My Lai, Thirty Years After

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The sun scorches down on the car, baking the black vinyl seats. They feel pliant as new tar. Tank top and shorts—the uniform of choice—offers no respite, and my bandanna is soaked in minutes. Sweat stings my eyes. The wind through the car’s open windows feels like a steady breeze from an oven: constant, unbearable. This is Vietnam in mid-July.

 

I am on my way to visit the site of the 1968 My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam-American War. On that March day soldiers from Charlie Company fired for four hours on the village of My Lai 4, near Pinkville in Quang Ngai Province. I am an American traveling with an Australian couple three hours by car from Hoi An south to My Lai. I met them days before on a boat trip in Nha Trang, and, as often happens with travelers, our paths crossed again, in Hoi An. After telling them of my plans for the following day, they asked if they could split the cost and accompany me on my journey. We booked a car for seven the next morning, hoping to drive before the worst of the midday heat began. We were promised an English-speaking driver.

“Hello,” he said when we climbed in the car. We’d arranged to be picked up outside Hoi An, in an alley where authorities wouldn’t see foreigners climbing into a car that wasn’t governmentauthorized. If caught, the driver would be heavily fined.

I greeted him, then asked how far it was to My Lai.

“Yes, My Lai,” he said.

“How far?”

“Hello,” he said.

I hadn’t specified how much English was required.

For three weeks I had been in Vietnam, partly through wanderlust but mostly because I had taught Vietnam War literature for nearly three years. I’d researched the topic in graduate school. At first the romance had appealed to me, innocent, doomed young men following the orders of a wrongheaded government, but gradually the romance slipped away, and my interest became academic. And personal. I wanted to be an expert on Vietnam War literature, but I also wanted to experience a Vietnam outside books, a Vietnam before capitalism changed the country’s face entirely.

Vietnam has two seasons in July. The far south, beginning at Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) through the Mekong Delta, and the far north, beginning at Hanoi up to the Chinese border, are in the midst of the rainy season, with heavy monsoons pelting down on buildings, people, and trees every afternoon and often all day. Even rain gear can’t keep you dry. Sometimes it rains so hard you can’t open your eyes, and water floods the streets, uphill and down. The entire middle section of Vietnam, however, is desert dry and hot, so hot you sweat even in what little air conditioning you can find. You sweat with wind sailing through a moving car’s windows; you sweat all night long, tossing and turning in as few clothes as possible and never any covers; you sweat and you wonder how soldiers ever endured it with their gear and their long pants and their boots. How could they have stood the heat, you wonder, without letting yourself imagine how they could have stood the other things.

The mood in the car is somber; no one talks most of the way. Together the Australians and I watch a motorbike buried under more than a hundred dead ducks tied together and slung behind, on top of, and in front of the driver as he pulls beside, then passes our car. The ducks’ eyes and beaks are open, flapping with the bumps in the road as if startled to be caught so suddenly by death. One of the Australians asks me how I feel.

“Hot,” I tell her. “Sweaty. My water bottle is boiling.”

This is not the answer she is looking for, I know. What does she want to hear? I feel guilty that American soldiers killed innocent Vietnamese? A yearning to unravel the world and manipulate the past so that it wouldn’t have happened?

I feel these things.

I also feel nothing.

In March of 1968, when Charlie Company opened fire on the civilians of My Lai, I was barely even a fetus. When Lt. William Galley was tried and found guilty, I was learning to wave good-bye. When he was released from house arrest, I was learning to count to three. I never personally knew anyone who died in the war. The Vietnam veterans I have happened to meet are middle-aged men now, some bitter, some angry, some indifferent, and all with other lives. Why does any of this matter to me?

When Charlie Company opened fire at My Lai, I was barely even a fetus. I never knew anybody who died in the war.

The car turns left off Highway 1, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and dust flies into our open windows. The North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong used the trail to supply their forces with ammunition, guns, food, and reinforcements. The Americans bombed it repeatedly. Today the road is narrow and bumpy despite the paving, and though there are streetlights in some places, I never saw one lit. Not long ago we passed Chu Lai, an old American base camp, one of the biggest during the war. Now it is nothing but a gate. Students in uniforms pass through this gate daily on their way to school. Beyond the gate they walk through fields devoid of life save for a few dry bushes scattered over the white, cracked earth. We slowed so I could get a photo of the gate. As we passed, a student cursed me.

“How do Americans feel about England now?” one of the Australians asks.