The Vietnam War Nightmares Continue

 Pham Thanh Cong, the director of the My Lai Museum, was eleven at the time of the massacre. His mother and four siblings died. “We forgive, but we do not forget,” he said.Credit Photograph by Katie Orlinsky

Pham Thanh Cong, the director of the My Lai Museum, was eleven at the time of the massacre. His mother and four siblings died. “We forgive, but we do not forget,” he said. Credit Photograph by Katie Orlinsky

New Orleans       So many wars, so little time.   We have come to the point where when someone asks an American “about the war,” we have to say, “Which one?”   One of the two Iraq wars?  Afghanistan and its continuing and unending conflicts?  Like I said, which one?  For people of a certain age though the answer continues to be Vietnam and its fifty year nightmares that persist for many people.

Reading a piece by Seymour Hersh, one of the great reporters and war correspondents of our time in The New Yorker, called “The Scene of the Crime” brings the horror back quickly.  Hersh’s piece is both a reflection on his own history in covering the My Lai massacre and a contemporary revisiting and recording of a deeper understanding of the mess and mayhem that marked that horrible war.  The body count, like so much about Vietnam, continues to be uncertain but a small platoon of US soldiers killed between 347 and 504.

In 2010, the Organizers’ Forum visited with a delegation of US and Canadian organizers both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  We talked to a lot of people.  We visited the tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City, listened to the gunfire, and the guides’ description of the struggle “underground.”  We visited the Museum of the War of Liberation in Hanoi.  There was no way to escape the US role and our historical footprint in the country.

At the same time, reading Hersh about My Lai and its aftermath still shocks, especially when it now seems that such massacres were commonplace rather than unique.  How had I managed to suppress the fact that President Nixon had commuted Lieutenant Calley’s sentence after 90 days?  How had he managed to work for decades at his father-in-law’s jewelry store in small town Georgia?  There must be novelists out there that could write book after book about how that might have worked out?  Richard Ford, what are you working on now?  There’s a classic waiting to be written about the small town South and its ability to hold and protect its own – no matter what! – that is Faulknerian.   The imagination just blows up at the thought of it all!

Hersh interviews Chuck Searcy.  The Organizer’s Forum had met with Searcy to find out more about the nonprofit he helps coordinate that focuses on mine clearance through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.  Hersh obviously pulled more of his personal story out and the conflict with conscience, family, and the whole burden that so many veteran packed out.  We found him a very decent man.  He had paid  his dues.

With Hilary Clinton announcing for President we will hear the narrative that harkens back to the old culture wars that involved Vietnam, long hair, drugs, liberation, and rock and roll, rather than the new culture wars of new wars, abortion, guns, and the rest of it.  Reading Hersh on My Lai and Vietnam again it is hard to avoid the feeling that rather than embracing some kind of resolution and reconciliation like South Africa and other countries have done from their time of troubles, we have simply repressed it all and hoped that no one reminds us.

Perhaps that is why we have also seem to have learned so little and repeated the same mistakes so often.

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