23 September 2009
by: Carol Becker
On August 19, 2009, former Army Lt. William Calley spoke to a
Kiwanis Club meeting in Greater Columbus, Georgia, and for the first
time publicly admitted his regret for his role in the My Lai
massacre. "There is not a day that goes by, " he said, "when I do not
feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for
the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American
soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry."
For those of us who grew up in the intensity of the 1960's and
in the pain of the Vietnam War, this long-awaited admission stirred
deep emotion. Calley had always been symbolic of the brutality of
those times and of the cover-up of horrific acts by individuals and
the US government. He also represented the country's polarization
between those who opposed the war and those who turned men like
Calley into heroes. That he could finally say how desperately painful
his life has been since that horrific event has allowed us all to
continue a process of disclosure and healing that is still necessary,
forty years later, if we are to recover from that war. Vietnam the
war has never really ended for those in the US who grew to adulthood
in its shadow, because of the depth of denial. We, as a nation, have
not been able to say: "This should not have occurred." As a result,
we continue to engage in other fabricated wars and to create new
generations of soldiers and civilians on all sides of these conflicts
who cannot recover from the trauma of what they have experienced.
In 2002, along with two other colleagues, I took graduate and
undergraduate art students to Vietnam to study the war. It was a trip
for the next generation, for whom those events - the memories of
their parents and the US - were not known to them at all. This is an
abbreviated retelling of that journey.
On March 16, 1968, the men of the 11th Brigade entered the
village of My Lai, which they called Pinkville, and brutally murdered
504 Vietnamese civilians. This "search and destroy" mission (Gen.
William Westmoreland's strategy of "flushing out" the Vietcong from
their countryside "safe havens") soon transformed into a bloody
massacre: "The killings took place, part maniacally, part
methodically, over a period of about four hours," write Michael
Bilton and Kevin Sim in "Four Hours in My Lai," their chilling
account of what happened on that day. Several women were
gang-raped and killed with unconscionable brutality. Infants were
blasted with machine-gun fire. The troops, whose average age was just
twenty, were known as Charlie Company. They were under the leadership
of Lt. William Calley - a name that became synonymous with the
nightmare of the war. He took his orders from Capt. Ernest Medina,
who received his commands from even higher up. Those names still have
not been spoken.
Lieutenant Calley was said to have forced a group of 100 to 170
villagers into a ditch and, without hesitation, slaughtered them all
himself. Because of the nature of the war and the US Army's
philosophy of killing "Vietcong in such large numbers that they could
not be replaced," because of the pressure on unit commanders to
produce enemy corpses, because it was so difficult for US soldiers to
"see the enemy" waging this guerrilla war, and because US soldiers
were being blown up constantly by land mines planted by this unseen
enemy, "it is not surprising that some men acquired a contempt for
human life and a predilection for taking it," observe Bilton and Sim.
"In this sense," they continue, "My Lai was not an aberration of the
war, but its apotheosis."
This event was one of the turning points in US citizens'
perceptions of the extreme brutality of the war. American soldiers
had entered an unarmed village firing, killing everyone and
everything alive: women, old men, children, babies and animals. They
then torched each house and all the vegetation surrounding the
village. Even though it was clear within minutes of the attack that
there were no Vietcong in the village, that no one was armed and no
one was returning fire, US soldiers, having been told it was a
Vietcong stronghold and that they were "to destroy everything in
sight," did not desist from that directive.
In fact, it was only because soldiers had been bragging about
what had occurred in My Lai for almost a year, that GI Ron Ridenhour,
twenty-one years old, even heard about the massacre. He wrote letters
to congressmen telling them that something awful and "bloody" had
occurred. As a result of his insistence, a serious investigation took
place. American Army photographer Ronald Haeberle, who documented the
massacre, was also key to this investigation. His photographs were
used to substantiate the claim that only civilians had been murdered
and in the most brutal ways.
The American people did not know about the massacre at My Lai
when it actually occurred. A year and a half later, discharged GIs
who refused to let the story go brought it to the attention of the
military, as well as to writers and journalists. In November 1969,
Seymour H. Hersh wrote a piece called "Hamlet Attack Called
'Point-Blank Murder'" in which he quoted a sergeant interviewed who
said, "A few days before the mission, the men's general contempt for
Vietnamese civilians intensified when some GIs walked into a
landmine, injuring nearly 20 and killing at least one member of the
company." There is no doubt that once the horror of My Lai was
understood outside the military, it changed the course of the war.
After my first visit to Vietnam in 1996, I knew I would return
with students. I did return in January 2002, with other faculty
members - filmmaker Jeffrey Skoller and art historian Stanley
Murashige - and ten students. We organized many expeditions during
this trip together, but perhaps the most significant to many of us
was the journey to My Lai. We came to call it a pilgrimage.
The students who accompanied us were a mixture of undergraduate
and graduate. Most, in their twenties, were not even born when the
war was taking place, yet each of them felt drawn to Vietnam and
wanted to move from thinking of Vietnam as a war to understanding it
as a country. They were adventurers. Some had already traveled to
distant places, others had never left the US None had been to
Southeast Asia. Joining us as our research assistant was Vu Thu, a
young Vietnamese artist I had met on my first visit to Hanoi.
By traveling with us, she was choosing to encounter Vietnam
through the eyes of Americans, some still filled with guilt for
themselves and their country. Although many Vietnamese do not want to
dwell on the past, many Americans of my generation still suffer the
pain of what happened during the war. When I told a Vietnamese woman
in a shop in Hoi An that we had visited My Lai, she said, "Don't feel
bad about what you saw. We know it was your government and not you."
Our goal was to visit many of the places whose names became
well-known to Americans during the war. We wanted to experience those
places now - to connect with what remains of the past in the present
and to gain an understanding of what happened at those sites. In this
spirit we visited Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. We boated down the
Mekong River. We stopped at the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and drove to
Khe Sahn and the coast of China Beach. We passed through Danang. We
stayed in Hue. And of course we made a pilgrimage to My Lai, known to
the Vietnamese now as Son My (pronounced shun me).
What did we find at My Lai? Everything and nothing. Nothing, of
course, remains of the village. There are now only headstones where
houses once stood. Engraved into each are the names of those who
died. The engraving might say, "Foundation of Mr. Phon Cong's house
burnt by US Soldiers, four of his family members were murdered. Phan
Hong 65, Le Thi Duoc 36, Phan San 12, Phan Thi Tranh 6." "Foundation
of Mr. Nguyen Cai's house burnt by US soldiers. Three of his family
members were murdered: Phung Thi Hiep 31, Nguyen Thi Hwe 12, Nguyen
Thi Be 3." These were the people in the village when the Americans
arrived - mothers, children, grandparents. At each stone where there
was once a house, there is now a place to burn incense for the dead,
provided for us at the entrance to the site. There is also the ditch,
now overgrown with plants, but still unmistakable as the site into
which between 100 and 170 people were pushed, then shot. Jasmine and
hibiscus have overgrown this site, which is now as green and
resplendent as the rest of the Vietnamese countryside.
There is one stucco structure, and in this building are large
black-and-white and color photographs, very specific, about the
massacre. After looking at several and reading the captions that
appear next to them in Vietnamese and English, one realizes that for
these photos to exist at all, someone had to be watching the massacre
while it was occurring and, more astoundingly, documenting it. Then
you read the text: The photographer taking the pictures was Ronald
Haeberle, the official US Army photographer assigned to that platoon
on that day. The images taken for the Army and those he took with his
own camera for himself became important evidence in the investigation
to prove that a massacre had actually occurred. After the war, a set
of prints was given to the Vietnamese government. They comprise a
great deal of the material in the memorial museum.
The documentation allows visitors to walk through the massacre
moment by moment - people being rounded up, terror on their faces.
Children crying, clutching at their mothers. Very old, bony men
walking toward the camera with their arms in the air in gestures of
surrender. Piles of bodies in the ditch, one thrown over the other
randomly, reminiscent of the mounds of human remains found at
Bergen-Belsen after the camps were liberated in 1945.
Taking up an entire wall is a list of all those who died: 504
names with ages. The long list is reminiscent of Maya Lin's wall of
the dead, which is categorized by date. The Vietnamese have organized
those killed during the massacre in family clusters: The oldest in
each family is listed first. The children are always last. This wall
became the focal point for a performance created by two students on our return.
We did not go to My Lai to judge. The verdict on that event was
determined long ago. As Hannah Arendt said, in an interview given to
Günter Grass in 1964, in reference to the death camps in Germany:
"This ought not to have happened. Something happened there, to which
we cannot reconcile ourselves. None of us ever can." My Lai, once
a village, now a memorial, was determined to have been the site of a
massacre by 1970. Lieutenant Calley was sentenced to life in prison,
but this sentence was soon commuted and he actually only served four
and a half years in a very well-protected and comfortable prison. He
used to run his father-in-law's jewelry shop in Columbus, Georgia,
where he drove a Mercedes-Benz given to him by a supporter and hid
from reporters and others asking about the war.
Among less-fortunate Vietnam veterans there have been many
suicides, murders and men incapacitated for civilian life whose
tragic situations are traced to their involvement in My Lai. "The
massacre had become a matter for individual conscience alone," write
Bilton and Sim. Those who set the policies and gave the orders,
and the country that engaged in this war, have retained their psychic
freedom, while those who followed the orders laid out by others, and
were thus driven to horrific acts, live under a weight of guilt they
cannot abide. Some of these individuals continue to suffer for their
actions every day and will do so for the rest of their lives.
By journeying to such a place as My Lai, it was our hope to
develop our own form of absolution. Bilton and Sim write, "National
Consciousness consists of what is allowed to be forgotten as much as
by what is remembered." The philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes:
"Human beings are human in so far as they bear witness to the inhuman."
Although Lieutenant Calley, considered a hero by some, waited
forty years to speak, his admission of pain and guilt should not be
forgotten. As other soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan
decimated in body and spirit, we are reminded once again that too
many soldiers are thrown into too much horror at too young an age, to
ever recover from what they have lost, seen, and done. This damage
affecting many generations can only stop when we as a nation finally
understand what war does. Ultimately all are victims caught in its
 Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, "Four Hours in My Lai" (New York:
Penguin Books, 1992), 3.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 14.
 Seymour M. Hersh, "Hamlet Attack Called Point-Blank Murder," in
"Reporting Vietnam," vol. 2 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 19.
 Giorgio Agamben, "Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the
Archive." Trans. Danielle Heller-Rouzen (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 71.
 Bilton And Sim, 36.
 Ibid. 4.
 Agamben, 12l.
Carol Becker is dean of faculty at Columbia University School of the
Arts. She is the author of numerous articles and several books. This
essay is adapted from a chapter in her new book, "Thinking in Place:
Art, Action, and Cultural Production" (Paradigm Press, November 2009).