March 16, 1968 – My Lai

March 16 – Thoughts on The My Lai Massacre

My thoughts on My Lai, and on the American involvement in Vietnam in general, are all over the place.  No matter what opinion one might hold about the war or any particular aspect of it, there is someone who will be offended or otherwise disagree.  On a very personal level, I hold a strong affinity for Vietnam having twice visited that country, in 2000 and 2002.  I have friends there as a result.  I also have a better understanding of my father as well as a bond with him over our mutual appreciation for and fascination with Vietnam, though I wouldn’t claim to know it as intimately as he does since he served three tours of duty as a member of the Special Forces during the conflict as opposed to the roughly five weeks I’ve spent there as a tourist during peacetime.

The recent Vietnam documentary series on PBS did little to change the hearts and minds of many who were alive during that time, especially those who served in the military.  Ken Burns and his co-director Lynne Novick seem to believe that their series would be the healing tonic for a generation.  But while I personally feel it was fairly balanced (as it should be in 2018), it still had significant flaws in my view.  And it certainly didn’t heal any military wounds.  But what about My Lai specifically?  That unfathomable event happened on this day, fifty years ago.

There are veterans including my father who, though they’ve been open in the past to discussing their experiences in Vietnam, would prefer not to dwell on them any further.  Some would say the topic of My Lai has been worn out and that there’s no point in continuing to harp on it, and I respect that opinion if it’s held by a Vietnam Veteran.  I just don’t agree with it.  America never did come to grips with My Lai or the overall war, and since we’ve moved on to other wars including the current one in Afghanistan which has supplanted Vietnam as the longest running American war, we probably never will.  But My Lai should never be forgotten.

However, there is one element of the Vietnam War where I agree with many who feel we shouldn’t need to continue to reexamine My Lai, and that is the fact that the communist regime still in place there does not acknowledge its own atrocities committed against the Vietnamese people, namely in Hue during the Tet Offensive.  For true healing to take place, both sides have to put it all on the table.  There are honorable Americans in Vietnam as I write such as The Veterans For Peace (VFP), including my acquaintance  Chuck Searcy, seeking reconciliation with the Vietnamese people beyond the formal diplomatic ties reestablished years back.

For this entry, I’ve chosen to include only one photo from that day.  There are many others showing in graphic detail the carnage that took place at the hands of the U.S. Army, but the photo below which captures the final seconds of an entire family is as horrifying as it gets.  Note the woman in the back holding her child while she calmly buttons her shirt.  It’s as if she knows what’s about to happen, but wants to maintain a hint of her dignity.

This entire family was murdered moments after the photo was taken.  Ronald Haeberle photo.

I’ll preface what I’m about to write by saying in no way am I absolving platoon leader Lieutenant William Calley Jr. and his men who participated in the slaughter of up to 504 innocent civilians, mostly women, children, and old men.  But as I’ve tried to gain a better understanding of the massacre by imagining what it was like for those soldiers on that day based on the overall known facts, I can’t help but wonder if I too would’ve cracked.  On the other hand, I’d also like to believe I would’ve had the moral courage to do as Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., the helicopter pilot who confronted Calley’s men and rescued some of the villagers once he realized what was happening on the ground.

Lt. William Calley, Jr. was given a life sentence for his role in the My Lai Massacre.  He was paroled in 1974.
Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., the helicopter pilot who confronted the U.S. soldiers during the massacre and saved some of the innocent civilians.

No, I’ve no sympathy for the plight of Calley or his willing participants, but the biggest criminals of all in my mind were the U.S. military leaders and those in government who put people like Calley in that position in the first place, and that goes right up to LBJ.  When you send soldiers clear across the planet where most of them are ignorant of the culture, where they’re being shot at by an enemy they often cannot see, then tell them the main measure of their progress is their “body count,” then you have a recipe for what took place at My Lai.  I believe most American soldiers would not have acted as Calley and his men did, but the wrong platoon was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and war truly must be hell as stated by William Tecumseh Sherman.

I visited My Lai in the summer of 2002 on a student research trip and had the opportunity to sit down with a survivor from that day, Mr. Pham Thanh Cong.  He was a child in 1968, and his entire family was trapped in a bunker when a U.S. soldier tossed in a grenade.  Those who weren’t killed by the grenade were shot, but he survived by hiding underneath one of his relatives.  Walking those grounds was an experience I’ll never forget.

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Mr. Pham Thanh Cong (right), survivor of the My Lai Massacre, greeting me in the hamlet of My Lai, 2002.
A bunker in the hamlet of My Lai with a sign explaining what happened to those who sought shelter inside it, 2002.
A family memorial, My Lai.