After 25 Years, Remembering My Lai


March 16, 1993|By DAVID BRANCO

Today marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most notorious days in U.S. military history.

On March 16, 1968 three platoons of Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, U.S. Army, marched into Son My village and slaughtered about 400 unarmed children, women and old people in what came to be known as the My Lai massacre.

The four-hour rampage through the hamlet included dozens of outright murders, rapes, mutilations and other atrocities committed by American soldiers.

The press and public did not become aware of the event until nearly 20 months later; but then My Lai and its only convicted perpetrator, Lt. William L. ''Rusty'' Calley, became arguably the most prominent ingredients in America's final estrangement and eventual disengagement from the Vietnam War.

My Lai provided the war protesters' refrain of ''baby killers'' much substance: Photographs taken at the scene showed numbers of killed infants in the arms of their killed mothers.

The American soldiers received no return fire, and no enemy weapons were discovered at the scene. No military-age men were among the bodies. A ditch was filled with corpses and blood. Young girls had been raped and then killed by gunfire or grenade or bayonet. People were lined up and shot. Children pleading for mercy were simply killed. All animals were killed.

Yet, remarkably, there is almost no memory or knowledge of all this today.

Indeed, for most Americans in their 30s and younger, the words ''My Lai'' mean nothing. And most in their 40s and older need significant clues for even slight recall of the event.

This ignorance and forgetfulness is not merely a part of the so-called ''Vietnam syndrome,'' America's communal effort to bypass its ''only lost war.'' The omission of My Lai from our national consciousness represents something much more ominous within the hubris of our exaggerated national pride.

Consider that the My Lai soldiers were later found to comprise a ''typical cross-section'' of America's male youth.

Consider that My Lai was only a spectacularized event in what was a frequent if not ''regular'' stream of action by American combat soldiers in Vietnam.

Consider that veterans counselors now are encountering increasing numbers of U.S. Persian Gulf war vets seeking help for guilt and other problems associated with their having shot fleeing Iraqi soldiers in the back or with having committed ''mercy killings'' of prisoners or with having pushed buttons that resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.

America has involved itself in more than 200 military interventions since the Vietnam War, many of them largely in order to cure itself of its failure there.

We have erected the Wall and other memorials to salve the sacrifice of our hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded from the war.

These and other political events seem indeed to have succeeded in restoring the American hubris.

But we do not teach and do not recall My Lai. And so we do not ''know'' or remember something about ourselves as a nation of people.

The German people have not been allowed -- nor have they allowed themselves -- to forget Nazi atrocities. Thus, many of them carry within themselves the knowledge that ''ordinary men'' are capable of committing, and sometimes do commit, almost unimaginably atrocious acts.

In America, Vietnam veterans hold this knowledge; but they are allowed to talk only among themselves.

The Vietnam War is barely taught in our schools; My Lai is usually unmentioned or, at most, goes undiscussed. And so boys play soldiers near war memorials.

Without discourse, we don't teach, our children don't learn. As John Knowles said, wars are not made by ''generations and their special stupidities,'' but rather ''by something ignorant in the human heart.''

David Branco, a Vietnam veteran, is a Massachusetts free-lance writer working on high school and college textbooks on the Vietnam war.

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