Monday, November 05, 2012

Thoughts of My Lai

I remember vividly the moment I first saw that now famous photo. The one of the screaming naked young girl, trying in vain to run away from the burning of her skin following a napalm attack on her village. It would have been 1972 and there was the picture, leaping into my consciousness from the front page of the Sun newspaper on our suburban Melbourne breakfast table. The image was marked indelibly in my brain and along with the regular footage on the 6.30 news, it provided me with an immediate understanding of the horror of war. I was nine years old and the girl looked to be around the same age. It made me fearful of suffering a similar fate. My mother assured me that it couldn't happen to me in Australia. We were safe here. Nobody will bomb us. Yet I knew that Australians were being sent to Vietnam to fight along with the Americans. And I knew that most of them didn't want to go but were being forced, even though I probably didn't yet have the word conscription in my vocabulary. The greatest fear of my early childhood was being sent off to war. The American-Vietnam War was already going when I was born in 1963 and ran until I was around 12. It made a huge impact on my outlook on the world. And I wasn't even there. I guess it's why much of the music of that period still resonates with me on a more emotional level than almost anything since. It was always going to be impossible for me to come to Vietnam without visions of the American war, as it is rightfully termed here, floating around the front of my mind. I guess it must be that way for anybody who has grown up with memories of the war, or at least a diet of Vietnam war films and 60's counter culture music. With all of these images in my brain, I felt a need to go to My Lai, the scene of one of the greatest known atrocities of that conflict. A four hour genocide in which US troops raped the women and young girls, tortured many of the people they found, killed every person and animal in the village, burnt the houses and destroyed the crops. Today there is a memorial there comprising a museum and markers throughout what was once the village, denoting where houses had stood and the names of the people who had died there. It is a place off the beaten track, far from any of the regular Vietnamese tourist towns, so to go there is a kind of mission in itself. My children understandably didn't want to go to the scene of a massacre and see brutal images of slaughter, so I left them with Tori at our hotel in Quang Ngai and made the short trip from there myself.

The museum was full of photos from that horrific day. A US army photographer was along for the ride and managed to capture full colour images that later acted as proof of the event. There were pictures of pleading people, just moments before they were executed. Photos of piles of corpses left by the side of the road. Two young boys huddled in fear on the roadside, the elder shielding the youngster, taken a couple of minutes before both were shot. People lying dead with their brains or intestines lying on the road beside them. And photos of the US troops chilling out on the side of the road after having set the village aflame and having completed their mission. The American forces are not alone in barbaric acts of war. Far from it. But I guess it is the transparent propaganda of "we are the good guys" portrayed in countless films and the invention of terms such as "collateral damage" that add an extra edge that sickens me. There was a coordinated attempt by the US military to cover up the events at My Lai, but unlike other such occurrences that inevitably took place in that war, some even on that same day in other hamlets around Son My, there was photographic proof and people willing to talk about what had taken place. During the chaos, a US helicopter pilot had recognised the genocide that was happening on the ground and had flown in to rescue some of the terrorised villagers. His instructions to the gunners on his chopper were that if any of the US ground troops were to shoot at the fleeing locals, they should consider them the enemy and open fire to protect the unarmed civilians. Likewise there were a number of ground troops who refused to fire on the defenceless Vietnamese, even though threatened with being shot themselves or being court-martialled. The bravery of these guys is incredible. While we would all like to consider that we would have acted in the same manner and refused to have performed such gruesome deeds under direct order, it is not that certain. I am well aware that any judgements I make of how people act at the front line during war is made from the comfort of my own life, without any real understanding of what it must be like. The fear that these boys are experiencing, being in some far flung place with an unseen enemy, witnessing the deaths of their friends and colleagues, heads full of indoctrination and sub-humanization of the enemy and procedures of how to follow orders and how to kill. But what seems clear is that the events at My Lai were a planned military tactic from higher up. Not just a bunch of trained soldiers who lost their moral compass and ran amok. They were ordered to do as they did. And they did it well. Most of the men of the village weren't home when the attack came. It was rice harvest day so the men were all away picking the crops. The US troops met no resistance, finding only the women, children and elderly at home and they followed the orders they had been given - killing everyone and destroying the village. And then the atrocity was white-washed by the officers all the way up to the rank of general and glossed over by the knowing Nixon presidency.

After wandering through the museum and watching a documentary with a tour group that I happened across, I was approached by a My Lai tour guide. She asked me where I was from and we started chatting. She offered to show me personally around the grounds at Son My, which is what the village of the main massacre was actually called. Her name was Kieu and her mother was one of the survivors of that day from the nearby hamlet of Co Luy. Kieu had intimate and personal knowledge of what had taken place and was happy to share it with me. She took me to the various house sites and told me how the people inside had been killed. "This family were all hiding in their bomb shelter and the Americans just threw in a couple of grenades and blew them up. Then to make sure they were dead, they poured in petrol and set it on fire". "These two children were asleep in their beds and were just shot where they lay". She led me to the irrigation ditch where 150 or so people had been lined up and shot as part of a nazi-style mass execution. "Here they were made to kneel and then stand up. Then they were shot by machine gun until they fell into the ditch". Some people survived, shielded by the bodies that had fallen on top of them. Kieu said that it took four days for the survivors to bury the dead in mass graves, needing to do it under darkness so that the Americans didn't see any movement in the village and come back to finish the job.

Apart from the horror of the massacre itself, what I also find abhorrent is the fact that this event and others like it in Vietnam, were ultimately accepted by the vast majority of the American public as "just something that happens in war". They didn't really want to know what their troops did in some far-flung place. Much better to just believe they were either heroes who did their best for the country, upholding the great apple pie traditions of the great ole US of A; or that somehow the soldiers were victims themselves of the horror of war, which rendered them unable to see right from wrong and caused them to perform these horrible deeds. In either case, little consideration seemed to actually be given to the South Vietnamese civilians who were, in theory, on the same side as the Americans and whose hearts and minds needed winning for the US to have any chance of success in Vietnam. Despite the actions on this day contravening the Geneva Convention, to which the US is a signatory, as well as the published codes of US armed conflict and of course moral decency in general, nobody was ever really called into account for this incident. The head of the ground operation that day at Son My, Lt Calley, who personally executed dozens of civilians himself, was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour, yet only actually spent 3 days in jail before effectively being released. His release from custody was overwhelmingly supported by the American public. Nobody else was ever convicted of any offence at all, despite the mountain of evidence of the massacre occurring and detailed testimony from many, of exactly who had done what and where. How could America find this acceptable while in the same breath decrying the inhuman ways that their own captured soldiers may have been treated by the enemy. How can it be acceptable for US soldiers to pack rape an unarmed civilian girl of fifteen years old, then slice apart her vagina with a bowie knife, before shooting her in the head, yet it's unacceptable for a US soldier to be captured, tortured and killed by his captor. Isn't one just as bad as the other? Or does it not matter as much because American lives are somehow worth more?

I find it difficult to not be disgusted by US foreign policy that existed then and that exists to this very day. The Vietnam war was essentially created by the US administration of the time. They stamped out democracy in Vietnam by not allowing planned elections to take place that would have seen Ho Chi Minh win by a landslide. That was not the result they wanted, so instead they supported an unpopular puppet government in the South and the partitioning of the country, against the will of the majority of the country's people. They then came into the war based on a proven lie. A fabrication about events that were supposed to have taken place in the Gulf of Tonkin. Along with events such as the massacre at Son My and similar horrors inflicted on a people trying to defend their homeland from an invading army, they decided that it was also justified to use chemical weapons. While incidents such as those at Son My do seem to happen in all wars when human decency and morality have been completely abandoned by those at the front line, the dropping of Agent Orange across the Vietnamese countryside, poisoning the crops, forests and the rivers and causing disease and premature death to many thousands of people, including US troops who fought in these regions, is a war crime on an even grander scale. It's legacy lived on after the war in the grotesquely deformed bodies of babies born to parents who were subject to Agent Orange dioxin poisoning, both in Vietnam and America. And of course, there was the use of napalm and phosphorous bombs where many civilians were burned alive. As well as the 1500 or so Vietnamese people that still die every year from unexploded ordinance that the US have never bothered to help clean up, even though there is now a "normalized" diplomatic and economic relationship between Washington and Hanoi. Fast forward to the war in Iraq and what has actually changed? A war based on the lie of "weapons of mass destruction". Front line atrocities performed by soldiers, bombings that hit civilian targets killing many innocents and the ongoing torture of prisoners. And there is the use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium, causing poisoning of those exposed if they somehow survived the blast, including US servicemen who came down with the eventually acknowledged "gulf war syndrome". It is all abhorrent. And seemingly just as American as apple pie and baseball. I guess when it comes down to it, there is nobody big enough to discipline the biggest bully going around. Instead we mostly digest the stream of patriotic claptrap about the American nation being the good guys who are somehow interested in world peace, rather than their own self serving economic interest. And we recoil in shock with them when they point at somebody else performing an audacious act against humanity, such as Sadam Hussein gassing the kurds in the north of Iraq, somewhat as the Americans did in Vietnam with Agent Orange. There have been no more abhorrent crimes against humanity since World War Two than those performed by the US in Vietnam, so for the US to bring charges in a human rights court against any other person or nation is the grossest of hypocrisies.

My own country's government seems mindlessly complicit in many of these US outings, from committing Australian troops to fight here in Vietnam, to then going along for the ride in almost every US conflict since, to the point now of even opening up a US base of 5000 troops in Darwin. We are guilty by association of helping to perpetuate the myth of the US as world policemen good guys. We should be ashamed of our role in Vietnam and our willingness to blindly follow the Americans into battle.

In Son My, Kieu acts as a tour guide around the memorial, reliving every day the horror stories told to her by her mother and other survivors from My Lai, Co Luy and My Khe. I'm not sure how she can do it. I asked her if she found it a difficult task. She responded that her mother could not do it, as it was too emotional for her, so she felt a need to do it on her mother's behalf. It was important to her that people came to Son My. It showed her that people actually cared about what happened to her family's village and the people who lived there all those years ago. Some days, if the visitors were overly emotional in hearing the stories, she too would get emotional and would find it difficult. There were several times during my visit where she was choking back tears in relating to me the events that had unfolded, as I was choking back my own. She told me that those who had lived through the atrocities in the village hated the Americans and could never forgive or forget what happened to their families and friends. She on the other hand did not seem to have any hatred. A number of Americans came to visit the memorial she said, and this was particularly important. In fact, the whole country seems to have moved on and there seems to be very little residual ill will to Americans throughout Vietnam. Certainly not amongst the places we have visited and the people that I have spoken to. Perhaps after centuries of occupation by the Chinese, French, Japanese and lastly the Americans, just to be independent and free is reason enough to move on and leave the horrors behind. They can exist in the museums to show people what happened, with the hope that it won't happen again. Perhaps Vietnam is now safe from this fate. But no doubt the gruesome circus will move along to another town somewhere, some time soon.


For a good understanding of what went on that day in Son My and its aftermath, check out the documentary "Four hours in My Lai"

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