When I ask a class of college students how many have heard of My Lai, only a few if any raise their hands, tentatively. Even they are unsure what it was, or where, or when, or who was involved.
Why have we forgotten to teach about the nadir of the Vietnam War? Is our collective amnesia accidental or willful? March 16 marks the 50th anniversary of the date that does not live in infamy. Does it for any Americans?
In 1968, American soldiers slaughtered animals, raped villagers and murdered at least 109 “Oriental human beings” in My Lai. That was the number cited in a court-martial 18 months later. The memorial there today lists 504 men, women and children.
Army Lt. William L. Calley Jr. was found guilty of murdering “not less than 22 victims” and sentenced to life in prison. Four of five Americans disagreed with that verdict. His sentence was reduced to 20 years, then to 10. He was released after 42 months of house arrest. His captain was found not guilty. No one else faced court-martial.
These and other facts are quickly summarized: Charlie Company had suffered many casualties (the Tet Offensive had begun six weeks earlier); it was hard to distinguish daytime friends from nighttime foes engaged in civil war; stuff happens. Some soldiers committed mass murder, but others intervened, reported the atrocity and wrote letters made public when the military appeared to play possum.
Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson received the Distinguished Flying Cross for “disregarding his own safety” to rescue 15 children in a bunker. The My Lai Memorial commemorates him today. Most Americans learned about it 20 months afterwards when “Life” published Army photographer Ronald Haeberle’s shocking photos of peasants splayed atop one another in a ditch.
The photos, like Calley’s sentence, create cognitive dissonance. They do not comport with Americana ideals of brave soldiers risking their lives to protect freedom and make the world safe for democracy. Our boys and girls do not behave like this until, alas, they do: Our soldiers abused prisoners at Abu Grahib; Marines murdered women and children in Haditha, Iraq; Navy SEALs killed Afghan detainees at Kalach.
I do not rekindle this sorry litany to suggest a new form of American exceptionalism or the erosion of character among American soldiers. Rather that normal human beings, Americans among them, behave abnormally when stressed abnormally amidst unremitting violence.
Viewed across time and space, My Lai is no exception. Rape, plunder and carnage occur in wars reaching back through antiquity: Romans raped the Sabine women. Among the Greeks, hailed as progenitors of democracy and civilization itself, Ajax went berserk then slaughtered his army’s cattle, which he mistook for the enemy. Achilles desecrated Hector after the siege of Troy dragged on for 10 years.
The American Psychiatric Association added post-traumatic stress disorder to its classifications only in 1980, but character-changing responses to trauma are common. “Soldier’s heart” of the Civil War became “shell shock” in the First World War and “combat fatigue” in the Second World War.
Perhaps we citizens purposefully ignore the horrific, inhumane and inevitable atrocities of every war so we can renew and act again like stalwart patriots the next time the bugle sounds and the call to heroism beckons fellow citizens to victory in foreign lands.
News of My Lai reached war-weary America when it could no longer be hidden. Now, it is buried again.
A recent study of more than 100 U.S. history textbooks found that fewer than half mention My Lai at all. Of those that do, it merits only 80 words on average, the number contained in this very paragraph. How could my students know about My Lai? We do not want them to know. And we do not want to remember either.
Russell Vandenbroucke is director of the Peace, Justice & Conflict Transformation Program and a professor of theatre arts at the University of Louisville.