Updated: Aug 15, 2018
We are now fifty years since American soldiers massacred nearly 500 unarmed women, children and old men at Mai Lai in Vietnam, and yet, to paraphrase Nathan Robinson, our collective memory of this event has a perverse effect. Our understanding of the Mai Lai massacre eases Americans’ conscience that the massacre was the crime and not the war itself. Not the 120 gallon aluminum tanks of napalm that engulfed entire blocks of houses in flame causing children to run and scream in terror as their skin and clothes burned off their bodies. Not the spraying of CS gas and Agent Orange to poison crops and food and trees. Or that we intentionally uprooted families and drove them to putrid barb wired camps so as to remove potential Viet Cong sympathizers from a village. In one Vietnam Province all but 12 of 3,500 villages were pounded with bombs. Imagine the analogy to Massachusetts. It is patently false to imagine, as many Americans do, that Mai Lai was a regrettable aberration.
And of course there is evidence that Mai Lai and its military cover-up was not an aberration but a regular occurrence. And that the heroic helicopter pilot who intervened was one of many to demand his comrades stop the executions or he would shoot them. This is the point: commemorating this massacre is important but it was the war itself that was the crime. To view the massacre as an anomaly and the war as “misguided” prevents us from having to do the kind of moral reckoning that countries who have committed historic crimes are forced to do.
Read Nathan Robinson’s most incisive Current Affairs piece, “What We Did.”