My Participation in the My Lai Massacre

“Please,”  Sorcerer said again.  He felt very stupid.  Thirty meters up the trail he came across Conti and Meadlo and Rusty Calley.  Meadlo and the lieutenant were spraying gunfire into a crowd of villagers.  They stood side by side, taking turns.  Meadlo was crying.  Conti was watching.  The lieutenant shouted something and shot down a dozen women and kids and then reloaded and shot down more and then reloaded and shot down more and then reloaded again…Sorcerer was already sprinting away.  He ran past a smoking bamboo schoolhouse.  Behind him and in front of him, a brisk machine-gun wind pressed through Thuan Yen.  The wind stirred up a powdery red dust that sparkled in the morning sunshine, and the little village had now gone mostly violet.  He found someone stabbing people with a big silver knife.  Hutto was shooting corpses.  T’Souvas was shooting children.  Doherty and Terry were finishing off the wounded.  This was not madness, Sorcerer understood.  This was sin.

–from Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods

How could someone do such a thing?

I used to ask that question a lot.

I still ask it sometimes.

But now, the question is really rhetorical.  Because I know how someone could do such a thing.

A lot of Christians view mankind as “depraved.”  That’s the word they use.  Depraved basically means, “bad to the bone.”  “Capable of no good.”  They say they learned this from the Bible.  But that’s not where I got my negative view of man.  I got it from the news.

And it wasn’t the Bible that helped me crystallize my theory of our potential for badness.  It was the book, Lord of the Flies.  I have only read that book one time, in high school.  But William Golding’s tale of a group of British school boys who descend into anarchy and violence when they are wrecked on a deserted island has stayed with me ever since.  Golding told me that civilization is a conch shell, fragile and easily broken.  Golding told me that when that conch shell shatters, all hell breaks loose.  Law and order fades away, and chaos reigns.  And when I finished reading his book, I cried.

I cried because I knew it was true.

I still know that it is true, and again, not just because of the news.  I know it is true because I know myself, and I know the potential that lies within.  I am painfully reminded of my predilection for depravity whenever my mask-that-is-n0t-a-mask, my Christianity, slides off as if it were a mask.  I know it when I pursue God with all my heart and try to live fully by His Spirit within me…and then the right combination of mild irritants comes along and causes my selfishness to roar forward with relish and gusto.  I get irritable and I snap at those around me, even if those around me are my own precious, little children.  And if I am having a moment of clarity, I draw back in horror, reeling from the quickness of my descent into sin.  And I think, “Wow.  If I can switch back that fast, if I can become selfish and hateful, even in the civilized culture in which I live, even with my loving and sheltered background, even with my earnest desire to serve Christ, then just imagine….”  Just imagine what I could be like without my Christian background.  Imagine what I could be like if I did not have the desire to do good.  And if mild irritants like a headache or the house being too hot can set me off on my own children, then what might I be capable of in an environment of heavy, sustained stress and fatigue?  What might I do in an environment where civilization has fallen away and barbarism reigns?

And that’s why, when I read about a crusading idealist masturbating in public and vandalizing cars, I am startled…but not really surprised.

That’s also why, when I read about a “solid soldier” snapping and massacring innocent civilians–women and children–I am startled…but not surprised.

When I hear about such things, they ring true to me.  They sound like something humans might do in that situation.  Something I might do in that situation.

And that realization does not ameliorate the horror of what happened.  On the contrary, it makes it all the more horrible.  It doesn’t make me want to let anyone off the hook; in fact, it reminds me just how important the “hook” is.  We have to have ways of limiting our own depravity, after all–of fighting back as a society against the worst impulses of the individual.

And yet, there is hope.

I said earlier that I do not get my view of human depravity from the Bible.  Instead, I get my hope from the Bible.  The news tells me that humanity is depraved.  My heart tells me that I am depraved.  But the Bible tells me something different:  it tells me that I was created in the very image of the almighty God.  It tells me that I was created to do good, not evil (Eph. 2:10).  And it tells me that even though I am capable of great evil, I am also capable of more good than I ever imagine.  That I can do all things through Christ (Phil. 4:13).  That God has given me everything I need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3).  I even think that most Christians sell themselves short, compared to the Bible’s view of their potential.  We worship a Savior who set an example of love and self-sacrifice that He appeared to think we could follow.  We worship a Savior who told us to stop sinning and to be perfect.  We participate in a religion that teaches us that we are guided by the very Spirit of God, which works in us and uses us to accomplish God’s will.  That is amazing.  And I believe that it is true.  Sometimes I picture myself getting to heaven, all used up from a life trying to serve God, and God telling me, “You just scratched the very surface of what you could have done.  There was so much power in my Spirit that was available to you…but you were too scared to use it.”  I don’t picture Him punishing me for that or throwing me into hell or anything; I just picture Him shaking His head sadly.

My point is, sometimes I think that, as children of God, we are capable of more good than we can even dream (or ask or imagine).

And maybe that is a weird view, given my deep conviction of our potential for depravity.

As usual, C.S. Lewis helps my thoughts make sense in this regard (seriously, when I’m not rolling my eyes at him, I find him to be a great guy).  In Mere Christianity, he explains my seemingly contradictory thoughts this way:

When we have understood about free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as someone once asked me, ‘Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?’  The better stuff a creature is made of–the cleverer and stronger and freer it is–then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong.  A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best–or worst–of all” (49).

Drawing from the idea that Satan is a fallen angel, Lewis postulates that it is because we are created with such potential for good that we have such a potential for evil.  He reasons that the law of free will dictates that we can be as bad as we can be good, and vice versa.  Thus, one could argue that the more guttural the depths of depravity we see, the greater the heights of righteousness we know are possible.

It’s a scary theory.  But also a hopeful one.

It’s a theory that suggests that I am the type of person who could have participated in the My Lai massacre.

It’s also a theory that suggests that I am the type of person who can stop Kony.

The question is, how will I use my potential?

How will you use yours?

8 responses to this post.

  1. I referenced that Lewis quote in Sunday school class yesterday; I’m answering random questions from Andrea Freeman’s 5th/6th graders. I like to describe myself as a lapsed Calvinist on account of my Presbyterian upbringing (which is disingenuous, as our Presbyterianism was based more on social standing–above Baptist and below Episcopalian–than on theology), and I remember Calvin’s old “TULIP” plan, with the “T” for total depravity. But that leads to an unpleasant conclusion, which you touch upon: we cannot set our expectations of (unredeemed) human nature low enough. I love time-travel movies like “Back to the Future.” And as a history guy, I like to imagine the counterfactuals of “what-if” a battle or an election had gone differently. But unless we use our imaginary time machine to go back to Eden and solve that unfortunate fruit decision, we’re really no better off.


    • It’s so funny that you referenced that quote yesterday b/c I was “this close” to writing you on Fb to get you to help me find it (it took me FOREVER).

      Coming from an anti-authoritarian, anti-traditional background, you know I don’t put a ton of theological stock in TULIP, although I’m familiar with Calvin’s teachings from my days at a Presbyterian high school. Perhaps this is a misunderstanding, but it seems from my experience that the people who believe in total depravity (including you, perhaps?) don’t give proper weight to the other side of Lewis’ theory–not to mention to the host of NT Scripture that suggest the extremely high potential of man. There seems to be a resignation to “the way things are and will always be” instead of a drive to enter into the will of God and work to make them better. Am I wrong here? Feel free to adjust my viewpoint.

      Also, it seems to me that the Calvinist view of total depravity suggests that no one who is not a Christian could ever do anything that is good. I might be totally wrong in assigning that belief (one Bible class my Junior year of high school hardly makes me an expert in Calvinism), but if that’s true, I just can’t swallow that premise. My argument based on Scripture (and I use Lewis for logical back-up) is that, with God’s intervention, we can rise as high as we can sink low. I haven’t worked out all the kinks, but that’s where I am right now, at least.


      • Posted by Tim on March 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm

        Kim, total depravity does not teach that the unredeemed person is without any goodness, because God’s common graces touch every life. It does posit, however, that there is not a part of an unredeemed life that is unsullied. One major difference between the redeemed and the unredeemd (and which touches on this issue of depravity) is found in Hebrews 11:6 – “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

        Impossible: what a word! It’s that difference of faith that redeems even the sullied parts of a believer’s actions, and which makes even the good parts of the non-believer’s life unable to please God. Like C.S. Lewis said (and which you point out in the earlier post on him you link to today), I don’t make this stuff up; I’m just going by what the Bible says.



  2. Posted by Tim on March 19, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Kim, thank you for capturing the heart of what it means to be fallen and saved. Isn’t is amazing that the same book that tells us all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory is the same book that says we are made in his image, that we shall be like him when we see him face to face? And you’re right, we are capable of more than we can imagine. I wonder what I’ll think on the day a tree jumps into the sea just because I tell it to. Or even better, when I am doing good as Jesus did good, building God’s kingdom as Christ builds his kingdom.


    P.S. The editor at The Radical Journey gave you a shout out today at the head of my latest article: This piece kind of ties in with your points here, I think, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.


    • I know, Tim. I love that spectrum of possibility outlined by Scripture. I find so much hope in the teachings of the New Testament.

      Now, I’m about to hop over to see your latest offering…


  3. Posted by bekster081305 on March 19, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    I agree with your thoughts here, Kim. When I read that C.S. Lewis passage for the first time several months ago, I thought it made a lot of sense. I would possibly go even further to say that, just as we are capable of more “good” through the Holy Spirit, humans can be influenced by “evil spirits” (whatever that means) to do more “bad.” (Whether people are possessed or simply swayed externally, I don’t know.) It just seems like, over the past year or two, I have witnessed too many people who are supposed to be “good” people fall (in bizarre and troubling ways), right in the midst of a wave of positive works by the Spirit. I think what I’m trying to say is that humans get caught in the cross-fire of spiritual warfare. The Holy Spirit starts stirring up something good, but then Satan (or demons or whatever–I don’t fully understand this stuff) comes in and starts taking out the more powerful players. Suddenly, you start hearing shocking things about people you have always loved and respected, and it is obvious that there is something really wrong going on. I think this is more than them simply living up (down?) to their potential for “bad;” in these situations, I believe that there are actually spiritual forces at work. I don’t know if this is the case with the Invisible Children guy or with the soldier (I’m not sure what their starting points were), but it wouldn’t surprise me.


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