Shame and guilt of My Lai massacre must be kept alive: American veteran

By Pham Linh   March 15, 2018 | 08:47 pm PT
Shame and guilt of My Lai massacre must be kept alive: American veteran
An American soldier throws bamboo sieves into the fire of burning houses during the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968. Photo by Ronald Haeberle
Many young Americans today do not learn about this dark chapter of their history.

Vietnam is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, and dozens of American veterans have flown in to join the healing process, many of whom say the incident is still very hard for them to deal with.

More than 60 members of the Veterans for Peace foundation have arrived in My Lai in the central province of Quang Ngai, which witnessed the mass killings of 504 civilians, most of them women and children, on March 16, 1968.

None of the U.S. visitors were involved in the atrocity, for which only one soldier was convicted and eventually put under house arrest.

"I've come here to make amends,” said Mike Hastie, an army medic who served in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.

He said many American soldiers “carry guilt and shame for what they may have done during the war.”

Hastie was stationed in An Khe in the Central Highlands, 200 kilometers south of My Lai. After the war, he visited My Lai in 1994 for the first time, and returned again in 2016. Now he is back to mark the 50th anniversary of the massacre.

He said the My Lai massacre was important to him because it was “the metaphor” for the entire Vietnam War. “There were many, many My Lais committed throughout Vietnam during the war. Most Americans will have a hard time dealing with that truth.”

The United States committed the My Lai mass murder weeks after the Tet Offensive, when more than 80,000 soldiers from the north and the Vietnam National Liberation Front (NLF) launched surprise attacks on more than 100 cities and outposts in Saigon and throughout southern Vietnam on January 30, 1968.

American intelligence believed that the guerrillas who had attacked them had taken refuge in My Lai.

The villagers were South Vietnamese, nominal allies of the Americans, and were completely unprepared for an attack.

The U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division later confirmed there had been deadly shootings, mutilations and multiple rapes of women and children.

It sparked global outrage and massive anti-war movements in the U.S.

There was also a protest within Hastie’s unit.

His crew painted a very large “WHY” on the nose of a medical evacuation helicopter in An Khe. “What that meant is ‘why are we in Vietnam?’,” he said.

During his second visit to My Lai in 2016, he brought a photograph of the helicopter, and a friend who is married to a Vietnam veteran held it to pose under a very large statue.

“Most of the truth is written on her face. You can see the guilt and the shame about what her government did to the Vietnamese people,” he said.

A friend of veteran Mike Hastie holds his photograph of an American helicopter with the word WHY painted on its nose to question the purpose of the Vietnam War. Photo by Pham Linh

A friend of veteran Mike Hastie holds his photograph of an American helicopter with the word "WHY" painted on its nose to question the purpose of the Vietnam War. Photo by Pham Linh

He said that “Lying is the most powerful weapon in war” and he believed that was what his government had used in My Lai.

“The U.S. policy in Vietnam was all about you do not bring the enemy to the peace table by just killing military combatants. You ultimately bring the enemy to the peace table by killing innocent civilians,” he said.

“What you’re trying to do was destroy the will of the people and their ability to defend their homeland.”

After all, it was a dark part of history that not many Americans know about today.

Josept Volpe, a Vietnam War veteran and philosophy professor, is in My Lai for the seventh time, this time with a travel study class from the United States to teach a course on the Vietnam War.

Contemporary American college students don’t know much about that war, he said.

“They are horrified and embarrassed to hear that Americans had participated in something like this,” he said.

Ronald Haeberle, a Vietnam War photographer whose images of the My Lai led to a turning point in the U.S public perception of the war, said the My Lai massacre is not presented to a great extent in classroom history books in the U.S., according to history teachers he knows.

“Many people in the U.S. wish to put this unpopular war behind them and try to establish a peaceful relationship with the Vietnamese people,” he said.

Some veterans visiting Vietnam believe that forgiving and hoping for a better future is a good thing.

Mike Poehm, a veteran, has been actively building that future. He established Madison Quakers, a non-governmental organization, in 1994 to support poor people in Quang Ngai. He has lifted many women in the war-torn province out of poverty and also raised money to build houses for more than 100 people.

“Thinking about the massacre makes me sad. But then when I look around and see the children with smiling faces and hope for the future, that makes me happy,” he said.

Hastie hopes that looking at the future does not mean Vietnam will forget the past.

If the Vietnam and U.S. normalization prompts leaders to bury the history of the war, then the heroic people who fought against the American government will be buried too, he said.

“My Lai has to be kept alive,” he said.

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