Memorial to what?

War: Reports of U.S. troop misconduct should give us pause, too, on holiday

May 28, 2000

ON MEMORIAL Day weekend, we properly pause to remember and honor the triumphs and sacrifices of the nation's veterans.

Millions of men and women have served honorably and courageously to defend their country. They are due a nation's gratitude and thanks.

But this year's commemoration may be tempered by recent reports of unsavory conduct by U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf war. Even when we fight "good" wars for "good" reasons, some of what a few U.S. troops do in our name is not what holiday parades are intended to celebrate.

In 1991, the triumph of the U.S.-led armles that pummeled the Iraqi army was hailed as a cause for patriotic joy. In that atmosphere, reports of carnage that seemed to go well beyond what was necessary provoked little public consternation or debate.

But a report written by Seymour Hersch in the May 22 issue of New Yorker magazine strongly suggests that the scope of misconduct by a few American units went beyond what news reports -- from a press corps tightly controlled by the Pentagon-- indicated.

Mr. Hersch has unearthed evidence and testimony from front-line U.S, soldiers and high-ranking military officials that some U.S. soldiers fired on fleeing civilians and on troops that had surren-dered and given up their weapons.

In at least one instance, it ap-pears an American regiment, with little or no provocation, ferociously bombarded Iraqi units that were in orderly retreat under a cease-fire. These actions may have caused hundreds of needless deaths.

The accuracy of Mr. Hersch's charges remains in dispute, but they don't stand alone. Last year, the Associated Press published disturbing reports, now also in dispute, that U.S. troops massacred fleeing civilians at No Gun Ri during the Korean War. And the moral ambiguities of America's involvement in Vietnam are made even more complex by reported brutalities by U.S. troops there.

Such appalling actions dishonor the vast majority of soldiers who performed their duties with admirable restraint and diligence.

But the point here is broader. War is the ugliest of human acts, one that inspires a few good guys to. do horrible things by dulling the sharp lines We draw between right and wrong. That, as much as any other reason, is why war is best avoided, not pursued.

During memorial celebrations, let us honor those who have served their country, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. And let us rededicate ourselves to bringing excesses of war to light so that we may learn from our mis-takes and not repeat them in the future.

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