Evil: Ordinary and Otherwise
May 9, 2015
Some years ago, a book was recommended to me, Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil, by Fred E. Katz. Katz argues therein that it is quite common, apparently, for “ordinary people” to commit evil acts or participate in “extraordinary evil,” ala’ Adolph Eichmann, Rudolf Hoess, and Lt. William Calley. According to Katz, this phenomenon takes place when people are “mentally locked into a particular context . . . where ‘outside’ values are excluded and locally generated values dominate.” [p. 26]
By way of example, Katz considers in some detail Lt. Calley’s actions at My Lai, where he commanded troops and participated in a massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, including old men, women, and children, even babies, As Katz argues, drawing on Calley’s testimony at his court marital, his actions are to be explained by his orders to “move his troops through the village and do it rapidly.” [p. 26] As Katz summarizes his argument, “In short, Calley’s horrendous deeds were carried out as he addressed himself to an innocuous (but, to him, very real) immediate problem – to avoid another reprimand for slowness.” [p. 28] So, as a result of his addressing this “immediate problem,” Calley allegedly forgot those “outside values,” apparently American values, that had he followed would have prevented him from massacring those Vietnamese old men, women, and children.
There is only one small problem with Katz’s argument here, viz., that Calley’s actions in My Lai were merely reflections of the actions of the United States in Vietnam generally. This leads me to think that the “outside values” Calley allegedly “mentally locked” out did not condemn mass killings, at least not when undertaken in accordance with the nation’s foreign policy, including of course waging war to protect “national security.” Just as Calley was ordered to “clear” the village “as fast as possible,” meaning to destroy it and its inhabitants if necessary, so too the U.S. was in “South” Vietnam to “clear” it of communists, even if that meant destroying it and many of its inhabitants. As one soldier put it, again reflecting the essence of U.S. policy in Vietnam, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” Some Americans labeled this process “modernization.” And, of course, they realized, being the “realists” they were, that modernization might well require both death and destruction. As the common American saying goes, “You can’t make mayonnaise without breaking some eggs.”
My point is this: While it is comforting to think that Lt. Calley was acting in an “un-American” fashion in My Lai, given that the nation he was serving was inflicting similar death and destruction on Vietnam, it is less than persuasive. What was it about “American values,” those “outside values” Katz refers to, that allowed, even justified the United States in bringing massive death and destruction to Vietnam? And why should we be surprised when such a policy, seen as justified, even as “noble,” leads to actions by soldiers that resemble the nation’s policy?
In sum, the “problem” wasn’t that Calley “mentally locked” out American values. The “problem” was that he embraced them. He was being a “good American.” But, as Aristotle was one of the first to recognize, being a good citizen and being a good human being only “go together” in the best regime. And it would appear that this is not the case in the United States.