My Lai 50 Years Later

Coralville Public Library, June 15, 2018

After a shift at the farm I drove to the Coralville Public Library to see the exhibit about the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968.

Created by Mac MacDevitt, and sponsored by the Chicago chapter of Veterans for Peace, the exhibit consisted of a couple dozen tall panels with text, photographs and analysis related what happened over several hours during the Vietnam War.

My Lai, and Nixon’s pardon of William Calley, led to my personal participation in the anti-war movement while I was in high school and college, and then to my enlistment in the U.S. Army in October 1975.

Like any reasonable person I found the military action which killed men, women and children to be morally reprehensible and believed as a society we could do better than the soldiers of Charlie Company. My response was to make changes in the military through my participation.

Calley was the only person convicted of murder during the operation, although it is clear other crimes were committed. Nixon’s pardon reinforced what was commonly believed among service members — that Calley was “just following orders.” While I was in officer training school at Fort Benning, Georgia we debated the efficacy of Charlie Company’s actions that day. My peers sided with Calley.

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness,” wrote Italian philosopher George Santayana.  “When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As I stood in my dirt covered jeans, T-shirt and farm shoes looking at the pastel panels I remembered My Lai. Society hasn’t forgotten about My Lai, its context in the Vietnam War, and the cover up afterward. The next generations never learned about it.

One role for veterans is to help us remember what happens in war. My Lai was the military at its worst. We can and should be better than that.