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My Lai, Thirty Years After

June 2024
10min read

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 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.

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 government authorized. 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.

England? I am silent for a moment, wondering if I’ve missed some important news event.

“You know,” she says, “the war?”

“The Revolutionary War?”


I am amazed to be asked this question; I nearly burst out laughing. Does any American harbor resentment about the miseries of the Revolution even in the furthest recesses of his consciousness? England? I think fish and chips, dark beer, castles, and scandalous royalty. It occurs to me she is looking for a connection to My Lai.

I explain to her that the circumstances of the two wars are not comparable. I ask about the connection she’s attempting to make, and she mumbles vaguely about imperialism and war. She has seen too much propaganda, I think. In Vietnam, Americans are referred to as the imperialist aggressors.

We are close to My Lai, and I feel my stomach muscles start to tighten. What will I find there? Will I be cursed? Hated? Or am I shielded by time, gender, age? The Australians in back have begun to lather themselves with suntan lotion; here the sun can blister through No. 30 sun block in minutes. I am hoping the couple does not hate nie by the end of the day.

The car pulls into a long driveway and parks under the shade of a tree. To enter the My Lai monument site, we are each charged twenty thousand dong, just under two dollars. To say that the Vietnamese have learned to market the American war may sound cynical and defensive, but you can buy Zippo lighters and flak jackets at Ho Chi Minh City’s war-surplus market; you can buy compasses and rusting dog tags in every town along the coast from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.

“I wait,” our driver says, urging us forward. A long sidewalk leads into an enormous concrete sculpture, though it is so far away I can’t quite make it out. I look away, unprepared to discover exactly what it is yet. My palms are clammy. I grin stupidly at the Australians. They are waiting for me to proceed. I am the expert here.

To my left is the grave of Mrs. Thong, her children, and two relatives. I read and reread the names on the stone marker, calculate the ages of the victims had they lived, compare them to my own twenty-nine years. We walk forward. I am all jumbled up, a curious mixture of emotion and numbness. Several stone statues are lined up along the sidewalk. These sculptures, all but the huge one in the distance, were done by a group of artists in Hanoi.

One stone woman falls forward, her hand clutching her stomach, a replica of a famous picture taken by Ronald Herberle, the American photographer who was there that day. Another woman kneels, her hair blowing in the wind as she falls sideways, one arm outstretched. Opposite her, down a thin sidewalk bordered by yellow wildflowers, is the museum. A woman leans in the doorway, arms crossed, waiting for us. She wears long brown pants and a pink long-sleeved blouse, both of light, silky material. I am amazed at how the Vietnamese withstand the heat. Women ride bicycles covered head to toe, saving their skin from the sun, complete in elbow-high gloves and hats. In the mountains of Da Lat, where it may get down to seventy-eight degrees fahrenheit at night, people wear winter coats, sweaters, scarves, and knit caps.

The woman greets us in flawless English. Like most Vietnamese, she speaks quietly, gently. She welcomes us to My Lai and tells us she is a guide and will show us around. No other visitors are here, and the silence is a sound all its own. The museum is maybe ten by twenty feet. She asks where we are from.

“Australia,” my companions say together, perhaps a little too proudly.

“America,” I say, shifting my weight from foot to foot, “the States.”

She smiles at us, looking at me a second longer than the Australians, though this may be my imagination. First she explains that we need to look at a map of the area to understand how the Americans planned the attack.

“Planned?” I ask her.

She nods. “Yes, the massacre was planned.”

I hear the Australians gasp slightly. The woman continues to smile.

Planned? How could it have been planned? A recon patrol, perhaps, was planned, maybe even a search and destroy mission: Burn the hamlets, interrogate the villagers, and all that. But a massacre? Strategies are planned. Brutalities just happen. My heart is thumping. She shows us how My Lai is actually a series of villages: My Lai 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. She points to the hill near My Lai 4 where the Americans were based. She explains how the Americans knew the people of My Lai 4, how the soldiers would come to play with the children. No one planned this, I think. Can’t moral men do immoral things? Don’t right men do wrong things? People are dead, I remind myself. What if it was my family? My little brothers, my aunts, my father? Wouldn’t I be entitled to a little more anger, a little more of whatever it takes to live with tragedy?

The guide smiles and says the map will show us how the Americans planned the massacre. “Planned?” I ask.

“So you can see,” she says softly, “how this wasn’t an accident.”

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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