Ordinary Evil

Vietnam’s History Reveals the Banality of Systemic Violence

by Jerry Elmer

MY LAI, Vietnam — My Lai is known to Americans as the site of a massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American troops. 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.

Today, there is a memorial here 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). Here at My Lai, 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. It was raining today in My Lai. Neither the village nor the museum is very large, and it does not take long to see it all.

My friend, Lady Borton, who lives in Vietnam, tried to discourage me from visiting My Lai. Back in 1968, Lady had been living in Quang Ngai Province, where My Lai is located, working for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the co-recipient of the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize. AFSC had a center in Quang Ngai, providing medical aid for civilian war victims. Lady 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.”

Lady (that’s 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.

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