It is Sunday night, around 9:00 PM on March 14, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. In two days, it will be the 53rd Anniversary of the My Lai Massacre. Since I was a soldier in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam, I have made three trips back to Viet Nam, which included three trips to the My Lai Massacre site in Quang Ngai Province. Those trips were made in 1994, 2016, and 2018 for the 50th Anniversary.
Since I was in Viet Nam, 50 years have passed – half a century. I have spent most of my adult life recovering from the Viet Nam War (or The American War as the Vietnamese call it). This time of year is always difficult for me, and I am sure it is for countless people I know, whether they were in the military or not. When the My Lai Massacre was first revealed in 1969, and 1970, it drastically changed the course of American opinion about the war, even though some of those changes came slowly, because denial camouflages the Lie. It would take three more years before American troops started coming home, with the official ending of the war on April 30, 1975.
The United states was involved in Viet Nam for 30 years. We financially supported the French, and when they were defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the official war baton was passed to the United States beginning with so-called leadership advisors. On the morning of March 8, 1965, 3,500 US Marines landed on the beach in Da Nang, Viet Nam. Three years later, on March 16, 1968, the My Lai Massacre occurred. Everything happened so fast, as so many young Americans went from the senior prom to Viet Nam.
For me, everything has centered around the Lie of the Viet Nam War and how that Lie dismantled my life. I was raised in the military, as my father was a career Army officer and World War II combat veteran like so many other men I met in the military whose fathers were also World War II veterans. I was extremely patriotic and loved everything about this country. The Betrayal I felt when I came back from Viet Nam would eventually put me in two psychiatric facilities in 1980 and 1994. I remember being in a padded room of a psychiatric hospital in 1980 as a therapist was trying to calm me down by playing catch with a large padded medicine ball. The therapist was trying to get me to focus on catching the ball, instead of focusing on my intense hatred of the U.S. Government. I was suffering from two major things, the abuse from my military father and also the abuse from the Fatherland. They had merged into an acute anxiety, that left me with severe depression.
When I made my first trip back to Viet Nam in 1994, I was admitted to another psychiatric facility shortly after returning from that trip as a result of returning to the scene of the crime. My first exposure to the My Lai Massacre site had a tremendous impact on me. My sense of shame was monumental, especially when I was around a large group of Vietnamese who were also at the My Lai site the same time I was. Several people looked at me with curiosity, as they recognized me as probably being an American citizen. I did have a powerful experience though, as one of the men from the large group came up to me and shook my hand and said what I believed to be something very kind, because I could see it in his eyes. I have treasured this experience ever since.
A few days later I had another moving experience in Hue, which is North of Quang Ngai. An old Vietnamese woman came up to me asking for money. I gave her a rather large amount and she acknowledged the gift, as I bowed my head. When I got about 15 feet from her, for some unknown reason, I turned around and walked back to her and kissed her on the cheek. She lit up like a 16-year-old girl with a wonderful smile. I emotionally realized in that moment I was kissing a mother figure and that is when I experienced my powerful connection to the Vietnamese people.
Since my return trip to My Lai in 2018 for the 50th Anniversary, I met and photographed several My Lai survivors. I originally met a Vietnamese woman who worked as a tour guide at the My Lai site in 2016, who opened a lot of doors for me. Her name is Kieu Phan. She was very kind to me, as she realized how important it was for me to understand what happened when American troops descended on a village that would eventually be known as the unthinkable My Lai Massacre all over the world. She also had relatives who were killed on that infamous day. Kieu Phan has spent half of her life devoted to speaking for the 504 people who perished. Her emotional reliving of what happened is one of the most remarkable experiences I have had.
Survivors of the My Lai Massacre 2018
I look at each face.
Then I study the truth.
The faces reveal the vivid violence against the
On March 16, 1968,
504 civilians, to include 173 children and 17 pregnant
women, were murdered at My Lai in 4 hours by American
soldiers who went berserk.
My homeland is profoundly silent, because we never
take responsibility for anything.
There were hundreds of My Lais during the war.
Exposing National Shame is absolutely forbidden,
because it would violate a nation’s core belief system.
I am an American soldier who came back to Viet Nam
to witness the suffering that still exists.
My Lai gets into your soul,
and it never leaves.
I was born in America,
but my heart is Vietnamese.
” Viet Nam was an atrocity from the get go,” David Hackworth said, who is a retired colonel with numerous combat medals for heroism in Korea and Viet Nam. ” It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.” – New York Times article, December 28, 2003
As much as I have read about the My Lai Massacre, it is difficult to write about so many things that were described in detail. The barbarity of the killing was far worse than any fictional writer could make up. I came across a long article that award winning author and Viet Nam veteran Tim O’Brian wrote when he returned to Viet Nam in 1994. It was titled: ” The Vietnam in Me.” He was stationed at LZ Gator in Quang Ngai Province. He arrived there in February 1969, as LZ Gator was a forward firebase for the Fifth Battalion of the 46th Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade. There were about 800 American soldiers there who were mostly grunts. This is Tim O’Brian speaking about the history of Quang Ngai Province during the war:
“In the years preceding the murders at My Lai, more than 70 percent of the villages in this province had been destroyed by air strikes, artillery fire, Zippo lighters, napalm, white phosphorus, bulldozers, gunships and other such means. Roughly 40 percent of the population had lived in refugee camps, while civilian casualties in the area were approaching 50,000 a year. Those numbers, reported by the journalist Jonathan Schell in 1967, were later confirmed as substantially correct by Government investigators. Not that I needed confirmation. Back in 1969, the wreckage was all around us, so common it seemed part of the geography, as natural as any mountain or river. Wreckage was the rule. Brutality was S.O.P. Scalded children, pistol-whipped women, burning hootches, free-fire zones, body counts, indiscriminate bombing and harassment fire, villages in ash, M-60 machine guns hosing down dark green tree lines and human life behind them. In a war without aim, you tend not to aim. You close your eyes, close your heart. The consequences become hit and miss in the literal sense. With so few military targets, with an enemy that was both of and among the population, Alpha Company began to regard Quang Ngai itself as the true enemy – the physical place, the soil and paddies. What had started for us as a weird, vicious little war soon evolved into something far beyond vicious, a hopped-up killer strain of nihilism, waste without want, aimlessness of deed mixed with aimlessness of spirit. As Schell wrote after the events at My Lai, “There can be no doubt that such an atrocity was possible only because a number of other methods of killing civilians and destroying their villages had come to be the rule, and not the exception, in our conduct of the war.”
“The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government.” – Martin Luther King Jr. April 4, 1967
“During the Viet Nam War, the United States was responsible for over 21 million bomb craters.” – Howard Zinn. Many of these airstrikes were My Lais from the skies!
When The New Yorker magazine correspondent Jonathan Schell was touring Quang Ngai Province in the late summer of 1967, as he wrote later, a GI who was driving him around in a jeep suddenly turned and said, “You wouldn’t believe the things that go on in this war.” ” What things?” Schell asked. ” You wouldn’t believe it.” ” What kind of things, then?” “You wouldn’t believe it, so I’m not going to tell you,” the GI said, shaking his head no. “No one’s ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over, and we’ve all gone home, no one is ever going to know.” (Seymour M. Hersh – My Lai 4 – A Report on the My Lai Massacre and its Aftermath)
The December 5, 1969 issue of Life Magazine published some of the most shocking pictures ever taken of the Viet Nam War. Ron Haeberle, the combat photographer who was on one of the helicopters that landed at My Lai on the morning of March 16, 1968, would have total access and permission to take images for the U.S. Military to document the massacre. At the time, he had no idea what would unfold. How he was able to maintain his emotional composure and take such powerful graphic pictures will always be a mystery to me. I met Ron Haeberle at the 50th Anniversary of the massacre in 2018. I had a brief conversation with him, and photographed him during an interview he had with a Vietnamese reporter while he was in the museum. Directly behind him was the dark marble monument with all 504 names of those who were executed by the United States Government. In the article that appeared in Life Magazine, Ron Haeberle was quoted next to three of his photographs: “Off to the right,” says Haeberle, “a woman’s form, a head, appeared from some brush. All the other GIs started firing at her, aiming at her, firing at her over and over again. She had slumped over into one of those things that stick out of the rice paddies so that her head was a propped-up target. There was no attempt to question her or anything. They just kept shooting at her. You could see the bones flying in the air chip by chip.”
“There was a little boy walking toward us in a daze,” says Haeberle. “He’d been shot in the arm and leg. He wasn’t crying or making any noise.” Haeberle knelt down to photograph the boy. A GI knelt down next to him. “The GI fired three shots into the child. The first shot knocked him back, the second shot lifted him into the air. The third shot put him down and the body fluids came out. The GI just simply got up and walked away. It was a stroboscopic effect. We were so close to him it was blurred.”
“We were told that life is meaningless to these people. Without those photos, My Lai would have stayed hidden. After seeing the pictures, people had to re-think the war.” – Ron Haeberle
I was able to get Ron Haeberle’s email address from a Viet Nam veteran who lives in Hanoi. I sent Ron an email about two weeks ago and asked him what he saw in four hours at My Lai and how the massacre affected him emotionally. I mentioned that it didn’t have to be a long response, just something I could use in the future, that future being now. This was his response: “Hi Mike, this is my short reply to your questions. What I witnessed during my four hours in My Lai 4 was the laws of war did not apply. It became a free-fire zone resulting in killing all so-called Vietcong sympathizers, men, women, children and babies. I had trouble understanding at the time what was happening with the slaughter of South Vietnamese civilians. This wasn’t the Vietnamese 48th Local Force Battalion we were supposed to confront in My Lai 4. Emotionally it was troubling to me on March 16, 1968, that impacted my view on life. Later I found out that Vietnam was filled with other similar atrocities throughout the war that were kept hidden and never reported to the public. Best, Ron – February 28, 2021”
The most powerful quote I ever heard about the My Lai Massacre was by Larry Colburn. He was on the helicopter as a door gunner when the pilot, Hugh Thompson, landed his helicopter during the massacre. He confronted Lt. William Calley to stop the massacre. Calley responded by saying he was not in charge of this operation. Hugh Thompson in the end was responsible for saving people’s lives, including a small boy who was in a ditch where 170 civilians were murdered at point-blank range. Larry Colburn and the other door gunner Glenn Andreotta were involved in removing that boy from the ditch and putting him on the helicopter where he was flown to an emergency clinic. The three American soldiers who were on that helicopter had a bird’s-eye view of what was happening on the ground during the massacre. This is what Larry Colburn was quoted as saying: “The only thing the U.S. soldiers did not do was cook them and eat them.”
“As American operations began to expand into the MeKong Delta, in late 1966, the number of U.S. forces in the country swelled to more than 385,000. The Army, like the Marines, left a devastating trail of civilian casualties in its wake – thousands upon thousands of noncombatants beaten, wounded, raped, tortured, or killed in the years that followed.” – Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves – The Real American War in Vietnam
There was not one day during the Viet Nam War where the United States Government did not commit an atrocity against the Vietnamese people – not one day!
“The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure; to live it you have to explode.” – Bob Dylan
I am going to end this writing about the photograph. I took this picture of the drainage ditch at My Lai. The image was taken in 1994 before the ditch was filled in with concrete, which diminished its authenticity. Six people survived in this ditch because they were covered by bodies and they played dead until the American soldiers stopped shooting.
I met and took pictures of two women who survived the ditch when I was at the 50th Anniversary in 2018. Through Kieu Phan, my interpreter, I was able to hear part of their story. I cut out their faces, and placed them in the photograph. It was important for me to place them there, because that is where they began their journey of bearing witness and speaking for those who did not survive.
Ha Thi Quy, who is on the upper left, was 93 when I took her picture. On the morning of the massacre, American soldiers came into her hut, and broke everything in it. The soldiers then forced her, her mother and daughter into an open field. Her 17-year-old daughter was clinging to her. All three of them were herded into the ditch, where they were shot with automatic weapons. Only Ha Thi Quy miraculously survived, because many bodies fell on top of her. She was wounded in the right hip. Around noon, when she heard no more gunfire, she crawled out of the ditch and saw more of the horrible death around her, brains and body parts everywhere. As she attempted to crawl home, she encountered many injured people and bodies of women, some of whom had been raped by U.S. soldiers and then shot. Most of the time I am in her presence, she is feeling her anguish, with periods of being absolutely quiet, lost in her pain. I am hearing a testimony that is overwhelmingly powerful and honest. I feel privileged to be there.
The woman on the lower right is Pham Thi Thuan, who was 80 when I photographed her. Her father, sister, brother and three nephews were murdered at My Lai. American soldiers forced her and her two daughters, ages 5 and 3, into the drainage ditch. The soldiers fired round after round, stopping to look for survivors before firing again. All three fell under bodies, as Thuan somehow avoided being shot while desperately keeping her daughters quiet. She stated that she had to climb over so many bodies after the shooting stopped. She has been one of the most outspoken survivors of the My Lai Massacre. Her emotional energy to bear witness has given her life meaning. As a survivor she absolutely has to speak for the dead.
As a Viet Nam veteran and survivor of one of the greatest lies in American history, I am also compelled to bear witness about the Viet Nam War, because I have to speak to the youth in this country who continue to be used as cannon fodder for the corporate rich who create wars that put billionaires in stretch limousines. When politicians and the rich start sending their kids to war, I’ll start believing in noble cause.
“The survivor, then, is a disturber of the peace. He is a runner of the blockade men erect against knowledge of ‘unspeakable’ things. About these he aims to speak, and in so doing he undermines, without intending to, the validity of existing norms. He is a genuine transgressor, and here he is made to feel real guilt. The world to which he appeals does not admit him, and since he has looked to this world as the source of moral order, he begins to doubt himself. And that is not the end, for now his guilt is doubled by betrayal – of himself, of his task, of his vow to the dead. The final guilt is not to bear witness. The survivor’s worst torment is not to be able to speak.” – Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor
Lying is the most powerful weapon in war. While America prays for peace our economy worships war.
WAR = Wealthy Are Richer