A Village Named My Lai

A Post-war Reflection

by Earl Martin

         I sit by the ditch.

         The slight breeze murmurs through the tropical pines at the ditch’s edge. Sugar cane sparrows and swallows fill the air with their own chirps and warbles. Roosters crow at distant farmsteads, and conical-hatted farmers scratch the sandy ground with broad-bladed hoes. A sleek iridescent lizard makes her way down the ditch’s side toward a few inches of water at the bottom. She looks casually for some insects to make her a mid-morning snack.

         Despite the rustles, all is quiet at My Lai this morning.

         Still, the ditch must remember. On March 16, 1968, this ditch became the scene of pleas and cries, rifle shots and grenade explosions. This ditch became the killing field for 170 women, men, elders and children of this village. Here, the logic of war went totally berserk.

         The angry, frightened American unit sent into My Lai under the command of Lt. William Calley on that morning of March 16, 1968, suspected wrongly—based on confusion of a village name on the military maps—that the village was heavily defended by Viet Cong. Their fear apparently led to the senseless slaughter, as they herded the farmers into the ditch and shot them down.

         Today, a young boy with eager eyes under a purple baseball cap suddenly appears and slides down the ditch opposite me. His smaller sidekick in goldenrod shirt climbs in bare feet up one of the pines. When the smaller tyke shakes a branch, a huge, black beetle drops loose and buzzes down into the ditch. An older lanky girl nearby—is she a sister?—in conical hat swoops down and with one swat captures the big bug in her hand. A new pet for the day.

         The innocent play of children surrounds My Lai today.

         I walk past the memorial wall tiles reminiscent of Picasso’s “Guernica” with all creation crying to the heavens for life and justice. I move among the low graves stones marking the memories of some of the reported 504 persons who were slain in different sites around the village that morning. I encounter a woman sitting quietly under a coconut tree with her two children. When I greet her in Vietnamese, her reticence softens. I introduce myself, and she tells me her name is Nguyen thi Nhung, a native of My Lai.

         I ask Mrs. Nhung where she, as a young girl, had been on that fated morning. “Our house used to be over there,” she points. They rounded us all up, drove us into the ditch.”

         The shy mother stops for a moment, swallows, and continues. “The rest were killed, but I was underneath the others in the ditch. They didn’t see me. If they had seen me, I’d be dead, too.”

         Nhung says she lost her mother, her father, and three younger siblings that morning. Her tone of voice surprises me. Clearly this woman carries deep sadness from the memories. But I can discern not a trace of bitterness toward me or toward any Americans.

         As I sit there with Mrs. Nhung, I think of Lt. Calley himself and wonder whether even he could ever return to visit My Lai. Here, as on other occasions in Vietnam, I marvel at the apparent lack of bitterness. Do Asians love life less that we in the West, as stereotypes sometimes suggest? I sense not.

         Rather, it seems there is an acceptance of destiny. Số mệnh. Fate. I want to live. I want my children to live. But if I die, if my child dies, I must come to terms with reality. To deny that reality, to hold prolonged bitterness about that reality, would only mean your spirit would begin to devour your body. Better to accept the past as past.

         Later, March 16, 1993, I return to My Lai. Perhaps a thousand local farmers and students have gathered for the 25-year commemoration of that tragic morning. When I arrive, the organizers of the memorial service ask if I, apparently the only American present, would like to speak as part of the ceremony. I hesitate. I certainly have prepared nothing. But as I ponder the invitation, I recall the healing I had witnessed in previous years when Japanese church persons, during visits to the Philippines and Indonesia, expressed sorrow for the actions of their countrymen during World War II. So when I am asked a second time, I agree to speak.

         In the ceremony, community representatives present large floral wreaths in front of a great My Lai memorial statue. Then a local official gives a speech recounting the brutal events of that morning 25 years ago. While he is vivid in his description of the massacre, his is not a vengeful or angry speech. He does not pronounce blanket condemnations on Americans. Nor, I note without surprise, does he speak about any of the Viet Cong terrors that had also been part of the war’s reality. Instead, as most officials in this era, he goes to great pains to say that the war was a thing of the past . . . that Vietnam now seeks friendly ties with all countries, including the United States. A second official then rises to give a boilerplate speech about the economic development plans of the district.

         Then I am beckoned to the rostrum. Placed last in the short ceremony, I speak in simple Vietnamese. The crowd hushes. Probably because they have never heard their language spoken in a such a strange, foreign accent! But they remain attentive, sometimes craning necks to get a better view. Occasionally they look at each other and nod in assent. As the end, they applaud their appreciation for the simple expressions of sadness, of longing for forgiveness and peace.

         After the talks, young students distribute joss sticks. We walk silently from grave to grave, passing in reverence for the villagers who lost their lives. I pray in silence by the irrigation ditch where Mrs. Nhung’s parents and siblings had been shot exactly 25 years earlier. Curious children gather around and press close on every side. Their presence reassures me deeply. Through blurred eyes I see in their gentle, smiling faces hope for the future of My Lai and the future of this scarred land.

         As I leave the hamlet, Mrs. Nhung appears again from the coconut trees. She is wearing for the occasion what may be her only silky, embroidered dress, or ao dai, holding her conical hat. As we pass, we pause and bow slightly toward each other in simple respect.

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Earl Martin was among a handful of U.S. citizens in Vietnam that stayed on after the North Vietnamese rout of the South Vietnamese army and the departure of U.S. troops. He and his wife, Pat Hostetter Martin, who were married the day before the My Lai massacre, spent five years in war-torn Vietnam as Mennonite Central Committee workers. As of this writing, they are back in Vietnam with their children, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Earl is the author of Reaching the Other Side, published in 1978.