A Gordian Knot

by W.D. Ehrhart

I was among a small unit of U.S. Marines who entered Hue City, Vietnam, on January 31st, 1968, at the beginning of what turned out to be the Tet Offensive. The city had been secretly occupied by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces (VC/NVA), and it took us nearly a month to drive them out. By the time we were done, the city was largely in ruins.

A year and a half later, and immediately after public revelation of the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by units of the U.S. Americal Division at a place known as My Lai, the Nixon Administration accused the VC/NVA of murdering anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 innocent civilians during their occupation of Hue City.

This accusation has since been absorbed wholesale by American popular culture and even many historians as fact, although there is no documentary or photographic evidence supporting the claim. There was supposedly a written list of those to be murdered that turned up briefly in 1969, but has since disappeared.

I personally believe that this is all “urban mythology” designed to demonstrate that, yes, well, maybe we Americans got carried away now and then, but look how bad the other guys were; there’s no comparison.

During a visit to Hue City in 1990, I spent time with a former VC medic who had been in the battle, and I asked him about the so-called “Hue Massacre.” He told me that several hundred Vietnamese had been executed. The VC/NVA had rounded up collaborators who had been working for the Saigon government and the U.S. military and were taking them to the mountains west of the city, but U.S. forces had cut off the escape routes faster than the VC/NVA had anticipated.

The choices were therefore: try to herd several hundred captives through American lines, turn them all loose, or kill them. I vividly remember him saying to me, in English, “Look what the French did to their traitors who collaborated with the Nazis. What did you expect us to do?”

But how then does one account for the mass graves that were subsequently unearthed around the city? Let me tell you something, folks. This was a big city. We were fighting house to house, floor to floor, room to room. We didn’t have the luxury of ringing the doorbell, waiting until someone answered, and then asking who was home.

You kicked in the door, flipped in a grenade, stepped in and emptied half a magazine on full automatic, and then looked around to see who was there. A lot of civilians were killed in the process, not because we targeted them, but only because they got caught in the middle of one of the most ferocious battles of that ugly war.

And when the fighting was over, all those dead civilians had to be disposed of. You don’t just leave them lying around, and in many cases there was neither time nor opportunity for families to reclaim their dead. Many of the dead had been dead for days and weeks, and were already decomposing, presenting a terrible health risk.

But regardless of how they died or who killed them, however, they were still innocent and still dead. This is what happens in urban warfare waged in built-up and heavily populated areas. And Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the entire world.

There seems to be incontrovertible evidence that Hamas actively targeted civilians in a murderous rampage on the first day of their assault. Even if that were not the case, I would have no fondness or sympathy for Hamas, an organization that makes no secret of its desire to remove the state of Israel from the face of the earth.

But—always that “but”—Yitzak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords and was working toward a peaceful solution to the Israel/Palestine dilemma, was not murdered by a Palestinian, but by an ultranationalist Israeli. Netanyahu came to power soon after Rabin’s assassination, and during his long off-and-on tenure, he has made it perfectly clear that he harbors pretty much the same wish for Palestine as Hamas has for Israel.

At least some members of the Netanyahu government are just as bloodthirsty and uncompromising as Hamas, and with no apparent reluctance, Netanyahu feeds those extremists the red meat they demand, undermining the Palestinian Authority, constantly opening new Israeli settlements in the West Bank, building walls to separate Palestinian farmers from their livelihoods, and generally making life miserable for ordinary Palestinians with checkpoints, searches, restrictions of movement, and a thousand and one disruptions to daily life.

Meanwhile, let’s assume that Hamas did indeed deliberately and brutally target innocent civilians on the opening day of their attack. There is, as I have said in writing previously, absolutely no justification for that. None. Zero. Zilch. Not even a history of similar behavior by terrorist groups such as the Irgun and the Stern Gang. Murder is murder, and innocent civilians are just that.

But—again that “but”—a dead Palestinian child in the rubble of a building destroyed by a 500-pound bomb dropped from an Israeli F-16 is still just as dead as an Israeli child shot by a Hamas gunman. That the pilot may not have been targeting that Palestinian child is not likely to be of much comfort to the child’s parents. Urban warfare will inevitably produce dead civilians.

In his poem “Olympic Hopscotch Leap,” the Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha describes an errant Israeli drone missile that vaporizes his infant niece: “We look around and find only / her milk bottle.” And this taking place not in the midst of a Hamas offensive, but on a “hot night of Ramadan” while the family drinks tea. Day after day, month after month, year after year. To argue, “well, yeh, but the other guys are worse,” just doesn’t cut it.

So what is the path forward? How do Israelis and Palestinians extricate themselves from this Gordian Knot. As I wrote in an earlier essay, “Is Peace Possible?” I’m not optimistic. But my Jewish friend Wayne Karlin, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War who has lived in Israel, is more hopeful than I am.

Wayne recently sent me a position statement from a group called Combatants for Peace, which he describes as veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces, former members of the Palestinian resistance, ex-prisoners, and members of families who have lost people on either side. The statement ends: “This is not a time for revenge or collective punishment of the innocent. The only solution is ending the occupation. We call for non-violence, a renewed sense of humanity, and better days ahead for all of our children.”

President Biden has declared repeatedly in recent weeks, “We stand with Israel.” What the heck does that mean? Maybe we ought to be standing with organizations like Combatants for Peace, Peace Now, Standing Together, The Parents Circle, and other groups of Israelis and Palestinians dedicated to finding a peaceful and permanent solution to endless oppression, violence, and hatred that has been life in this part of the world for well over a century.


W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.

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