc Tran Van, ich bin Vietnamese. Seit 1983 lebe ich in Deutschland. Vor ungefähr einem Monat las ich in Ihrer Zeitung etwas über William Calley. Er entschuldigte sich für das „My Lai Massaker“, bei dem über 504 Menschen ermordet wurden.

    Wir sind Überlebende des My Lai Massakers vom 16. 3. 1968 in Thap Canh. Ich war damals 7 Jahre alt, meine große Schwester 9, und meine kleine Schwester 14 Monate alt. Während des Beschusses hat meine Mutter mich und meine kleine Schwester im Fallen beschützt, in dem sie sich über uns legte. Als die Schießerei beendet, und die Amerikaner weg waren, sagte meine verletzte Mutter zu mir, ich solle mit meiner kleinen Schwester schnell weglaufen. Trotz ihre Verletzungen im Bein- und Bauchbereich hat sich meine Mutter zur Straße geschleppt, um uns nachzusehen. So fand sie am andren Straßenrand die Leichen ihrer andren zwei Töchter. Ich rannte mit meiner Schwester, die ich trug, von diesem Ort weg. Nach ca. 2Km hörte ich einen Hubschrauber. Ich warf mich mit meiner Schwester auf den Boden, und wir stellten uns tot. Der Hubschrauber flog so niedrig, dass ich den Fotografen deutlich sehen konnte. Nachdem der Hubschrauber weg war, bin ich mit meiner Schwester noch über 4 Stunden bis nach Son Hoi gelaufen, unterbrochen von mehrmaligem Verstecken bei aufkommendem Hubschraubergeräusch und Verschnaufens durch die Anstrengung des Tragens meiner 14 Monate alten Schwester. Am nächsten Morgen errreichte uns dort meine ältere Schwester, die das Massaker überlebte, indem sie noch 15 Minuten unter anderen Leichen im Reisfeld abwartete.
    Wie ich erst 1975, durch das Pressefoto meiner Mutter in der „My Lai Gedenkstätte“ erfuhr, wurde meine Mutter, kurze Zeit, nachdem ich mit meiner Schwester weglief, anschließend noch durch Kopfschuss getötet. (Wie ich Ihnen vorab schrieb, ist dieses Foto dort unter einer falschen Identität ausgestellt)

    Es war in der weiteren Zeit extrem hart für uns, ohne Eltern und ohne irgendeine Hilfe zu überleben.
    Ich möchte Herrn William Calley schreiben! Er muss wissen, was sein Tun unseren Familien angetan hat! Und was es für den Ort My Lai gemacht hat, 504 Menschen, Mütter, Kinder und ältere Leute, zu ermorden.
    Es war für die nur eine „Handvoll“ Überlebender, in der Hauptsache Kinder du ein par alte Leute, unendlich schwer weiter zu überleben .
    Eine lapidare Entschuldigung“, nach über 40 Jahren, für die totale Zerstörung, nicht nur der Menschen, sondern auch der Heimat, ist schlicht enttäuschend!

    PS: Anbei sende ich Ihnen meine Erinnerungen der Ereignisse, besonders diesen Tages, mit etlichen Pressefotos, auch von mir und meinen Familienmitgliedern, mit Richtigstellungen der Identität der abgebildeten Personen, in vietnamesischer Sprache.
    Ich möchte Sie bitten, falls es Ihnen möglich ist, diese ins Englische zu übersetzen, und ebenfalls an Herrn Calley zu senden.

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