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March 16, 1968. Fifty years ago, U. S. soldiers killed as many as 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians. Perhaps the worst war crime in American history.
Two years after that, I was flying in a helicopter. The door gunner leaned over to me, pointed to a village, and shouted, “That’s My Lai.”
On some level, I expected to see obvious evil. What I saw was an ordinary village. The now famous drainage ditch was just a ditch. Ordinary. Ordinary.
As were the soldiers ordinary Americans.
Over the years, I have taken from this two lessons. One is that, under certain conditions, we are all capable of great evil.
The second is my response to the idea that, when you are close to death, you can do anything you want. Just the opposite is true. Perhaps this is when morality matters most of all.
As written so well by Hannah Arendt in “The Banality of Evil”.
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