This Friday will mark the 44th anniversary of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, when an American platoon killed some 300 Vietnamese civilians, including children. And with the anniversary date rapidly approaching, the recent mass killing spree by an American soldier in Afghanistan has brought up several direct comparisons between the two incidents.
"The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered," President Barack Obama said to reporters at the White House today. In his remarks, the president announced that he has ordered the Pentagon to "spare no effort" in its investigation of the incident, which resulted in the death of at least 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, three women and four men this past Sunday.
Both events were horrific, but as we try to process the news coming out of Afghanistan, there are some distinct differences between the two.
First, the responsible parties aren't quite the same. In My Lai, the men of the 11th Brigade of Charlie Company were reportedly told, "This is what you've been waiting for—search and destroy—and you've got it," and were unleashed upon the local populace. While not all men in the brigade participated in the killing (and some actively tried to stop it), as many as 26 soldiers were initially charged in the incident. And seven commanders were indicted for possibly giving orders, although there's always been a debate as to whether the commanders gave official orders to the soldiers to actively kill.
But in the recent Afghanistan tragedy, the killing of 16 civilians was carried out by one, lone soldier, acting without orders and reportedly suffering from a traumatic brain injury received in an earlier combat incident. To be clear, military officials have not said if the soldier's prior injuries contributed to his actions
"It's not comparable," Obama said in an interview with ABC Orlando affiliate WFTV. "It appeared you had a lone gunman who acted on his own. In no way is this representative of the enormous sacrifices that our men and women have made in Afghanistan."
Still, it's impossible to ignore some direct similarities between the two incidents as well.
As Henry Blodget wrote in a Business Insider op-ed, both events occurred at a time when the public and politicians were split over the future of the war. And even if our military is better trained and equipped than any fighting force in history, service members are still facing the very real threat of death on a daily basis.
Part of that can be blamed on the stress soldiers face in an unconventional battlefield. While anti-terror training measures are being instituted across the military, most soldiers were trained to fight wars, not engage in local diplomacy with individuals who share neither a common language nor culture.
In an op-ed with the Scotsman, former Special Air Service (SAS) Deputy Commander Clive Fairweather writes that even if the Afghanistan massacre was the work of one "crazed individual," advances in media technology could result in the same sort of response that occurred after My Lai:
"[I]ncreases in the speed and reach of world communications means that the murder of 16 Afghan civilians could have equally far-reaching consequences in the region, in U.S. domestic opposition circles and on world opinion. Coming on top of the bloody reprisals following the accidental burning of the Koran by American servicemen, and in a week when six British soldiers were killed, the overall impression for many will be that we have "lost it"—and it is high time either to get out now, or to accelerate the pace of withdrawal."
At least for now, the most common binding trait between the two tragic events is their role as a potential catalyst for ending the war.
"It makes me more determined to make sure we're getting our troops home," Obama said in another interview, this time with CBS Pittsburgh affiliate KDKA. "It's time. It's been a decade, and, frankly, now that we've gotten (Osama) bin Laden, now that we've weakened al-Qaida, we're in a stronger position to transition than we would have been two or three years ago."