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The Truth, Mainly - 01/14/1991

Documentary on My Lai killings doesn't take mind off gulf crisis

We've clicked right on down to one day before the deadline, two days before what some of our troops in Saudi Arabia are calling "K-Day"—Killing Day. We try not to think about it.

I'm flipping through the television channels, punching buttons on my remote control. There's a basketball game but it seems foolish. There's the Senate Ethics Committee on C-Span. There's the Weather Channel warning about freezing drizzle.

I punch past ETV, then back again for another look. It's "Frontline," and there's an old Vietnamese woman crying on the screen. Through subtitles she tells us she was eating breakfast in My Lai when the helicopters landed in March, 1968.

So I watch. It's like watching the DC 10 cartwheel across the Sioux City runway and explode. Except that My Lai wasn't an accident and more people were killed.

They were all Vietnamese. The only U.S. casualty, if you don't count the psychological torture some GIs have endured for 23 years, was a soldier who shot himself in the foot.

There was lots of shooting going on, and it was all coming from U.S. troops. My Lai was in an area "known to be sympathetic" to the Viet Cong. The troops went in expecting resistance. They found old men, women, and children.

The narrator tells us they killed over 400 of them, mostly with small arms fire. They herded some into ditches and shot them. A helicopter pilot tried to stop the carnage.

"It was a Nazi kind of thing," he says.

He landed his helicopter between some troops and a group of Vietnamese huddled in a shelter, then went unarmed into the shelter to lead them out. He told the gunner on the helicopter to open fire on the GIs if they started shooting at the Vietnamese.

"The enemy that day," he says, "were American soldiers."

His voice breaks as he tells about picking up a wounded child about the age of his own son back in the States. My throat thickens. My wife leaves the room.

But I keep watching. A pretty Vietnamese woman who was a little girl in 1968 tells of seeing a solder rape and then shoot her older sister. An older woman tells of unspeakable mutilation and says she will always hate Americans.

We're reminded that the only person found guilty of any charges after My Lai was a platoon commander, Lt. Calley. His superiors were not found guilty of anything.

I remember Claire Mattern's verb declension in a 1971 poem in Prairie Schooner: "My Lai,/They lie,/I lie,/You lie. . . ."

The camera zooms in on the anguished face of one of the GIs who participated in the massacre, a wreck of a man now, his tray of medications in front of him, his hands and feet shaking. He can't keep still. He needs the medication, he tells the interviewer, to keep himself under control. Next to his chair, there's a photograph of his own little boy, killed by random gunfire in a tough neighborhood. The father sees it as retribution for his part in My Lai.

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He says he figures he killed 25 civilians that day. Some he mutilated. He has a scrapbook with pictures from Life magazine and he identifies one group of bodies as his victims.

The ex-GIs interviewed wrestle with why it happened, and we begin to see them as victims too. The company was made up of "very good soldiers," a sergeant says; average age was 20; they were a cross section, racially and geographically, of America. They'd been taking heavy casualties from land mines and booby traps. They perceived their orders were to wipe out the village, one says, to "kill women and children, dogs and cats."

They'd been taught, another tells us, "to carry out orders." Some refused, passively or actively, because they didn't consider the orders legitimate. But others others thought if they refused, they'd be in "serious trouble." The raping and mutilation were not part of the orders, but, the man with the picture of his dead little boy says, "I lost control. I didn't know I had it in me. I can't forgive myself."

One of the others says that as good soldiers, given their understanding of their orders, they acted morally.

"If you go to war," he says, "it happens. That's what war is. We don't need another one."

Finally it's 10 o'clock and it ends. I punch the button to 10/11 Strong to catch the news and Mel Mains says that "Preparations for war continue." I look away to the newspaper and right next to a story about a Pentagon order for 16,099 more body bags, I see a picture of GIs in desert fatigues watching James Baker's press conference. One of them is apparently praying.

We look for the off button. We look for another channel. Our throats thicken and we look for a way to leave this room.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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