7. Atrocity and Restraint

My Lai Villagers

My Lai Villagers

War inevitably involves killing. In peacetime, taking a person’s life is proscribed by societal taboos and laws. In battle, warriors are sanctioned to take lives within tightly controlled limits including the just war tradition, the laws of armed conflict, the rules of engagement, and other imposed restrictions. When these limits are violated, disciplined units take action against their own members to limit violence to what is permissible. The violent emotions unlocked by war, however, can violate the boundaries intended to limit violence. The chaos and disorder inherent to a battlefield give an opportunity to exceed the boundaries of what is permitted outside the observation of one’s unit, or one’s superiors. A unit may be collectively subject to strong emotions, discipline may break down and unit members may tolerate unjustified violence. Atrocity may also spring from a rational decision; a matter of convenience, for example, may be for a unit to kill prisoners to avoid being saddled with responsibilities of caring for them. At a higher level, commanders may demand unlawful violence (from “take no prisoners” to ordering genocide), creating major moral dilemmas for subordinates.

Required Readings

Book Reviews

  • Bilton, Michael. Four Hours in My Lai. New York: Viking, 1992.
  • Shay, Jonathan. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. New York: Scribner, 1994.


  • Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident (The Peers Report)

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