Parts of books will stay with you, sometimes because they inform or inspire (or enable you to get off), but most of all because they provide nightmare fuel. I think nightmare fuel is especially prominent in one passage of a book I’ve finished recently, Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie.
This fine book is entwined history of the disastrous involvement of the United States in the Vietnam war and the career of an American Army officer and later civil servant, John Paul Vann, a man of extraordinary energy and intellect and, at the same time, some deep moral flaws. Vann though that the U.S. could win the war, and went to his death in a helicopter crash in 1972 thinking that.
There’s a great deal that Sheehan writes, both about the man and the war he believed in, that’s memorable in this thick book, but one thing that I just can’t evacuate from my mind no matter how hard I try to helicopter it out. It is an incident that occurs in 1965, by which point Vann is a USAID civilian adviser. Here is Sheehan’s account:
[The incident] occurred at the end of April, on the afternoon of the day the Ranger company was overrun at So Do. A young peasant woman and her two children and two of her friends and their children were cutting sugar cane in a field about a mile away. VNAF [South Vietnamese air force] and U.S. Air Force fighter-bombers had been called out, as they invariably were after such debacles on the Saigon side, and were over the air with spotter planes looking for long-gone guerillas. Two fighter-bombers made a pass over the sugercane field. To try to indicate that they were not Viet Cong, the woman and her friends and the children did not run. The planes made several more passes and the women their children kept cutting sugar cane, hoping that their innocence would be recognized. On the next pass the planes dropped napalm. The young woman was the only survivor of the eight in the field. Vann and Ramsey [Douglas Ramsey another U.S. advisor working as an assistant to Vann] found out what had happened when she walked into Bau Trai for treatment at the dispensary and they questioned her. Both of her arms were burned so badly they were going to have to be amputated. She would never be able to close her eyes to sleep again because her eyelids had been scorched away. She was eight months pregnant with another child, but she was not going to be able to nurse her baby. The nipples of her breasts had been burned off.(p. 553)
Tell me again about how life is basically good, and how it is good to bring children into the world. If you really think that a fate like this is somehow made acceptable by the fact that other people have “good” lives, please explain to me how many similar fates (a lot of napalm was used in Vietnam, remember) we should prepare to tolerate for the sake of others “good” lives. Please explain how your number is computed and show your work.