Vietnam Veteran Larry Colburn: War Destroys People

Our good friends at the Peace Abbey circulated this op-ed by Vietnam veteran Larry Colburn on March 16, 2012, the 44th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre. Colburn is the lone survivor of the three men on the helicopter that intervened to help stop that massacre of as many as 500 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam in 1968.

Having lived through the most brutal horrors of war where soldiers mutilate and attack unarmed citizens, this brave and knowing veteran reminds us that “the experience of war transforms people into something they never, ever wanted to become.” We must demand of our leaders to know what we are accomplishing by continuing the longest war in American history for even one more day.

Larry Colburn is a recipient of the Courage of Conscience Award and co-chair of Stonewalk, a memorial stone for Unknown Civilians Killed in War.

War Should Be Used As A Last Resort, Not a First

by Larry Colburn

So, an American soldier has apparently lost whatever sanity, or at least humanity, he once possessed, and murdered numerous civilians in Afghanistan. His name has not been released to the public — yet. He is alleged to have shot to death at close range at least 16 people, including children sleeping in their beds, and may have burned some of the bodies as well — a nightmarish act of wanton brutality.

How could this happen? It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to since March 16, 1968 – 44 years ago this week – the date of the My Lai massacre. Since 2006, I have been the lone survivor of the three men on the helicopter, commanded by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr. — who later in life became my good friend — that intervened to help stop that massacre.

Today, President Obama stated that this latest atrocity by an American soldier “not comparable” to what happened in My Lai. He is correct. It is not comparable.

But there is a good reason to bring up My Lai right now, regardless of the differences. And the differences are great: in body count, in the number of perpetrators, and in the coordinated execution of mass murder by senior commanders. All of those things set My Lai apart from what is being called the Panjwai Shooting Spree.

Whatever names we give to these atrocities, they are stark reminders to a weary public of what war does to people — both the victims and the perpetrators. War destroys people, not just physically, but mentally. Whatever facts may emerge about the man who killed those civilians last Sunday, I am confident that it was his experience of war that transformed him into something he never, ever wanted to become. (This was reportedly his fourth tour of duty, after three in Iraq.)

This in no way excuses his acts, for which he will undoubtedly be prosecuted. And no matter what the outcome of that prosecution — whether his punishment is deemed too merciful or too severe by the many who will presume to opine on that subject — he will never rest easy for the rest of his life. His acts will haunt him to his dying day, just as they will haunt the families of his victims, who of course deserve compassion, and whatever measure of “justice” can be served by his prosecution.

Americans can debate the pros and cons of our mission in Afghanistan, begun more than a decade ago in hot pursuit of the terrorist – and the regime protecting him — who inflicted the worst attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor. And while my heart goes out to those who will surely be victims of the Taliban when America withdraws, I have my doubts about whether keeping our soldiers in Afghanistan even one more day is actually helping any of those we claim to be trying to help, as this tragic mass murder brings into high relief. Having served in combat in a war that was aptly described by the phrase, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it,” the parallels are growing ever more clear.

But while the generals and the pundits and the politicians weigh in, about “strategic objectives” and “protecting American interests” and all the usual justifications for the organized, planned murder of fellow human beings, I plead with you as my fellow Americans never to forget what war really is. Every military organization on earth trains young people, in the bloom of youth when they should be filled with hope and idealism and the joy of living, to dehumanize other human beings — to demonize them — so that the psychological ground is cultivated for them to do things they would only otherwise do if they were under mortal attack — that is to say to kill people.

And as long as we can rationalize that the people being killed “deserve it” — because they are “the enemy”— we have opened Pandora’s box, which as we know is damned hard to close once the lid is lifted.

While the “shooting spree of Panjwai” may not equal the horrors of My Lai in scale, it is a slap-in-the-face reminder of the hellish, irrevocable destruction that war wreaks upon both soldiers and civilians. It should force Americans to ask their leaders: what exactly we are trying to accomplish by continuing the longest war in American history?

Larry Colburn is a recipient of the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award and Co-Chair of Stonewalk, sponsored by the Peace Abbey to place a memorial stone for Unknown Civilians Killed in War at Arlington National Cemetery.

Carol Bedrosian is the publisher of Spirit of Change holistic magazine and can be reached at