The Duck of Minerva

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Apologies Matter

August 29, 2009

It is very, very significant that Lieutenant William Calley openly apologized for his behavior in the 1968 massacre of hundreds of civilians in a series of villages known as My Lai. Anyone who has read Joanna Bourke’s account of the event, which included not just killings and looting but also rape and sexual mutilation of women and young girls, and the subsequent denials, excuses and justifications by the culprits will grasp the importance of Calley’s about-face.

Robert Koehler disagrees.

If you steal $10 from your mother, you need to apologize. If, as you carry out orders, you lead a raid on a village that slaughters 500 or more defenseless people, something of a higher magnitude is required before you can have your life back.

But what exactly? Koehler is suggesting he “atone,” that is devote his life in some way to challenging the militarism that creates My Lais and Abu Ghraibs. But to me that would undermine an apology – which is an acceptance of individual culpability. However laudable such a crusade may be, Calley could not be an effective ambassador for a more humane military through any other means that by accepting his own responsibiltiy without finger-pointing. If all soldiers did this consistently, commanders would have no power to commit war crimes. When we remove the moral responsibility from individual actors and place it on “the system” we participate in moral disengagement. I am not saying the “system” doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be changed. I am saying that to prevent war crimes you need acceptance of responsibility at both levels, and there can be a zero-sum relationship in the way we cast blame.

Koehler’s post goes on to demonstrate as much: he dismisses Calley’s apology as meaningless and even unnecessary given the wider web of criminality in which he was admittedly embedded in Vietnam.

As a matter of principle, I refuse to waste time heaping my allotted teaspoonful of disapprobation on a scapegoat. Calley’s “responsibility” for My Lai, though personally enormous, is a minute fraction of the symbolic role — the Bad Apple in an American Uniform — he was forced to fill. He was, indeed, just following orders. And the first order of war is to suspend your humanity.

But that’s too simplistic. Hugh Thompson, the US helicopter pilot who intervened during the massacre, was embedded in the same context and chose to behave nobly. We can and must hold individuals responsible, even as we insist on holding their superiors responsible as well.

The fact is, Americans did neither in the case of My Lai – which meant they too were to blame. Unlike stealing money from your mother, Calley did not “have to” apologize to “get his life back.” Instead he chose to, and this choice is such a politically significant diversion from forty years of practice that it would be wrong to belittle its importance – precisely because it signals to Americans that that choice to support rather than condemn him itself was wrong.

Apologies for atrocities matter.
They matter psychologically in healing the rift between victimizer and victim, and their national communities by extension. But they matter even more for communicating collective norms to one’s own in-group. As long as Calley could openly pretend that My Lai wasn’t a grave breach of the warrior’s code, and get away with it, one could argue he was living in a culture that condones war crimes. Apologies by men and women like Calley – or England, or Wuterich – are data points suggesting a turn in the normative environment: toward one in which war crimes, if not entirely absent, are at least acknowledged for what they are.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.