The Inevitability of Songmy

The Inevitability of Songmy

Colonel Joseph Bellas is probably one of those ordinary officers not likely to be remembered in the annals of warfare, but he recently delivered himself of a statement that is unforgettable. The Colonel is in command of a hospital in Vietnam where a number of soldiers recently boycotted Thanksgiving dinner as a protest against the war. Said the Colonel, “They’re young, they’re idealistic and don’t like man’s inhumanity to man. As they get older, they will become wiser and more tolerant.”

Tolerant? Herbert Marcuse already accomplished a feat of semantic legerdemain when he talked about “repressive tolerance,” but the Colonel beats the dialectician. In his dictionary tolerance is equated with lack of compassion, insensitivity, and a loss of the essential human quality of empathy.

Yet, in a sense, Colonel Bellas does not distort the American experience in Vietnam; he merely expresses it with characteristic bluntness. A consequence of American involvement in Vietnam has been the atrophy of human sensibilities among nearly all those who have been involved in it.

What strikes one most about the massacre at Songmy or Pinkville on March 16, 1968, is not that it occurred, but that it took more than a year and a half until it came to public knowledge. It seems apparent that participants, superior officers at headquarters in Washington, and Mr. Thieu’s government—even the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong—saw it as an event not far removed from the ordinary. The “other side” apparently did not consider it qualitatively different from other atrocities committed by Americans, and “our side” seems to have shared the opinion.


Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: