The Humanist Dilemma: My Brother-in-Law Boasts of War Crimes

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I Call It Murder: In my college days I protested the Vietnam War. My brother-in-law volunteered and fought as a Marine. I can live with that.

Recently he was in the mood to tell war stories and told us of returning from an engagement with the Viet Cong by helicopter and holding several Viet Cong prisoners. According to him, his party radioed ahead with this information. The folks on the other end told them, “No prisoners.” After repeating this exchange, they “dealt with the prisoners.” My brother-in-law didn’t outright say they threw them out of the helicopter but very strongly implied it. He said he was proud to have done what they did. I said nothing. I believe it to be a true story.

I see him as a murderer and war criminal, and even though he is fairly harmless at this time, I am finding it harder and harder to have anything to do with him because of this. At this late date, there’s no likelihood of prosecution, and I don’t think I could pursue it anyway since it’s based on hearsay. He is important to my wife so I don’t want to avoid him totally, but even a short exchange is getting difficult. Fortunately, he lives on the other coast so I only see him occasionally.

Any suggestions?

—Wars Never End

Dear Never End,

Reading this simultaneously takes my breath away and makes me sick to my stomach. I believe you are correct about everything you say: that the story is probably true, that it’s probably impossible to prove or pursue, that it’s difficult to have anything to do with someone who is proud about such egregious behavior, and that you don’t want to distress your wife.

If your wife has heard this story, it’s fine to tell her you want little or nothing to do with her brother. If she hasn’t heard it and you don’t want to burden her with it, you can try to simply explain that there are things about her brother that bother you and that you want to avoid contact with him as much as possible. (Unless you think that would lead her to insist on details.)

On the other hand, there may be opportunity to let your wife’s brother know how distressed you are by his alleged actions and reactions to them, and perhaps urge him to seek psychological therapy. Stories like his are not uncommon in the context of war. Very likely, your brother-in-law had no real choice about what happened in that moment, and possibly the experience was as horrifying for him as it is to you. He may even be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other repressed emotions, and he’s masking them with bravado. If you were willing to engage with him rather than keeping your distance, you might be able to nudge him toward recognizing he has a problem he needs to face.

Beyond that, you could resume your anti-war activism to end current and future wars. For example, you could check out the organizations that belong to the Divest from the War Machine Coalition to find one that needs your support.