On an early morning in mid-March, I gathered with hundreds of people at the foot of a large statue created by Vietnamese sculptor Ho 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 Do 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.
Do 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 Son My) was one of a series of small hamlets in what is now known as the Tinh Khe commune in Vietnam's Quang Ngai 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...