Vietnam through New Eyes, part 4. My Lai and the trail of tears

Ronald S. Haeberle//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

So many places drew us away from the breathtaking landscape, the mouth-watering cuisine, and inviting art galleries and toward the American experience in Vietnam. Toward places familiar from books and contemporaneous television news: Red Beach #2 in Danang, where the first U.S. combat troops landed in March, 1965; China Beach, where the GI’s went for R ‘n’ R; Hien Luong Bridge, over the Ben Hai River in Quang Tri Province at the 17th parallel, dividing north Vietnam from south; the head of the Ho Chi Minh trail, and the Vinh Moc tunnels, which the North Vietnamese dug by hand to move people and supplies to their soldiers – tunnels in which they hid by day and from which they emerged at night to fight. The tunnels are a testament to North Vietnam’s ingenuity and included meeting rooms, wells, and health room. Sixty families lived in the Vinh Moc tunnels, and 17 children were born in the narrow, dank interior.

There are many military cemeteries, those in the North better maintained than those in the South, per order of the Communist government in Hanoi.  Some cemeteries have graves for the unknown as far as the eye can see; others have mass graves to collect remnants of soldiers.

No place drew us more ineluctably than My Lai, a hamlet in Son My village, in Quang Ngai Province, site of the infamous My Lai massacre. There, on March 16, 1968 Lt. William Calley

led some 100 soldiers from Charlie Company in the mass killing of 504 Vietnamese villagers. They were civilians, mostly women and children, including 56 infants.  Calley’s orders were to wipe out the Viet Cong in Son My, but army intelligence had been wrong. The VC were nowhere to be found. Frustrated and reportedly enraged by American casualties suffered in the recent Tet offensive, Calley and his men drove on, setting homes on fire, slaughtering farm animals, gang-raping women and, finally, shooting people as they lay on top of each other in a ditch, throwing a grenade or two after them for good measure.

But for a few brave Americans who defied his orders and gathered evidence to prove the crime, the horror might have gone unnoticed. Freelance writer Seymour Hersh took the story public late in 1969. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. Noteworthy for standing tall were Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who refused to turn his guns on the terrorized civilians and helped guide some villagers to safety, crew members Lawrence Colburn and Glen Andreotta. It took until 1998 for the three to be honored for their bravery, Andreotta posthumously. The museum at My Lai also pays tribute to GI Ronald Ridenhour, who heard from buddies what had happened at My Lai, gathered eyewitness accounts on his own, and wrote to officials in Congress and the Pentagon, finally prompting an official investigation.

Calley was the only soldier tried for the slaughter. He was given a life sentence at hard labor, but President Richard Nixon, having previously tried to discredit a witness to the massacre, set Calley’s release in motion, which happened shortly after Nixon left office.  Fourteen others were charged but never tried. One other officer was court martialed but found not guilty. The event polarized both those for and against the war but especially intensified home front opposition.

As we stand in the modest museum in My Lai commemorating the massacre, it’s hard to get our heads around this event. Could it just have been the fog of war? The confusion of challenging circumstances? The depravity that all wars engender? Remember the Haditha massacre of 2007, when U.S. Marines in Iraq shot to death 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women, children and elderly,  in revenge for the IED killing of a comrade? Are such horrors inevitable accidents, or are atrocities simply tacitly accepted war policy?

Such crimes probably happen more often than we like to think. The very same day in My Son in March of 1968, there were similar slaughters in other nearby My Lai area hamlets.  A large bronze plate is inscribed with the names and ages of the slain villagers. My Lai is not on the usual tourist itinerary. On the day we went, our guide, my husband and I were the only visitors. We viewed the horrific photos and relics while moving silently from room to room.

Nearly 50 years to the day from the massacre, we stopped en route to the My Lai killing field at a local pig market, vibrant and colorful. (Seeing the little squealers jammed together into crates and hauled off to become next day’s spring roll or pho soup was enough to make me consider becoming a vegetarian!)  Through our translator, Jim questioned farmers and buyers about their thoughts on My Lai, just down the road. Their recollections were dim, if they remembered at all. (Three quarters of the population of Vietnam are under 40 years old.)  Even for the older generation, more prone to “forgive but not forget,” their minds are on their families and their livelihoods.  Perhaps today’s economic and security relationship with the United States, especially given Vietnamese tensions with China, transcends that horrifying history.  As Americans, however, there are valuable lessons in forcing ourselves to remember what happened here.

Some American veterans have done just that.  A group from Veterans for Peace helped to restore a Guernica-like mosaic mural near the museum depicting the slaughter. GI’s have raised money for scholarships for Vietnamese children. Some have left plantings and memorial plaques. We left a contribution.

Under a fragrant frangipani tree, a plaque from veteran Billy Kelly reads in part “Mai Khong Quen,” which translates as “Never Forget.” And we shall not.

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