The Ditch at My Lai where 170 civilians were shot on March 16 1968
At first glance it looks like any other ditch, until you get closer and see the gravestone marking the site where 107 people were shot dead on 13 March 1968. The hamlet of My Lai was devastated that day, when a total of 504 innocent civilians were killed as Charlie Company of Task Force Barker led by Lt William Calley swooped down on Son My sub-district.
The military brass tried to cover the incident up and it was not reported until over a year and a half later. Seymour Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize for his account of what happened at My Lai, and David Haeberle's photographs vividly caught the horror of what occurred that day.
My Lai is a very pastoral and scenic hamlet located fourteen kilometers from the town of Quang Nai in central Vietnam. When you wander through it today, little children come scurrying up to you and scream "ling so" (Soviet) or "where do you come from?"
You do not encounter the animosity that you would expect to find in a place which has borne so much suffering. Most of the inhabitants of My Lai were born after the war with America was over. They greet you with smiles and laughter, not glares and insults.
There is a museum at the site which recounts the massacre in Vietnamese. There are even a few letters from some of the Americans who took part in the massacre, expressing sorrow and remorse at their actions. There is also a Guernica type mural on the wall near the ditch which vividly recreates the massacre. The most stunning sight at My Lai, however, is a huge monument which captures the villagers' suffering moments before their death.
No one fired on the Americans that day. They were not in danger. They were in total control. They didn't have to commit the atrocities they did. They herded many innocent men, women and children into ditches and shot them to death with smiles on their faces.
Why did they do it? Some say the soldiers were just fed up. A number of Americans had been killed in the area preceding the attack and it was a known Viet Cong stronghold. They were sick of fighting an enemy; they couldn't see and couldn't catch so they took it out on their enemy's loved ones.
In Philip Caputo's book A Rumor of War, one soldier is quoted as saying "one of the most brutal things in the world is your average nineteen year old American boy." My Lai would seem to bear that out.
War is hell. It always has been and it always will be. It's hard to be nice to people when they are trying to kill you, especially when you think you are supposed to be helping them.
It is clear, however, that the American soldiers crossed a fine line that rueful day in March of '68. When many veterans returned home, they complained that they were treated poorly and called murderers and baby burners. Visions of atrocities like My Lai did a lot to alienate the American public from their soldiers in Vietnam.
Forgive it, understand it, or loathe it, My Lai will always serve as a reminder of American's tragic involvement in Vietnam.