Visiting the Site of the My Lai Massacre
“We cannot forget the past but we cannot live with hate and anger either. With this park of peace, we have created a green, rolling, living, monument to peace.”
Mike Boehm, Veteran
I finish my workshops in the Quang Nhai province of Central Vietnam and wait for someone to take me, in the ambulance, one hour north to meet Nhan. I had just finished distributing the last of the ambu bags to the midwives at the district hospital a few hours earlier.
We had been warned that the typhoon, the one that caused so much damage in the Philippines, was headed to Vietnam. They had all braced for the worst but then it changed course and went in another direction. Now they report that another tropical storm is on its way. No one shows any interest or concern. The rain had just begun as we took photos and said our farewells.
The doctor who arranged the training is my daughter in laws uncle. Although he lives in Saigon, he was born in this province and has many family members to visit before taking the train back to the city. He is retired with grown children living and going to school all over the world. He does not want to go live in Canada or Australia or the USA. He loves his country.
As I climb into the van, which is also the ambulance, the doctor tells the driver to take me to My Lai.
“My Lai?” I stop and turn, one foot in the van and one on the ground, not sure I want to continue.
“It’s just down the road.”
I am thinking that I cannot go there. It is too much. I am tired and it is really raining. The War Remnants Museum in Saigon was hard enough. The driver does not speak English so I cannot voice my fears at going to a place that holds such national pain for people from my country.
We wave our good-byes and I sit in silence as the ambulance makes its way down Highway 1. It is not called My Lai in Vietnam. It was never My Lai. It was and is Son My. The US army called it Pinkville because they thought many Vietcong were hiding there. We turn down small, dirt roads where people move peacefully through the day’s end. The palm trees are blowing. There is no sign of war or that a war was ever fought there. I can see that life has returned, that children have been born and grown up to have their own children. The rice has been planted and harvested hundreds of times since that day.
It is late in the day, when we turn into the park. There are no other cars in the parking lot. The driver points to the visitors center and I run through the rain to the open door and then stop.
My legs do not want to walk up the steps. I can see that it is a park now and that it is dedicated to healing and peace. I do not want to forgive. I still want to be angry. I try walking meditation; taking one step at a time and breathing. I think, “I am here now. One step at a time.”
A young Vietnamese woman, wearing a traditional dress, welcomes me. She says, “I know how hard it is for your generation of Americans to come here. I can see that. People who are your age are so sad.”
She gently touches my arm. “Thank you for helping my village.’
I look at her and feel confused. I had not known I was working in the hospital of My Lai. I hear her voice but I cannot focus. Her relatives died in this place; in this place that once was a small hamlet like many others. She is saying some survived and remember. She is saying she will have her baby in the hospital where I volunteered. She is smiling.
I am disoriented. I saw the pictures and read the news years ago. I marched and stood in silent vigils. But now I am here. The photos are blown up and take up whole walls. I am alone except for the ambulance driver who I can see wants me to hurry. I want to lie in the grass. I look around for the people I knew at 18; the ones who marched and stood and organized with me but I can see I am doing this sad, lonely walk alone. There are no songs or chants or cheers. There is only the rain beating on the roof.
The guide, who is pregnant, is trying to show me photos and is paying particular attention to me. Perhaps it is because of my nationality and age and because I had worked in the hospital.
“It was March 16, 1968”
Where was I exactly? I want to remember. I do not want it to be an ordinary, forgetable day.
“It was early in the morning and everyone was getting ready to go to the market and rice fields. “
I know the sweet way life begins in the small hamlets and villages of Southeast Asia. I was in school. I was almost 19. Perhaps I was walking to the college cafeteria for breakfast. I feel a desperation. I am at the Petagon in Washington DC. There are people everywhere and we are being washed in a wave of protests up to the wall. People are climbing the wall. But there is tear gas and bayonets and we fall and lose our friends and people scream and cry and we do not climb the wall. We fall back and go home. We do not take over the Petagon and we do not stop the war. We do not stop this massacre.
“Seventeen of the victims were pregnant women.”
She recites the figures as she has many times before; infants, children, old women. She tells me how the photographer hid the pictures and later sold them to Life magazine and that’s when the world found out. This was a year later. I look at his photos on the wall and try to listen. She is telling me how they came back a week later and people were decaying.
And then, the school shootings in the United States join the shootings at My Lai. I cannot help it. I think, to myself, we are still shooting children. I see the small children in the irrigation ditch and they are lying side by side with the Sandy Hook children. I cannot breathe. I have to get out of there but she is smiling at me and guiding me from picture to picture.
The sign says that the helicopters landed and then the solders rounded up people and shot them and burned their houses and food. They shot small boys on the road, mothers with babies in their arms. Picture after picture. Statistic after statistic.
She says they shot a baby and mother while the baby was still nursing; while the baby still sucked on her breast.
What is it to be almost, nearly born; to feel your mother’s life slip away around you before you ever see the light of day; to be buried within her in a mass grave made out of a crater of a bomb?
A person from another country turns to me and says, “Everyone has guns in America, right?”
“No.” I answer, “Not everyone.” I feel shame. I know what they are thinking. They are thinking that despite all this we still let people shoot children.
She leads me to a picture of a few solders and tells me how they tried to stop it and saved many civilians. She must know I need this small story of hope for humanity. I nod and am indeed thankful.
She touches my arm.
“We know all people from America are not like this. We see them come and we can see how sad they are. Many have come and built schools and this park.”
The ambulance driver motions for me to come. It has started to pour rain and its getting dark.
Many men were eventually tried but only Lt William Calley was convicted and he was given a pardon by Nixon after just three and a half years of house arrest. They show pictures of the solders eating lunch before starting up the killing again. She tells me that Lt William Calley works in a jewelry store. She repeats the sentence. “He is working in a jewelry store.” I can see her trying to imagine how it can be that the man who killed so many people could be standing in a jewelry store waiting on customers.
I think of the video games the children play in my country; of the stubborn refusal to regulate guns. I think of the school shootings, the wars, and the children who kill themselves with unlocked guns.
My guide says the publication of the photos was a turning point in the war but we in, my country, would know other wars and other massacres.
The people who oppose gun registration and regulation blame the mass killings on mental illness. We send young boys to war. We never heal from one war before we join another.
On the street corners of my city, veterans of many wars become homeless and beg for money; lost in alcohol and drugs, unable to bare the memories. The hate and fear for Vietnamese and communists has been replaced by a hate and fear for other people and other ideologies.
This was not the only massacre of civilians in this war or the wars fought before or after. The children of Sandy Hook will not be the last children to die within a nation who wounds itself with the machinery of violence.
A child's drawing from the War Remnents Museum in Ho Chi Minh City
When we leave, the road is lined with students on bicycles. I watch them laugh and call to each other. Women carry food from the market and trucks rush by on the way to even larger markets. The roadsides are busy with conversation and small shops. The ambulance driver plays his siren all the way to Quang Nhan where I am dropped off and walk in the semi-dark through flooded rice fields to where Nhan is waiting.
I sink into the night, into the on coming storm and into the villages of Vietnam. The monks chant in a small pagoda. A candle is lit on the porch where they are expecting me.