My Lai, Thirty Years After

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No, I want to tell her, I don’t see. I don’t see what you see at all. I see men who obeyed the leaders of their country, then lost themselves. The Australians are nodding, horrified. I want to tell them she is wrong, but I hesitate, and the three of them move on to other displays. I stumble, follow, stand behind them.

The woman walks us around the room. On the walls there are pictures of people: Lieutenant Galley, who was the first platoon leader; Capt. Ernest Medina, the company commander; Oran Henderson, the brigade commander. Of them all, soldiers and commanders, Galley was the sole man tried and found guilty. He served three years under house arrest. There are others, Ron Ridenhour, the soldier whose letters spurred the initial investigation in Washington, Ron Herberle, whose photos told the story of My Lai 4, and two South Vietnamese interpreters, who testified to the massacre in 1978.

There are pictures of helicopters landing, soldiers walking with guns drawn or M-16s blasting away, hamlets burning. The black-and-white photos have been blown up so that the details are blurry, as though the world that day was trapped in clouds.

Glass cases hold items from the villagers: one woman’s conical hat and betel-nut spittoon, a young girl’s shoe, a bullet-riddled cooking pot, marbles, and a little boy’s school notebooks. There are enlarged news clips from papers all over the world. The woman points to the photo of a wounded American soldier after he shot himself in the foot because he refused to participate.

“He killed himself a few years ago,” the woman tells us. She adds, “He was unable to live with the memories of the massacre.”

Does she know how many men and women are unable to live with the memories? Or how many are forced to? Yes, men from my country did a horrible thing. But men from my country also brought this horrible thing to light. Men from my country fed Vietnamese citizens, played with Vietnamese children, fought for something they had been led to believe was worthwhile.

The woman leads us outside, where the sun again is blazing. She points out the statues, then leads us to the enormous one at the end of the sidewalk. To the left is a palm tree, its trunk pocked with bullet holes. The statue depicts a small band of people, some dead, some dying. One woman holds the limp form of a baby, her other arm raised high in proud defiance. One slowly dies in the arms of another. The artist, our guide explains, is from Hanoi. He married one of the six survivors.

Our guide shows us the graves of entire families killed—504 dead in all, she tells us. Next to each grave are the remnants of what was once the family’s dwelling. Though they were all burned down, the foundations remain, a foot or so high and covered with grass, weeds, flowers. There are two replicas of bomb shelters, which we crawl inside (the darkness is remarkably cool), and a monument next to an irrigation ditch where more than one hundred bodies were found. I come to a wall of tiny colored tiles, a mosaic. Flames shoot up and around people running, falling, screaming. It is mostly red. There is a heated stillness to everything here. Not a sound, as if the horror of that day were the final voice, the village now enshrined in silence.

The woman leads us to a tiny room next to the museum where we are offered hot tea and given a large red book to record our thoughts in. She leaves for a few minutes, then returns, places a box on the table for donations. I do not remind her that we already paid entrance fees. The Australians and I leave the box untouched. I am glad to see that on this small coercion they feel as I do.

The guest book is passed to me, and I suddenly feel the pressure to write something profound and remorseful. I thumb through the hundreds of entries. A few from U.S. soldiers catch my eye; they all write their ranks and the years of their tours of duty. Many apologize. There are foreigners: Germans, Australians, Dutch, Japanese. Some write about war in general, how wrong and evil it is. Others are more personal. “The Americans should pay retribution,” declares one German. “How can the Americans commit such atrocities?” a Japanese woman asks. What country in the world, I wonder, can claim freedom from terrible mistakes? Who are you in Germany to cast judgment? You in Japan, China, Africa? Wars, whether just or unjust, are still simply, horribly wars.

I write something general in the book, about wanting better for the future, about learning to have the character to admit our blunders. What I really want to write, though, is how strangely proud I am, at that moment, for that one hour and on that one day in the relentless heat of a murdered village, to be an American confronting an ugly passage in her nation’s past, to see how no one—no history, no country—is free from its dark moments, and that it is in this human frailty that we can find unity, that we can work toward a future where My Lais will never happen again.

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