"Oh, he run 'way."
"Why didn't you catch him?"
"He run very fast."
"Then why didn't you shoot him?"
Nay Re gave Crews a hurt look. "You say no shoot man he no have gun. This man no have gun. We take away."
The whole point of a rifle is that you can see what you're shooting at. There's no point in shooting unarmed people because they're not shooting at you. Most civilian casualties are caused by artillery and bombing, which are by definition area weapons and indiscriminate. When they're used in conjunction with infantry attacks, they're called "suppressive fires." Their function is to keep the enemy's head down so you can take his position without getting a lot of your own guys killed. When the enemy position is in an inhabited village, well...
The Rules of Engagement vary from war to war and battle to battle, but in Vietnam the rules were designed to minimize civilian casualties, very much at the expense of the GIs. When you don't use suppressive fires, the enemy has a big advantage. There is nothing but what the GI has with him to keep the defenders from killing the attackers.
I was talking to Mark Berent, a retired Air Force fighter jock and bestselling author (Rolling Thunder, Steel Tiger), bemoaning the fact that our GIs were called "baby killers" when they lost so many trying to avoid civilian casualties. "I'd say at least half the casualties on the Wall were a direct result of our efforts to avoid civilian casualties."
"I'd say all of 'em," Mark replied.
From an Air Force perspective we could have turned all of Vietnam into blasted earth and dead people and not lost a man.
If you knew all the relevant factors (which nobody ever does) beforehand, you could just about work out the casualty figures on a calculator. So the question is, "How many GIs are you going to sacrifice to avoid how many dead babies?" Is it worth losing ten GIs to avoid one dead baby? Is one for one okay? One dead GI for a hundred dead babies?
If the combat actions since Vietnam are any indication, the determining factor is television. The American public will accept any number of dead babies if they're just numbers in a newspaper. But if they're a pattern of colored dots on a cathode ray tube, then we have to back off, a lot of GIs die, and we lose the war.
I was home on terminal leave when Lt. William Calley was being tried for the My Lai massacre. I was so outraged at what he had done, at the disgrace he had brought on the U.S. Army, that I actually thought about putting on my uniform and going to Ft. Benning to blow him away. I was being retired of wounds, but I still had my .45, and I shoot pretty well left-handed.
I cleaned the weapon and sat looking at it for about four hours. I didn't do it, of course. It would have just been more of the same. Now I'm glad I didn't. I'd rather be dead than have Lt. Calley's dreams.