There's nothing I enjoy more than when I am able to make connections across all areas of my life. Maybe it's my liberal arts education at work. Or maybe my life just really isn't that interesting. But anyway -- this week everything converged...on the Vietnam War. Yep, the part of history that you never really get to in high school because you run out of time so all you really know about it is what your parents and grandparents have to say or you see on TV and movies. I think I only had one course in undergrad where talked about Vietnam. But this week it all came together -- specifically concerning one incident during the war: the My Lai Massacre.
This week in my history course on American Identity I have been preparing a presentation on The My Lai Massacre in American Memory by Kendrick Oliver. In his book about the mass murder of around 500 civilians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, in South Vietnam on 16 March 1968, the initial cover-up, and subsequent trial of Lt. William Calley, Oliver argues that narratives focusing on the "real" victims of the American war in Vietnam have been displaced in American popular memory in favor of those that highlight American experiences. Because the news media played such a large role in the massacre, his book is as much about t he way media affects public opinion as it is about My Lai. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of history is the process of forgetting -- or how we choose to erase or rework things in a historical narrative. In the case of My Lai...how do we understand or rework violence? One way was to shift blame. In an effort to contain culpability, the military placed the blame on just a few individuals -- the members of Charlie Company -- and more specifically Lt. Calley. This attempt had the opposite reaction with the American public. Instead, they blamed Calley's superiors as well as the U.S. government or even the war in general. Calley became a martyr and a hero as he saluted when his verdict was handed down -- and his sentence was eventually commuted by President Nixon.
So where is My Lai now? How is it remembered? The real victims have been displaced and the experiences of Americans are highlighted instead. At the same time, we don't want to remember My Lai at all because it challenges our notion of American exceptionalism or moral virtue. Instead, it finds a home in popular culture through movies and novels -- where we can, in a sense, rewrite the ending. Or pretend that it's fiction. Films like Oliver Stone's Platoon, demonstrate just how unprepared and ill-trained U.S. soldiers were while also discussing the issue of morality and the main character rescues a girl from rape by American soldiers instead of joining in like My Lai. Tim O'Brien's novel In the Lake of the Woods, offers a different take. A politician running for the state senate is revealed to have been apart of the My Lai Massacre. The novel does invite empathy for John Wade, who was greatly damaged by the atrocity, but it does not ask for readers to forgive or pity him. For O'Brien, there is no justice or redemption, no healing, transcendence, or closure. But still -- there is no reflection on what the My Lai Massacre meant for the Vietnamese.
Recently, in my work in the Archives I have been processing Birch Bayh's Judiciary Committee records. Months ago, I foldered some materials about a lieutenant named Calley who was court martialed. I think the files just read "Calley Court Martial." Once I started reading Oliver's book, I went back to these files. From what I can glean from them -- Senator Bayh was interested in Calley's trial because he believed that the military was letting him take the fall for the massacre. That's some pretty powerful stuff -- and it adds to what Oliver was arguing. Not only did the public have empathy for Calley -- but some politicians did as well. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Bayh wanted to reform the Military Code of Justice to make sure that something like this would not happen to any other soldiers. But again, the emphasis was on Calley -- not the victims in the village in Vietnam.
|Seymour Hersh. One of the greatest journalists of recent history. Vietnam. Watergate. Abu Ghraib. 'nuff said.|
So there it is -- three paths converging and consuming my thoughts. It's a pretty depressing topic now that I think about it. No wonder I'm eating peanut butter straight from the jar!