Postcard: My Lai Letter

Ernest Larsen and Sherry
Millner,
writers and media makers, are
traveling in Southeast Asia and reporting on their visit.

ChampaTowersA.jpg
   
What’s left of one empire: Cham Tower

It was the more than 40-year resonance of all
those
indelible place names that made the final reckoning for us to come to
Vietnam–but no such name was more fraught than My Lai.  We
hired a car and driver to take us on
a cloudy day to what is called–not My Lai–the Son My Vestige Area.

Along the way, from Quy Nhon to Hoi An, our
eventual
destination that night, we stopped first at the remains of four Cham
towers, at the top of a hill
overlooking a verdant river valley, with a pagoda and a white stone
Buddha
peeking at each other above the treetops. The Champa empire, as we have
learned, slowly filling in deep but increasingly verdant valleys in our
knowledge of Southeast Asian history, was contemporaneous with the Khmer
empire–and (surprise, surprise) for centuries the two scarcely stopped
slamming
each other around, whenever the
imperial gong sounded the charge. However, the Cham monuments to their god-kings were built with
brick not
stone, as was characteristic of the Khmer–thereby leaving in the current
millennium more rubble than grandeur. Towers that once shimmered with gold.  Furthermore, many of the
extant
Champa ruins throughout central Vietnam were unmercifully and quite
unnecessarily battered and bombed by the forces of the American empire
during
the American War.

The interiors of the four sacred bruised towers
were
enlivened not with the stunning array of bas reliefs common to Angkor
but with
graffiti.
The particulars of this stop somehow seemed like
they might
have prepared us a little for My Lai–foolish thought. It
had been a long drive but that hardly explained why our
first steps, once out of the car, were so leaden. The
first words visible on the billboard size map at the
edge of the parking lot: Son My Vestige Area. Vestige: the
trace of what was once present but is no
more. Since March 16, 1968, the
hamlet of My Lai, one of four grouped under the village name Son My, has
not
existed. But I think I am correct
in saying that the Vietnamese belief is that the phantom souls of the
501
people massacred that day still scream in the irrigation ditch, along
the rice
fields, over, around, and through the vestiges–and in that sense the
hamlet
still exists.

(I think I am also correct that Calley–now 67
years of
age–recently offered his apology for what happened back then. Some
folks don’t like to rush into
things. They consider.)

There is inevitably a monumental sculpture, with
flowers
strewn at its monumental base.
And a large-scale mosaic not ignobly echoing Guernica. And
a museum.

It was quiet, almost nobody around at first.

We began walking around the park-like grounds,
filled with
the vestiges and foliage, tropical flowers in bloom. It
was a hot sunny beautiful afternoon by then. The walkway
was pale-red and impressed
with many footprints, as if caught
in the act of attempted escape, and among them somewhat
larger heavier bootprints. A chase scene, freeze-frame in
pink cement.
MyLai2A.jpg
  An offering to the spirits
Plaques in Vietnamese and in English tell us who
was living
in this spot and that one and who among them was killed that day. To the vestiges of a burnt-out home,
visible as a rectangular outline on the ground, and a pot, and a broken
wooden
kitchen implement have been added life-size sculptures of the limp
corpses of a
dog, a cat, a gutted baby pig. We
walk a little further down the path. Another such. And another. The
silent threnody threatens to become
unbearable.

We run into a small troop of school children, in
white
blouses and shirts, red neck-ties. They surround us, laughing, talking. Where are you from?  What
is your name? How old are you? A boy asks
Sherry if she can sing a
song–and she asks him if he can. Yes. He sings a song (in
English) about how happy he is.
And clearly they all are so happy to see us, the two rare
Americans, and
have to be drawn away by their teachers, to be drawn back into their
history
lesson.

Front and center, up the formal marble steps of
the museum:
a precise listing in bronze relief of all the names.

We walk through.
Before a group of six Korean men dressed like funeral directors
in black
suits, a Vietnamese woman explains in strikingly emotional English who
Lieutenant Calley and Ernest ‘Mad-Dog’ Medina were. She
says that Calley is still alive and kicking in his
hometown in Georgia. Perhaps I
have added the kicking, but it was there in her tone.

She asks if they all understand her English.
One man, the youngest, says yes. She asks him to
translate, if
necessary, to the others. Though,
of course, it all beggars understanding.

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