#2 My Lai 1999

23 March 1999

Ho Chi Minh City, V.N.

A few weeks ago I wrote a letter to the Viet Nam News concerning some thoughts I had about the up-coming anniversary of the My Lai Massacre. At the end of my letter I mentioned that I hoped to be present at the site on the 16th of March to pay my respects to the victims. Many of my friends here in VN, particularly my Vietnamese friends, were a bit bewildered as to the intensity of my desire to make the journey. I, too, was hard-pressed to explain it, even to myself. It just seemed fitting that I be there and it felt like the right thing to do.

I made the trip. It entailed a flight to Da Nang and a car-ride to Quang Ngai province. We arrived about 10 AM and I was happy that there were very few others present. I wasn't sure if there might be a ceremony or not. But for the two hours that I was on that hallowed ground there was an aura of peace and quiet. Befitting. I was left alone with my thoughts and permitted to contemplate the horrible doings of that day. I visited the grave markers and said my silent prayers for the dead. As I strolled about, I was continually drawn to that ditch where so many lives were taken.

I found myself trying to imagine what it must have been like for those people 31 years ago. There is very little shade in that area of Quang Ngai and I'm sure the brutal noonday sun was the same as it almost invariably is at this time of year. I could smell the cordite that would permeate the air as the soldiers emptied the magazines of their M-16's, probably on full 'rock-n-roll', into the terrified, bewildered groups of women and children. Automatic fire is less personal. Their fear must have been palpable. Was there screaming and crying? Did they plead in Vietnamese to their English speaking executioners? Or had they seen so much before in their lives that this too could be stoically accepted. I was left to my musing for a long time. It was not the first time for me to entertain such thoughts nor would it be the last. At that moment I felt sorrow for more than just My Lai. That ground and that day could be a metaphor for the whole era of American involvement in Viet Nam. Something went terribly wrong.

I do not wish to imply that the actions of that day were the norm in any sense. But if we can leave the wantonness and cruelty and gratuitous brutality aside, might there only be a relative difference in the act of dropping a bomb from a distance where neither party can see or hear each other? Is it a form of brutality to shoot artillery into areas marked on a map as 'free-fire' zones? Is that what war really is? If so, you had better be damned sure you know what your fighting for.

We left My Lai and travelled a bit further south on Highway One. I had planned to visit the town of Duc Pho where my base camp was located. About 10 kilometres short of our destination, I asked my driver to turn around and head back to the airport in Da Nang. I suddenly realized that I didn't need or want to see another fire-base. What I did see and what heartened me was the stream of school-children pedalling their bikes to and from class. The beautiful and uniquely Vietnamese sight of young high-school girls with their ao dais flowing behind. A proud, hopeful symbol of a proud, hopeful nation.

We began the long trek northward and I couldn't stop my mind from dwelling upon that long-ago era. There was a gnawing anger that had been experienced for so long that it's edge had been dulled from overuse. When would an elected leader of my nation have the 'balls' to stand up and say we made a horrible error? When would that leader arise who was 'big' enough to say we were sorry? When would America extend a hand in true friendship to Viet Nam? The Vietnamese people are owed. The American people are owed. And I think the greatest debt is owed to the unwitting GI. We were young and naive then. Now we are wiser.

William J. Kelly, Jr.