Three American soldiers in Iraq have been charged with murder for the deaths of three prisoners of war. Meanwhile two captive American soldiers were slain by insurgents. Privates Kristian Menchaca and Thomas L. Tucker were tortured, killed barbarically, and their bodies left to be found wired with booby traps. For the insurgents it was cause for celebration. “We have executed the Exalted Almighty God’s verdict on the two Crusader infidels we captured, by slaughtering them,” the Mujahedin Shura Council stated. “God is great. Glory be to God.”
Any bets on which of these stories has more staying power? My guess is we won’t be hearing much more about Menchaca and Tucker. But the Iraqi prisoner deaths, along with two investigations into alleged illegal killings by Marines at Haditha and Hamdania, are stories that will be with us for a long time to come.
For some reason the infrequent excesses of our own troops make more news and are treated as more significant than the persistent barbarism of our enemies. To a previous generation the emblem of American shame was My Lai. On March 16, 1968, U.S. troops in Vietnam gunned down hundreds of civilians in this small hamlet, until stopped by other American soldiers who happened on the scene and threatened to open fire if the men did not cease what they were doing.
The My Lai story broke in November, 1969. Around the same time papers were reporting the details of another massacre. In early February 1968, during the Tet Offensive, Viet Cong guerillas rounded up and summarily executed thousands of civilians in the ancient capital of Hue, which was temporarily under their control. Government officials, businessmen, Catholics, intellectuals, and others deemed socially undesirable were shot down in trenches dug in the city parks, clubbed to death in makeshift prisons, or led away in the countryside to be murdered and thrown into a ravine.
My Lai was a Pulitzer Prize-winning story. The incident at Hue was overshadowed, and soon forgotten. But note the significant differences. My Lai was an indiscriminate, illegal act on the part of a small group of Americans, and was halted by Americans. When the events came to light, the officers involved were brought up on charges. By contrast, Hue was not an act of excess but the cold-blooded implementation of North Vietnamese policy. Those who committed the act were doing the bidding of their superiors, and had they not been wiped out by U.S. and ARVN forces they would have been hailed as heroes.
So why is it that My Lai has become a byword for brutality while Hue is a footnote? Why will Menchaca and Tucker be forgotten while incidents like those under investigation — or the grotesque theater of Abu Ghraib — will persist, fester, be written about, analyzed, become vehicles for critiques of U.S. policy, the military, or the whole of American culture?
By rights these incidents should demonstrate that we are better than our enemies. We are civilized, they are barbarians. What we are fighting for is objectively superior to what they are fighting for. Our struggle is legitimate, theirs is not. There is no room for moral relativism in this war. Certainly those who view torture and beheading as acts of piety have no problem seeing it as a black and white conflict. And when faced with extremism of this sort, we should take it at face value.
Those who say that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter should be asked how they define freedom. Those who compare terrorist or guerrilla leaders to George Washington or other Founding Fathers should explain when it was exactly that they ordered the killing of innocents as a method, or even as a matter of expediency. And especially when they ever sought to invoke God’s approval for inflicting agonizing deaths on helpless captives.
I doubt any two other incidents could better illustrate what we are fighting for. In our system, killing prisoners is wrong, and those who do it are punished. In their system, killing prisoners is a blessed act, God’s will made manifest. If nothing else, this latest terrorist atrocity supplies some badly needed perspective. That is, if anyone is paying attention.
– James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.