We hear an eerie echo on the anniversary of America’s darkest day in the Vietnam War — our country’s most vivid lesson in the fallacy of nation building. An incident last week in Afghanistan forces us to again face the reality that we cannot shape the world in our image.

When we try, we fail; we failed in Southeast Asia, we have failed in Afghanistan.

On March 16, 1968, in a village named My Lai, American soldiers pushed too far by the power in their hands and maddened by world they could not understand, murdered as many as 500 unarmed civilians. Most of the victims were women, children — including babies — and elderly; some were mutilated.

Last week, there was a massacre in Panjwai district of the south Afghanistan province of Kandahar. An apparently lone American soldier launched a single-handed attack on Afghan villagers. The soldier, Robert Bales, is said to have broken into three homes in three different locations in a remote farming community. The investigation is ongoing, and details of the incident are still raw, but it appears the soldier shot 16 people, nine of them children, and wounded five. Some of the bodies had been set on fire.

In the end, the My Lai Massacre led to charges against 26 American soldiers but only one conviction. Lt. William Calley was found guilty of killing 26 people. He received a life sentence, but he only served 3 1/2 years under house arrest. The reason given for what some believe was a complete lack of American accountability was that the village was considered a stronghold of enemy sympathizers and that the troops were suffering from the stress of fighting a war they were ill-prepared to fight, in a country and culture they could not understand.

The only good thing to come from the My Lai Massacre, when it finally became public almost a year later, was that it ratcheted up domestic and international opposition to America’s failed nation-building policy in Vietnam — and that America’s basic goodness was evidenced in that three U.S. servicemen refused orders on that dark day and tried to stop the killing and protect innocents.

The only good thing that can come from the Panjwai massacre, is that we fully understand the failure of President Bush’s nation-building decision, wrongly acquiesced to by President Obama for too long. We now need to get out of the Afghan quagmire, and we need to get out as soon as possible, for the good of our country and for the good of our overstressed military.

We do not need more evidence of America’s basic goodness — our soldiers have done their job and, in the overwhelming majority, they have done so honorably, but we need to make our basic goodness clear to the world again.

We will let the American military legal system have its way, and Bales have his day in court. But is there any doubt that contributing to the soldier’s actions was the fact that he had served repeated tours in Iraq and now was in Afghanistan? Is there any doubt that we all have allowed a misled international policy to put our troops in an impossible situation?

America has a great military, certainly the most powerful on earth. But our military should not be in the business of conquering and then rebuilding nations in our image, especially those that have never known democratic government. That didn’t work in Vietnam; it will not work in Afghanistan. We heard that clearly 44 years ago; we hear its echo last week.

— The Bennington (Vt.) Banner

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