On Saturday morning, March 16, 1968, 100 soldiers from Charlie Company were helicoptered in to area around My Lai, Vietnam. In the massacre which followed between 347 and 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians were murdered, including many women and children. When news of the massacre become public, 14 officers were court martialed, but only one, Lieutenant Calley, was convicted. As a part of his defense, Lt. Calley said he was only following orders. In his trial, that defense contradicted the laws of war established by the Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crime Tribunals and did not hold up. I am old enough to remember the deep divisions in our country created by the the Vietnam War and also to remember the headlines in the news about the My Lai massacre.
I found myself thinking about that today as our country debates not only the legality, but the morality of separating children from their parents along the US/Mexico border. This is not a war and no one has died. At least not yet. But there is trauma and heartbreak and there will be deep, unacknowledged and unexpected consequences especially among the children. The power to declare a Zero Tolerance policy and for agents to act on that policy – to follow orders – and to separate children from parents, sometimes by deception and sometimes by force, is one thing. But as we learned from My Lai, not the only thing. Both in setting policy and in following orders there is not just the issue of the legality and the power to do so, but an expectation of good judgment and of knowing what is right from what is wrong.