The GoGlobal Blog

My Lai

My Lai

Saturday morning our last big trip of the semester began. We were to journey to the Central and Northern regions of Vietnam in order to learn more about the country and to compare the culture and linguistic differences between the regions outside of the south we had yet to experience. We were supposed to leave by 7 AM so by 6:30 I was up, packed, and ready to go. I had half an hour to spare so I decided I wanted to get a nice hearty breakfast before our big day of travelling. What did I get you ask? Well, the usual breakfast of Champions in Vietnam: Banh Mi Oplah! Banh Mi Oplah is a delicious breakfast sandwich comprised of fried eggs (I order 3 usually), cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon, butter, soy sauce, hot sauce, diced up chili, and thin strips of chicken, fish, or Vietnamese mystery meat pate which I generally try to avoid for reasons you can guess. All of that is served on an individual fresh French baguette with the additional option of slathering on a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese and sprinkling on a dash of salt and pepper. All of this goes for approximately 75 cents, and I can buy an iced tea or tra da, at a nearby stall for about 5 cents, so I complete my breakfast for 80 cents. Beat that McDonalds!
As I sat with my delicious breakfast and my bags beside me at the cement table outside of our dorm, the others showed up one by one. First Vien appeared with our itinerary and then Gabe with his nicely trimmed beard he had touched up the night before.
We were all very excited, and adding to our already high excitement levels was the fact Rylan brought a sack of doughnuts to the guesthouse to wish us of on our Northern Excursion and say goodbye for two weeks as he was leaving soon for Canada as well. I had given up sweets for lent, but I made a minor concession and enjoyed two of the powdered doughnuts. WOW. They were some of the best doughnuts I’ve had for some time. Betsy, Alex, and Robb showed up a little later and we feasted on the doughnuts and lauded Rylan with praise before hopping in the Sprinter van and speeding off to the airport.
We arrived at the airport and sped through the check in process; that is until the woman at the counter forced us to check our bags even though they were well under 50 pounds. Robb and I protest for a few minutes until we realized the argument was hopeless so we relented and went on our way to the terminal. After watching Chinese Kung Fu movies for half an hour or so we boarded the plane after taking a minibus out to its open doors on a far-out stretch of the runway.
Our plane ride went without a hitch, save the fact Betsy threw candy at me again from across the aisle… anyway, after some sooth flying amongst the clouds over the ocean, we laded at chu ly Airport, formerly an airbase built and used by the Americans during the Vietnam War. The history was quite evident in the long cement tube hangers that stood empty at the end of the airfield. Our plane was the only operational airplane in the airport. It looked quite alone out on the tarmac as we walked toward the doors of the airport. Large sections of runway once used for fighter jets and the ubiquitous huey helicopters lay abandoned and covered in weeds. Far away toward the derelict hangers was a run down soviet era tupolev awaiting its fate, most likely scrap I would venture to guess.
After our bags appeared we met our guide for the next few days named Quyen and then piled in another Sprinter Mercedes van to see the My Lai Massacre Memorial.

My Lai is the site of a brutal massacre that took place during the Vietnam War, and was committed by wayward US troops against innocent civilians. A man named Lt. Calley led the troops into the village with a rousing speech inciting anger and feelings of revenge by talking about how many of their group had been killed horribly, including one of their favorite leaders only a day before to a booby-trap. All of the men were tired and scared of the illusive Viet Cong and very angry at the loss of their comrades. All those emotions proved great kindling for Calley’s speech, and a great fire ensued. A fire of hatred.
The small squad dropped in a rice field outside the village and had a orders to exterminate anything inside the village because it was a ‘free fie zone’ and any non-Viet Cong would have left to go to the village by this point of the day. The troops strolled in not to find Viet Cong as expected; but women, children, and old men. Some children approached the GIs with smiles on their faces because weeks before other GIs had visited the village and passed out candy. The smiles stopped when the soldiers began rounding up people from their homes and shoving them into the irrigation canals for the rice paddies. That was when the shooting began. M16s ripped apart people huddled in the ditches and those fleeing from the village in a panic. One, Herbert Carter, could not handle the brutality and shot himself in the foot in order to avoid the carnage destroying his conscience and be medivaced out of the situation. The troops moved from hut to hut dragging out everyone and shooting them in the mud. Girls were brutally raped and then executed. Grenades were thrown into the concrete bomb shelters obliterating anyone inside. The GIs threw whicker baskets on the homes and burnt them down. If people in the ditches whimpered or cried out, more rounds were repeatedly fired until there was silence. What is really disturbing is that a photographer, Ronald Haeberle, asked the troops at one point to stop “hold it” he said as a group of people were rounded up. He snapped the picture and as he turned away the guns roared and everyone fell dead.
A US helicopter on a reconnaissance mission nearby noticed the smoke and though that a battle must be raging and so the chopper went in to help. Major Thompson commanding the helicopter noticed a wounded civilian woman trying to escape. He threw a green smoke grenade near here and yelled out for a soldier named Medina to help the woman, assuming she was injured in the crossfire of the battle. However Medina responded by prodding the woman with his boot and then putting a bullet in her head. Mortified, Thompson realized this was not a battle, but a massacre.
Thinking quickly, he flew the helicopter between the advancing soldiers and the fleeing Vietnamese. He ordered his door gunners to open fire on any American who got closer or shot any civilians and the gunners gave warnings to the GIs on the ground. The helicopter doors were flung open and one of the crew, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, helped wounded and those who were hiding in one of the remaining bomb shelters not hit by a grenade onto Huey helicopters that were radioed in. With the remaining Vietnamese safe, the helicopter flew away from one of the worst atrocities committed by American soldiers.
Seeing the memorial was very heartbreaking. All of the burned houses were reconstructed in their ‘destroyed state’, and the dirt path of the village was replaced with concrete with the imprints of children’s feet, dog paw prints, bike treads, and the large indentations of American combat boots showing who was present that day. Walking from the outside memorial into the adjacent museum we were met with a large black marble memorial engraved with the names of the 500 victims. We saw pictures of the atrocity in actions taken by a war correspondent (which raises ethical questions of someone documenting this slaughter, and actually saying ‘stop’ not to halt the conflict, but trying to get a better angle of the people being killed. That is a barbarism beyond my understanding). There were life-size dummies of soldiers grabbing women by the hair, burning down houses, and shooting villages huddled together. Seeing life-sized representation of American soldiers, men with star spangled patches on their uniforms, committing such heinous deeds did not seem real to me, it couldn’t be real. The real sad truth is that it IS real and that really did happen. To finish our visit, we went into the basement of the memorial and watched a video called “The Horror of War” in which the narrator discusses what drives ordinary soldiers to such depravity. Lawyers and veterans were consulted, and comparisons to Haditha were made. In the end a veteran returns to the site and halfway apologizes/confronts his past. There is also a meeting of the veteran with a survivor. It was really intense. In the end it is concluded that war is Evil and people can be psychologically pushed to do things they normally do, but what the US soldiers did was illegal for any army and that the ‘following orders’ excuse did not apply and the troops should have been prosecuted. I thought the film was interesting, and when the credits rolled and Al Jazeera was responsible for the film, I was very very surprised.
As we were leaving our tour guide talked to a survivor who lived because she was just two years old at the time and several bodies had fallen over her so the bullets didn’t hit her. Driving away from the memorial I began thinking and reflecting about the site as well as articles Rylan had given us to read as well as some of my own experiences, especially with my friend Zofishan. Zofishan and I had talked about the War in Afghanistan and the war in Pakistan. It is eerie how similar Cambodia and Pakistan are when you look at the war in Vietnam and the war in Afghanistan. Cambodia was a side project for Vietnam, and Pakistan is the Aghanistan War’s side project. Americans never really supported a war in Cambodia, and I’m sure not many Americans today are aware of our involvement within Pakistan, would support it, and to say the honest truth I’m quite certain not many American teenagers could tell you which country was Afghanistan and which was Pakistan if I gave them an unlabeled contiguous map of the Middle East and South Asia.
War is a complicated thing. I used to think the Just War Theory could be used as a conscious Catholic to decide if a war was ethical. I think World War II was a good case of this, but in other cases I’m not so sure. Seeing the impact of war on a country changes your opinion about war. My opinion is still hazy as I try to work through all I’ve seen. However that is something big to contemplate and so instead for my next blog I’ll go with something lighter. Probably the next leg of the trip in Hoi An. Also I know I still have to do Cambodia and other trips. All will come eventually…

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