David Calleja: The My Lai Massacre – Vietnam’s Holocaust

Roundup: Talking About History

[David Calleja graduated with a Bachelor of Social Science and Master of Social Science from RMIT University in his home city of Melbourne, Australia. He has taught English in China, Thailand, South Korea and Cambodia, where he worked for a local NGO, Sorya, based in Tropang Sdok village]

On March 16, 1968, 504 village civilians were slaughtered by members of the U.S. Army’s Charlie Company, because of alleged sympathies with the Viet Cong (VC). In some instances, mutilation and rape took place against members of the female population before they were killed. Authors such as Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim have compared the operation to the tactics used by the Nazis against the residents of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, in June 1942. News of the killings were made public in the United States by independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in November 1969, more than one and a half years later, when extracts of his conversations with the only man ever found guilty of mass killings, Second Lieutenant William Calley, and other soldiers present in My Lai appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Calley, the man once referred to as America’s worst war criminal, was originally sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor by a military court. However, supporters of the war claimed that he was a scapegoat. One day after his sentencing in 1971, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered for him to serve house arrest in Fort Benning, Georgia, pending an appeal. Calley was eventually freed in 1974.

For more than three decades Calley refused to speak about his role in the killing of civilians. In 2007, the British newspaper the Daily Mail tracked him down to Atlanta, Georgia. According to the Daily Mail, Calley insisted on being paid $25,000 prior to speaking “for precisely one hour.” The article continues:

“When we showed up at the appointed hour, armed not with a check but a list of pertinent questions, Calley scuttled away from the line of fire. It was an option the man who led the My Lai Massacre never afforded to his innocent victims.”

But in 2009, he broke his silence and formally apologized for his role in organizing mass killings, labeling his actions of following orders to kill as “foolish” and admitting that he felt remorseful for the deaths of Vietnamese civilians and family members.

Other members of Charlie Company were not so hesitant in speaking about their experiences. Private First Class Varnado Simpson, who served in the platoon that occupied My Lai. Simpson, declared,

“Do you realize what it was like killing five hundred people in a matter of four or five hours? It’s just like the gas chambers – what Hitler did. You line up fifty people, women, old men, children, and just mow ‘em down. And that’s the way it was – from twenty-five to fifty to one hundred. Just killed. We just rounded ‘em up, me and a couple of guys, just put the M-16 on automatic, and just mowed ‘em down.”...

There is no recognizable slogan reminding the world of the horrors that took place in the hamlet of My Lai Subsection 4 (or Tu Cung), Vietnam, more than four decades ago.

Situated 12 kilometers outside of Quang Ngai City, My Lai is divided into a number of sections or hamlets that collectively form the village of Son My (pronounced Sun Mee) in Son Tinh district. The village is home to an atrocity that aches within the hearts of all who are consumed by the tumultuous events that transpired within four hours, a slaughter referred to as one of the heinous crimes in modern history.

So you can imagine how surprised I looked to hear the ticket lady greet me with, “Welcome to My Lai, Vietnam’s Holocaust”, as the money was about to leave my hands.

This was totally unexpected. Never before had the possibility of being “welcomed” to a mass grave site popped into my head. Her voice tone suggested that I was about to become another statistic contributing to the genocide-remembrance tourism industry.

Had the smile been any wider, this could have been some macabre sector of a theme park....

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