On an early morning in mid-March, I gathered with hundreds of people at the foot of a large statue created by Vietnamese sculptor Hồ Thu. The sculpture depicts a mother raising a clenched fist, a dead child in her arm, others dying about her.
A man whom I had met during a visit to this place ten years earlier approached me and took me by the hand. He led me through the reconstructed remnants of houses that were burned to the ground a half-century ago. His name is Đỗ Ba, and at age eight he was pulled from a ditch, covered in blood, by helicopter gunner Larry Colburn and flown to a nearby hospital. It was a moment of humanity amidst a cascade of death.
Đỗ Ba took me to the site where his home had stood, then slowly walked me to stand by the tombs of his other family members who were killed that day.
Here, on the morning of March 16, 1968, U.S. troops under the direction of Lieutenant William Laws Calley Jr. killed 504 civilians, in what became known as the My Lai massacre.
My Lai (locally called Sơn Mỹ) was one of a series of small hamlets in what is now known as the Tịnh Khê commune in Vietnam’s Quảng Ngãi province. Calley, who was later convicted of personally killing twenty-two civilians (although he served only three and one half years under house arrest), led his battalion into the village, called Pinkville by the U.S. troops, reportedly under a directive to “kill everything that breathes.”
When news of the massacre first appeared in the media in late 1969, the world was shocked at its brutality and scale. My Lai has been classified as one of the largest massacres of civilians by U.S. troops in the twentieth century. Writers at the time made comparisons to Oradour-sur-Glane (a massacre by Nazi troops) and even Hiroshima. Although contemporary investigations such as those by Nick Turse in his 2013 book, Kill Anything That Moves, have shown that many massacres occurred during the war, it’s My Lai that remains stamped on the world’s consciousness.
“Responsibility for American actions in Vietnam cannot reasonably be ascribed to any small number of our representatives there,” wrote psychiatrist Gordon Livingston in The Progressive’s November 1970 issue. “Our search for culprits leads us to the mirror of reality, there to confront ourselves.”
In the United States, the war in Vietnam has been made more prominent this past year due in part to the PBS series on the war, and the various anniversary commemorations of the year 1968. For the Vietnamese, this year is also a time of memory. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the Tet Offensive, the forty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, and more sorrowfully, the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre at My Lai.
I traveled to My Lai for seven days in March to take part in a solemn ceremony that brought together survivors, community leaders, former Vietnamese combatants, and more than forty U.S. veterans now working for peace. Ten years ago, I was also present for commemorations of the massacre’s fortieth anniversary.
This year’s event included an announcement that the province and a newly formed nongovernmental organization called the My Lai Peace Foundation plan to build an elaborate park and interpretive center. For some, this struck a sour note.
“Commercialization prevails over tradition,” said Mr. Phạm Thành Công, former director of the museum at the Sơn Mỹ memorial site, noting that the event used to be a more somber affair, honoring the dead.
Another Peace Park was built in My Lai twenty years ago. A project of Madison Quakers Inc., it includes trees planted by Colburn and Hugh Thompson, then the two surviving members of the helicopter crew that intervened during the massacre and saved many civilian lives. Additional trees were planted in 2008 by Japanese hibakusha (survivors of the 1945 U.S. bombing of Hiroshima). There is also a tree planted in honor of Rachel Corrie, the young peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Palestine in 2003.
Although contemporary investigations have shown that many massacres occurred during the war, it’s My Lai that remains stamped on the world’s consciousness.
Mike Boehm, the director of Madison Quakers, served in Vietnam in 1968-69. He returned in 1992 to help build a hospital. Since then, Boehm has devoted his life to working to assist people affected by U.S. military actions during the war. These projects include revolving loan funds, water systems, scholarships, and a three-building primary school.
In a small ceremony at the offices of the Quảng Ngãi province Women’s Union, Boehm was awarded an “order of merit” medal for his twenty-five years of work with the organization. “The Women’s Union sees many foreign organizations,” said Mrs. Phạm Thị Hồng Hải, the province group’s vice chair. “They come and they go, but Madison Quakers stays the same, our friendship will last long.”
Boehm, in an interview, talked about his group’s approach. “It is all about building relationships,” he told me. “Most large NGOs come in and they have decided what they want to do. We ask the Vietnamese people what they need.”
The budget for Quảng Ngãi projects this year includes 1.6 billion Vietnamese đồng (about $70,000) for revolving loans to poor women in the province, according to figures from the Women’s Union. Boehm says that, over the years, more than $200,000 has been distributed, assisting more than 3,000 women. Madison Quakers also works with two other Women’s Union groups, in Tư Nghĩa district and in Bình Sơn district, both also in Quảng Ngãi province.
Most of the loans are used to enable women to purchase a cow (a large investment that would otherwise be impossible). The cow will often give birth to a calf, which, when grown, can be sold to repay the loan. In Tịnh Bình commune, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Kim Anh said that she has used the money from the cow to raise her four children, one of whom is mute, and repair her home.
In Bình Mỹ commune, Mrs. Le Thi Sinh said the cow she purchased died of a mysterious illness, a potentially devastating loss, but Madison Quakers organized a special emergency loan (forgiving the previous one), helping her buy a new one. This cow gave birth to a calf. She is also caring for a neighbor’s cow, which provides additional income to support the family.
“We ask the Vietnamese people what they need.”
Madison Quakers raised funds to build a primary school very near the site of the Sơn Mỹ memorial. The first building was erected in 2001, a second in 2004, and a third in 2008. Today, the school has forty teachers and more than 600 students, according to Mr. Nguyen Thanh Vinh, the school’s headmaster. Madison Quakers provided a water filtration system so the school could have fresh drinking water.
The group also purchased bicycles for children to get to and from school. The Women’s Union selects the neediest children, based largely on income, and makes them responsible for the bicycles’ care and upkeep. “These bicycles often mean the difference between a child being able to stay in school or not,” explained Mr. Phan Văn Độ, in-country coordinator of the Madison Quakers projects.
And the group helps support the children of Agent Orange victims, who often suffer the hereditary effects of the dioxin-based defoliants used by the U.S. military during the war. On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary, more than 100 students received a packet of school supplies and funds to assist in the day-to-day costs of attending school.
Other projects over the years have included the digging of wells for clean drinking water, and the construction of more than 100 “compassion houses,” many going to the victims of Agent Orange. (For more information on the work of Madison Quakers Inc., visit http://www.mqivietnam.org.)
My Lai was chosen for these projects because of the enormous debt owed by the United States to the people of this region. As Boehm puts it, “We must always remember the past so we do not repeat those mistakes, but I am also looking to the future, and I see it in the faces of the children of My Lai.”
Norman Stockwell is publisher of e Progressive. He is also a member of the Advisory Council of Madison Quakers, Inc.