I have come to Vietnam as part of a delegation from Veterans For Peace to commemorate the 50th anniversary of My Lai.
We are here to acknowledge what happened in this place half a century ago, and to express our condolences and deep sorrow for the suffering our country caused for the Vietnamese people. As Americans, we own this place, whether we like it or not. We cannot escape the responsibility for what happened. We have come to bear witness to that reality and seek reconciliation.
We are half a world away from home, and yet this is very much an American event. We’re here now because America was here then, and the consequences of that tragic day resonate through time and endure now and into the future.
It is a sunny, hot and humid day, very much like that fateful morning 50 years ago when soldiers of the 23rd Infantry (Americal) Division entered this verdant village and committed unspeakable atrocities in one of the darkest days in U.S. military history.
We stroll slowly through the memorial site and visit the museum. We follow the footpaths where the carnage occurred, now cement walkways with images of feet and hands imprinted. Next to us is the infamous irrigation ditch, where 170 villagers were herded together and gunned down in cold blood, women, children and old men. We walk past markers where family huts once stood, plaques giving the names and ages of the family members killed, so many in single digits.
Walking through the museum we see the faces of victims. The front entry wall is covered with a plaque listing the 504 names of those killed that day here and in surrounding hamlets. As we approach, an elderly woman is leaning forward and pointing emphatically to the names of family members engraved on the wall. A Vietnamese man approaches and asks her to turn around and lift the back of her blouse, revealing a grotesque scar that stretches across her torso. She is one of the survivors of the assault.
Nearby is a religious temple where we listen to the chanting of Buddhist monks, and the deep resonant tones of a gong. We are invited to light incense sticks and come forward to place them on the altar, a ritual similar to our lighting of candles in church to remember the deceased. I offer a prayer for those killed, and a plea for the forgiveness of my country.
The official ceremony begins with the introduction of dignitaries: the former President of Vietnam, a Deputy Prime Minister, a former Chief Justice, a retired general, and political leaders of the local Quang Ngai provincial government. Also introduced is the director of the My Lai Peace Foundation, an organization hoping to build here a large peace park dedicated to reconciliation and the prevention of war.
The speeches are in Vietnamese but the words are displayed in English on a large screen. The chief minister of the district begins by expressing sincere condolences to the families of victims and compassion for the survivors, but quickly pivots to a more hopeful and conciliatory tone. The main question before us, he says, is not what happened in the past, but how we work in the future to prevent such an incident from ever happening again. Amen to that, I think.
He welcomes our delegation of U.S. veterans, along with the other American groups here from the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development (FRD) and a Quaker-sponsored organization in Wisconsin. Our presence here today helps to close the past, he says, and can build greater cooperation and understanding for the future.
“We must do more than hope for peace. We must take practical steps to heal the wounds of war and assure that no place on earth ever experiences the fate of My Lai,” he says.
The director of the My Lai Peace Foundation speaks of the mission for the proposed peace park. It will encompass more than 60 acres and have a bell tower 50.4 meters high. The work performed at the site will be dedicated to “the lesson of altruism,” according to the park’s description, and will seek to raise the Vietnamese people’s “aspiration to live in peace.” The park will be a reminder for “people around the world never to create any war.”
After the ceremony, the U.S. delegations meet with the chief minister. Veterans For Peace leader Chuck Searcy describes a letter signed by more than 600 Americans expressing deep apology and regret for what happened and our commitment to do all in our power to prevent such an atrocity from ever occurring again. FRD Director John McAuliff notes that many of us in the delegation worked against the war for many years. He calls for the U.S. government to take responsibility for what was done in Vietnam and to provide redress and compensation for the many Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange poisoning and unexploded ordnance.
The chief minister responds positively and praises us for coming to pay our respects. We are grateful for your commitment to peace and truth, he says, and we hope that our two peoples can bond together in friendship and peace. We can never forget the harm that was done in the past, he states, but we can and must work together for peace and economic development, not only for the Vietnamese people, but for all people everywhere.
We leave with continued deep feelings of remorse, but also a small sense of satisfaction that we have been part of an experience of expiation. We have come full circle in our lives. We spent our youth struggling to stop the war, to avoid going to Vietnam. Now we have come back, to a place of immeasurable tragedy, to accept a small measure of our country’s responsibility and also to commit ourselves to overcoming the legacy of war and working for reconciliation.
May that work continue and multiply into the future, so that perhaps out of the ashes of this atrocity will arise not only a peace park, but an enduring commitment to the prevention of war.