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Meeting The Ghosts Of The My Lai Massacre

by Layth Yousif
22 September 2014 23 Comments

45 years since the slaughter the infamous spot remains a difficult place to visit...


‘If we learn to accept this, there is nothing that we will not accept’.

Jonathan Schell,

“Once people are dead, you can’t make them undead.”

 Tim O’Brien,

Before parking, my driver, a quiet undemonstrative sort turned off his blaring car radio. He also put his cigarette out carefully rather than flick it out of his window. I took it to mean a show of respect to the area, and the agonised souls that roamed it.

The humidity sapped with its usual severity. I walked up to the grassy path. Past anguished bronze statues of peasants that led to the centrepiece of the memorial park. The park that had formerly housed the village of My Lai. – at least until Charlie Company had encountered it on 16th March 1968.

The huge triumphant Soviet Style monument – of an unbowed defiant woman with an outstretched right arm and clenched fist holding a slain child – seemed totally at odds with the understated dignity of the area. Randomly placed, simple black granite plaques stood near raised grass mounds. They indicated how many villagers died from a particular hut, or how many had been executed at that precise spot. Grey gum trees with bullet holes were constant reminders of the four hours Charlie Company had spent here that fateful day.

There was a blue sky and lushness in the fields. But there was also an absence of activity. Even farm animals appeared to know to keep away from this site. A site that saw between 150-500 innocent Vietnamese villagers lose their lives before that March midday. I found it instructive that there was no sign of the delicate Quynh Hoa plant with gentle snow white flowers, so revered in Vietnamese art and history. It was almost comforting that such a fragile thing refused to exist in a place with such a grisly past.

It was as if nature herself was so disgusted by what had happened in those areas that she knew to keep away.

The men of Charlie Company landed at My Lai and the first barrage broke the air at 7.27am.

A line had been crossed that beggared understanding.

Immediately an old man tending a water buffalo put his hands in the air 50 metres away and was shot with no explanation. Lt Calley failed to reprimand the company for indiscriminate shooting. A Private Boyce, as if gripped by the devil himself, suddenly drove his bayonet into the chest of an unarmed villager killing him on the ground, before shooting another man in the neck, throwing him in a well then dropping a hand grenade into it. ‘That’s the way you gotta do it’ he said. A murderous, unthinking chain reaction had been put in motion.

Private Varnado Simpson was seen to shoot a woman, firing her arm off in the process before she and her baby were killed.

He later recalled killing a young child. ‘My mind just went, I started killing…I just started killing any way I can kill. It just came. I didn’t know I had it in me…the hardest is to kill the first but once you kill then it becomes easier to kill the next person and the next one and the next one…I had no feelings, no emotions, nothing’.

A group of petrified villagers hiding in a tunnel were silenced when a grenade was thrown into it. Lt Calley lined up 10-15 men and executed them at close range with machine guns. The action resulted in severed heads and a scene resembling an abattoir, before Calley questioned a monk further along the field. As he screamed at the terrified monk accusing him of being a Viet Cong, a 2 year old child crawled away from the body of its mother lying dead in a nearby ditch. Calley picked up the child hurled it back into the ditch, and nonchalantly shot it, before continuing to question the petrified monk. Frustrated with his pleading that there were no weapons, or VC hiding in the village Calley simply opened fire at the Venerable Buddhist with an M-16, killing the man instantly.

All huts were ‘zippoed’, that is set alight and burned. The initial flame coming from the durable metal lighters called Zippos, reproductions of which I later saw for sale in a Saigon market. Incredibly an Army photographer was on hand to record some of the images as the Company worked their way through the dying village of My La.

The image of a woman clad in a blue top lay dead in a field, her brains resting next to her, was captured forever by the photographer, resembling something mirthless from the Book of Revelations.

Like all mass murder the truth is beyond the scope of understanding. The simple fact was that up to 500 villagers were brutalised and killed in cold blood by Charlie Company in My Lai on 16th March 1968. It was an unchecked bloodlust, consuming the troop like a violent madness.


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Gentle Mimosa plants buoyed by recent rains grew next to swaying palm trees as we squelched our way to the Museum at Tu Cung. On the way there we walked past the Thua Yan ditch where it was reported 170 bodies were found. Standing next to the ditch, looking into the silent calm murky water held in the long trough, I involuntarily shivered.

Inside the museum were some of the photos taken by the photographer. Their immediacy and graphic nature echoed the murderous intensity of that day, and made for uncomfortable and gruelling viewing.

As I looked at the images I noted the faces of still living villagers through the certainty of hindsight. I knew what was going to happen to them, yet moments before their deaths their eyes betrayed the fact that they also knew that fact. A fearful resignation that had extinguished all hope of a reprieve.

I saw a man lying on the ground with his intestines laid out in front of him. I saw a picture of piles of villagers lying prone and lifeless near the watchtower. And the body of whom we know to be a Mrs Chin Tau. Shot in the head with her brain nestling next to her like rotting mincemeat. Her eyes frozen in a piercing stare. It was a stare that haunted the thoughts of the US Public – if not all of the perpetrators – for a long time afterwards. I know it certainly haunted mine. Even now I can recall the stark shot, mostly when I don’t wish to.

In the museum I also saw bland artefacts. Like an ex-East-end Fireman acquaintance of mine who would never talk about deaths he encountered, rather he would very occasionally mention the sight of a melted doll. Their very ordinariness and banality intensified the horror for me. I know now 1 year old Do Cu owned a pink plastic toy crab before the back of the child’s head was blown away by a high velocity bullet. And in the corner, like the uninvited guests they were, I saw a single picture of Charlie Company zippo lighting thatch huts.

What was ultimately almost as shocking as the tragic deaths of the innocent villagers, as to leave a lasting sense of betrayal was this: what took place had been perpetrated by Americans. The nation we trusted above all others. The good guys.

Here in My Lai I couldn’t reconcile, the fact that American Soldiers committed these atrocities. The fact that Sgt Calley was Amon Goethe in a different uniform.

Disorientated, I bought a packet of cigarettes from a lady with bright, porcelain white teeth. I ripped off the foil, I lit the end, needful of the habit, and silently sucked in the chemicals that poisoned my lungs. It gave me a sensation of falling so fast I had no control over my body.

Of course I had no reason personally to feel guilt at what happened during those evil four hours on 16th March 1968: but I did feel deeply ashamed.

And that is surely worse.

Postscript: No-one from Charlie Company apart from Calley was ever prosecuted.

Yet, perhaps of the most pitful victims of My Lai was Private Varnado Simpson. He later suffered from chronic PTSD. When the documentary makers of ‘Four Hours in My Lai’ visited him at his in house in Jackson, Mississippi in 1989 his hands and legs shook uncontrollably. He admitted to killing ‘about 25 people’. 

In 1977 a teenager accidentally shot and killed his 10 year old son. Simpson recalled, ‘he died in my arms. And when I looked at him his face was like the same face of the child that I had killed. And I said: ‘’This is the punishment for me killing the people that I killed’’ mirroring the Vietnamese proverb Gy ông đp lưng ông: evil acts punish themselves.

Later, his daughter died of meningitis, and on Sunday May 4th 1997, at the age of 48, racked by an all-consuming guilt, he committed suicide with a pump action shotgun.  29 years on My Lai had claimed another victim.

This is an excerpt taken from Layth’s book “Hanoi Autobahn”

Follow Layth on twitter @laythy29

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

ji 4:58 pm, 22-Jul-2013

Islamists are doing this every day in places like Syria.

Joe Sheehan 5:01 pm, 22-Jul-2013

A stiking reminder that amongst the beauty and mistique of Vietnam, lies a savage history or attrocities led by both VC and ,as Layth puts it, the "Good Guys". That Charlie Company were so enshrouded in the 'red mist' of anger and fear in the battle field is testiment to the savagery of the Vietnam War and that all in war are lossers.

Henri Hyso 6:11 pm, 22-Jul-2013

This is a brave piece of writing about such a heart-breaking topic that has resonance even/especially today. Well done to Sabotage for printing it.

bonniedundee 8:09 pm, 22-Jul-2013

I'd like to read more about Layth's adventures in Vietnam. Much as I respect the war historians' and soldiers' accounts of this war, Layth brings a travellers' eye to it all. Seems like a perfect travel book. Has it got a publisher yet?

Daithi 9:48 pm, 22-Jul-2013

Amnesia usually ensures that, while the relatively few deaths of the invaders are constantly acknowledged, the deaths of up to five million Vietnamese are consigned to oblivion. More compellingly the writer made an exception with this post.

Dan Jimenez 12:27 pm, 23-Jul-2013

An awful story from a truly awful conflict. From my understanding the war started from a promise from the US President that they would protet all countries where communism overtook the democtractic state. I might be wrong here but I'm pretty sure that there are only 5 communist states left and Vietnam is still one of them, I think this highlights the tragic waste of innocent human life.

Jeff Markez 3:00 pm, 23-Jul-2013

A superb article, sobering and poignant highlighting what a waste of life and time war really is, especially in Vietnam. If the US had concentrated more on home issues rather than be continually obsessed with Communism this sort of needless violence would never have happened. Keep it up Layth.

Stewart 4:15 pm, 23-Jul-2013

Very poignant article. makes a change from the usual jovial stuff on here! But very moving all the same. I'd like to read more.

Seamus 8:45 pm, 23-Jul-2013

A though provoking piece of writing that captures the brutality Vietnam endured during the war. As a traveller to Vietnam, it is often easy to forget that such a picturesque country endured immense suffering. This article sheds light on that tragic piece of history.

Matt 11:26 pm, 23-Jul-2013

Very good article The point about nature staying away and judging our actions is very well made It was something I noticed at dachau and is no doubt true to other sites where attrocities have been committed

Tom 1:04 am, 24-Jul-2013

This is a great article. If I wanted to hear glorified American versions of their triumphs I'd watch the latest Hollywood efforts - hope nobody minds reading genuine accounts of history.

Brian Peverall 11:52 am, 24-Jul-2013

Very poignant. As if to illustrate there are no real winners in any war. Americans, the good guys? I suppose it's all down to perspective. I do wonder what the average Vietnamese feels now, looking back. Good job Layth.

Anoop 2:07 pm, 24-Jul-2013

reading this article gave me goose bumps and the feeling that only we as human beings are capable of such mind numbing atrocity towards another.. the story of My Lai is not one that happened in Vietnam alone, there are many places across the world where wars have been fought where places have experienced a similar fate due to deranged militarymen...and all this for what???? Thanks for the article Layth and ofcourse for a balanced perspective...

Jim M 2:43 pm, 24-Jul-2013

I can't say i enjoyed this article but i wasn't supposed to. I am glad i read it however. I note from this and other articles that they are extracts from a book. i'd love to get hold of a copy but can't find it anywhere, is it published?

Simon Gill 3:21 pm, 24-Jul-2013

a very interesting and thought provoking read Layth. There is a fine line between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, a military operation for attack or one for 'peace'!

Keith 7:48 pm, 24-Jul-2013

Haunting and unsettling article brilliantly written- over the years I have travelled to many places when atrocities and genocide has been committed - from Poland to Rwanda , Burundi and Congo but this place unknown to me in article evocatively captures tit all with a troubling familiarity - evil acts punish themselves...

Chris 10:14 am, 25-Jul-2013

A poignant piece. The tragedy is that largely innocent kids were driven to acts of such savagery by political dogma. Its amazing how the ‘free world’ can show such disregard for both the fate of the slaughtered or the future lives of those sent to ‘further the cause of freedom’.

chris w 6:02 pm, 25-Jul-2013

a fascinating read about a subject I knew little if anything about. It provided a focus on a point in history that is much written about but I've not before heard this 'side of the story'. A sad sad tale of the horrors of war reported in an informative and respectful way. Its the kind of introduction that makes you want to know more about the region and its history. I have my first visit planned for next year so will be keen to read more background on the history of the country prior to going

Thom 10:33 am, 26-Jul-2013

Insightful, i knew little about this and would be thoughtless not to want to learn more. Speculates as to what else may have gone on elsewhere across the years. Good Read.

Blair 1:32 am, 2-Aug-2013

Reading this makes one feel like they were there as an invisible onlooker amongst the atrocities. A very compelling, spellbinding piece and very emotionally charged at the end as a result. Well written.

patrice aurousseau 6:57 pm, 6-Aug-2013

BLOODY Yanks at their best; it will happen again and we will visit more muséums; poignant writing! i hope you've given up smoking since! ;-)

rigsby 10:38 am, 28-Sep-2013

How is it that ST can run informative interesting pieces like this - and also rubbish like that 'hardest films to masturbate to' nonsense?

your manager 10:16 am, 29-Sep-2013

i masturbated to that picture

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