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Editorial & Opinion

On the fiftieth anniversary of the My Lai massacre



Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the My Lai massacre. On the morning of March 16, 1968, American forces entered the village and gathered up all living things: elderly men and women, infants in mothers’ arms, pigs, chickens, and water buffalo. Then, the Americans proceeded to kill them all, slowly, carefully, methodically. It took four hours (this was no sudden outburst of passion), until all 504 people and all the animals were massacred. Fifty-six of the people killed were under seven years old; some of the infants were bayoneted to death. Women were raped before being shot.

After the killing orgy, two of the American soldiers (one a religious Mormon) sat down to lunch nearby. Unfortunately, their meal was interrupted by the moans of a few villagers shot and left for dead, but not yet fully dead. The two soldiers, disturbed by the interruption, finished off the few villagers still alive, and then went placidly back to their meal.

Mosaic at the memorial at My Lai, detail, Photo by Jerry Elmer

Today, there is a memorial at the site of the massacre. Part of the memorial is an indoor museum. The highlight of the museum is a somber plaque containing the names and ages of each one of the 504 people killed. There is a large outdoor monument and several smaller sculptures on the grounds. There is also a large outdoor mosaic in a pattern that reminds one of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (which was commissioned as a memorial to the victims of an earlier massacre). One can walk around the remains of the village and see the Thun Yen ditch in which 170 of the victims died. And one can see the remaining brick foundations of the few burned village houses that had brick foundations.

My friend, Lady Borton, who lives in Vietnam, tried to discourage me from visiting My Lai, but I went anyway. Back in 1968, Lady had been living in Quang Ngai Province, where My Lai is located, doing medical relief work for civilian war victims. She had taken some of the first American journalists to My Lai after the massacre was first revealed in the West by Seymour Hersh. Lady said to me, “The point I made then, which was ignored then, is that this behavior by American GIs happened all the time. I had friends who survived and were killed in subsequent massacres in the same area. There were many massacres . . . I hold a contrarian view about [these] tourist sites because they lift up one incident (or one individual) as if this were an aberration, when, at least to my observation, the truth is quite the opposite.”

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Mosaic at the memorial at My Lai, detail, Photo by Jerry Elmer

Lady (that is her name, not her title) is quite correct; the My Lai massacre was not an aberration. It was an exemplar of what American troops did in Vietnam. The issue that Lady raises is an important one, and it is part of a wider debate that has been going on for decades.

In 1962, Hannah Arendt covered the trial of Adolph Eichmann for The New Yorker magazine, and her articles were subsequently published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt’s book caused a firestorm of controversy. Her argument, reflected in the subtitle of the book, was that Eichmann was not a monster, not an aberration; he was an ordinary man, a bureaucrat, who did his job efficiently and well. In the 50 years since the Eichmann trial, Arendt’s central argument has become a commonplace – so much so that it is difficult for contemporary observers to appreciate how controversial Arendt’s thesis was at the time. Today, Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, makes much the same point. Hitler did not kill six million Jews on his own, and atrocities were not limited to a few monsters in the Schutzstaffel (SS). The Holocaust was carried out with the cooperation and assistance of millions of ordinary people. Evil is banal, not extraordinary.

Despite the controversy Arendt stirred up in 1962, she was absolutely correct: the Holocaust was not caused only by Hitler and a few henchmen, and what was really scary about Eichmann was precisely his banality.

So, too, with My Lai. One leading scholarly account of the massacre describes Charlie Company, which carried out the atrocity, as “very average” for American forces. (Four Hours in My Lai, by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, pages 50-51.) Of Lieutenant William Calley, the only American convicted of the crime, Bilton and Sim say that he was “a bland young man burdened with as much ordinariness as any single individual could bear . . . conventional and commonplace.” (Id., at page 49.) Another scholarly account of the massacre says: “There was simply nothing unusual about Charley Company.” (My Lai: A Brief History With Documents, by James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, page 10.)

That is, Lady – like Arendt – is correct. My Lai was not an aberration; it was very, very ordinary. So why did I choose to visit?

The reason I wanted to visit the memorial at My Lai is that, even if May Lai is not unusual, exemplars like this help us to remember important matters. In 1975, I visited the memorial that now stands at Dachau with my father. It was a very moving visit, not because this was the only place where the Holocaust was carried out, but because it was – in its typicality – an exemplar. Seeing the barracks, seeing the crematoria, reminded me that this was one of very, very many places where the Holocaust was carried out.

In 1981, I was one of the first Westerners in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power. The killing field at Rolous Village that I visited, with its acres of skeletal remains and the stench of rotting corpses, was not unique; but it was an important exemplar of a much broader phenomenon. As an exemplar it was worth visiting, because it helped me to understand and remember the wider phenomenon.

So too with My Lai. Lady is correct; My Lai was not unusual. But I am glad I visited, because it helps me understand and remember the wider phenomenon.

It is My Lai as exemplar, not aberration.

Outdoor memorial sculpture at the memorial at My Lai, Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam. Photo by Jerry Elmer.

Mosaic at the memorial at My Lai, Photo by Jerry Elmer

Mosaic at the memorial at My Lai, detail, Photo by Jerry Elmer

Jerry Elmer is a Senior Attorney in the Rhode Island Office of Conservation Law Foundation and the President of the Environment Council of Rhode Island. He is CLF’s lead attorney in the litigation against Invenergy in the R.I. Energy Facility Siting Board.