My Lai (lest we forget)


mikeIngles-sitting2croppedA few weeks before Dr. King was assassinated, on March 16, 1968 about 500 Vietnamese citizens were killed in a quiet village named My Lai. Women were raped and their bodies were mutilated by men from Bravo Company.

The cover-up lasted about a year or so.

It’s hard for young people today to understand how U.S. troops could have been so very cruel, and the American public—almost indifferent to those horrors. But they were and so were we. What happened 38 years later in Abu Ghraib–torture, dogs, and human pyramids—pales in comparison, but the Abu Ghraib soldiers were sentenced to jail. Not so for the men of Bravo Company.

I’m a liberal; it’s a curse that I live with, chronic—like heart disease or having a bad knee or a wife who always forgets where she put her car keys. Yes, I bought her a key-hook, but she forgets where I hung it.

I never served in the army, never been to Vietnam, so what I think about the war is based, pretty much, on hearsay; guys who I knew that were there and what they told me. Some of it was exaggerated I’m sure, some, is probably pretty close to the Gospel.


No matter what your politics, there were no heroes in Vietnam. If you’re wearing aftershave when you fall into a pile of shit—you’re gonna stink. Most of the guys serving in 1968 were not volunteers. Most were guys just out of high school, who would have much preferred diddling their sweethearts in the backseat of the old Dodge. But the U.S. government did for them what they do now to all new recruits—they isolated them with other recruits to learn the dogma, dressed them up in new uniforms, put jewelry on their chests and sent them home for mom and dad and their girlfriends to admire their starch. And then sent them off to kill folks.

Oh, the government is clever; they didn’t just say go kill somebody—they gave them words, grand words, like honor and integrity and service. They told them that we were fighting because the South Vietnamese wanted freedom from oppression and that if we didn’t stop communism dead in its tracks in Vietnam, then all of SE Asia would fall to the Reds. And then, where would we get transistor radios?

Just like we were stopping a madman in Iraq 38 years later who was sitting on tons of lethal gases, like a laying hen with flatulence.

When soldiers got to Vietnam—they found quite a different place. Hookers were five-bucks, they didn’t ask about your politics. Beer was 30 cents, a nickel-bag, was a buck, the dope peddlers couldn’t care less about communism but they loved capitalism—they were making a killing.

And, killing was what the GI’s were there to do. But the booze and the drugs often got in the way.

On patrol, in a jungle 8,500 miles away from their sweethearts, the commies looked just like the freedom-fighters. Especially when the soldiers were high. And, sometimes, the GI’s knew, that the Reds would infiltrate villages and take up residents with locals who were not sure why these white-devils were in the country. Just who was a friend and who was a foe was not easily determined. American soldiers had died because they trusted the wrong people.

My Lai was a massacre. So was Vietnam. By any objective standard, we killed millions of people—most, simple working people and not soldiers. Many burned to death by napalm gas. America lost 50,000 soldiers. By 1968, our highly-trained military men were punch-drunk, shooting at anything that moved and ordering in thousands and thousands of air strikes burning thousands or villages—because we couldn’t trust people whom we were there to free.

Ditto, 38 years later.

My Lai was a lesson that was impossible to learn during the throes of war. American kids, scared to death, or high, or high and scared into paranoid passion, killed old folks and babies, raped their mothers, lined them up and mutilated their corpuses.

Said they had killed the enemy.

Didn’t do any jail time.

Changed me forever.

Left two indelible images in my brain: a naked child running through the street as her skin is being burned off by napalm and American helicopters hovering over a building trying to get the last few Americans out of Saigon before the city fell to the victors.

Any wonder why I am on the left.

Mike Ingles ruminates about culture and contemporary history somewhere in the great state of Ohio.


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