A soft-spoken young girl in a royal blue ao dai is stumbling through a canned English language presentation at the My Lai museum, attesting to the massacre here of local villagers by GIs of the Americal Division, nearly 50 years ago to the day.
More accurately known as the Son My Memorial, the site comprises a giant patriotic outdoor sculpture in the “never again” vein. It’s something of a mash up of Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ defiant Black Power salute from the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, and Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s. Elsewhere, smaller, more subtle garden statues honor the memory of aged local farmers and young children who perished in the rural hamlets that once punctuated this village complex of banana trees, vegetable gardens, and rice paddies.
Inside the museum, our docent points unemotionally to the photos on the wall, reciting their captions haltingly—a far cry from her natural sing-song speech. Sorry, faded, blurry copies of copies, the pictures tell the story the young woman can never convey—the story of a most horrible day, March 16, 1968, when a Vietnam farming district became hell on earth, evermore to symbolize the terror and madness of war in our generation. I find most interesting of all, not the well-known pre- and post-massacre photos of Ron Haeberle. Instead, I am mesmerized by the North Vietnamese propaganda photos taken later that day, showing survivors with corpses and somber villagers conducting a memorial vigil.
I have no tears here for My Lai. It’s an example of war atrocities that have occurred many times before and after by opposing sides in every war. The psychic wounds that the Vietnam War inflicted on me scarred over long before this trip. In the particular case of My Lai, my anger seethed to exhaustion before I was drafted or had any inkling that I’d wind up in Vietnam, just a short helicopter ride from the site of horror where I am standing. I’m here paying my respects. To mourn, but not to weep. It’s like a visit to the grave of a relative I didn’t know very well. Honor the dead. Pray for peace.
The young girl’s droning voice is strangely soothing, like a chant. I feel there should be a censer on an altar to make an offering, as in so many of the pagodas and traditional homes we have been visiting. Memories of My Lai would drift like smoke into the ether.
My brooding absorption is shattered by a loud staccato voice that assaults me from behind. I turn to see Mrs. Thong Chi Nguyen, an aged, fleshy woman way too overdressed in her dark wool coat and wide brimmed safari hat. Her rapid-fire Vietnamese has me wondering if I’m about to take the fall for the horror show we’re all reliving in the museum. Besides the BW, I’m the only round eye in the joint. Oanh, my new DaNang friend and translator rushes over to rescue me from Mrs. Thong’s torrent. It turns out, she simply wants to tell me her story.
“I am back here after 51 years,” she says. Thong lived nearby before the war, but when things got bad, she and her husband moved to a central highlands enclave called Dac Lac. She was 39 then. Word reached Dac Lac about the massacre in Quang Ngai but she never returned until today. Now she views the wall inscribed with the names and ages of hundreds of victims, many of whom she knew. “There is no one left,” she says, without lowering her voice.
Thong’s husband was a “Chieu Hoi”, a VC or NVA soldier who defected to the other side. It was too dangerous, too risky, for him to fight the war against the South Vietnamese and American forces. He survived by surrendering. After the war, the couple paid dearly for his “welcome return”: 9 years in prison for him. He died at 68 years of age. Thong, now 90, has sons and grandchildren to carry on her family. But none of her old friends from Son My.
Punished twice—the toll of the war, the retribution against her husband—Thong shows no bitterness. She likes the Vietnam of today. “Now, I am free to travel”, she boasts to the BW with a laugh and a smile. Even if her travel is only to a place she once lived long ago, where no one she knows remains anymore.