THE VIETNAM WAR, as it is known and taught in American schools, is depicted in movies that range from the serious (“Full Metal Jacket,” “Platoon,” “Apocalypse Now”) to the absurd (“Tropic Thunder,” “The Big Lebowski”). Books also shape my perceptions of something that I was never able to experience. Whether it’s Tim O’Brien’s account of the My Lai massacre in “In The Lake in the Woods” or Andrew Pham’s retelling of a Vietnamese family’s story in “The Eaves of Heaven,” I consume different narratives that create a collage of stories to form an understanding of the Vietnam War, the people, and the space it affected.
The Lewis & Clark study abroad program to Southeast Asia has only helped me understand this haunting, mysterious past.
The program had been underway for about two weeks when we decided to visit the site of one of the worst war crimes committed during the Vietnam War, popularly known as the My Lai massacre in Son My. The drive from Hoi An to the town of Son My in central Vietnam was through green fields dotted with water buffalo. There was steady rainfall. No one on the tour bus was itching with excitement to visit the site of a massacre. Upon arrival, it continued to rain. The majority of the other tourists at the site were westerners, lounging around at the cafe near the entrance to the compound that houses the museum and restored buildings.
When our group reached the entrance of the museum, we were immediately positioned in front of a towering black granite wall. There were 504 names with other demographics neatly carved into the stone in faded gold. As I saw the names, I noticed my own reflection gazing back at me, with the 504 names muddying the reflection.
When our guest lecturer professor Ky Phuong began telling us about U.S. soldiers killing villagers in wells, the museum’s guide—standing away from the group—furrowed her eyebrows and began walking towards the exit. The Vietnamese student—Thu—who helped coordinate the trip walked over to the guide, got her attention, and reached out a hand to her shoulder, slightly bowing her head in the process and exchanging a few words in Vietnamese. The tour guide, with the reassurance of Thu, walked back to the group of tourists and looked at Professor Ky Phuong, who in turn silenced himself and fell into rank with the group of tourists.
As the museum guide began telling the museum’s narrative of the My Lai massacre, we shuffled about slowly and quietly in respect to the guide and the photographs of severely bloodied and maimed bodies hanging in perfect symmetrical quartets. Occasionally the museum guide would stop her monologue and ask the group if they understood what something meant.
Museum Guide (MG): Many of the women were raped by the GIs. Museum guide stares out at the group. (However, her pronunciation of “raped” sounds closer to rept.)
Tourists (T): Silence.
MG: Do you know raped? (Again she mispronounces the word.)
T: Silence accompanied by some members of the group nodding.
MG: Do you understand raped? (Pronounces rept again.)
T: It is still silent. More nodding, and some begin to mouth affirmative words like yes or yep.
This situation happened a couple times. Each time the tour guide made sure that we understood what she said. We remained quiet for these interactions.
While the museum guide was explaining and interpreting the events of the My Lai massacre for us, a tourist couple entered the museum. The couple was in their late 20s and spoke Vietnamese—based on my limited knowledge of the language. The couple navigated around the group of 24 tourists, selectively omitting and limiting their exposure to the photographs of the victims. When the tourist couple came to the section of the museum that showed contemporary photos of the village and revitalized economic activity, they were smiling and letting out chuckles as they pointed to pictures of net weavers in Son My.
When the museum guide allowed us time to observe parts of the museum, there were roughly 15 minutes where the group scattered. Some lingered in front of display cases of clothes pencils and plates, while others read and re-read the poorly translated statements from the Vietnamese Liberation Front after the events of the massacre rippled through Vietnam. Still, others chose to sit in front of the black granite wall on a stoop with their backs to the 504 names of the victims. Everyone was silent.
Our generation is younger, removed from the Vietnam War by many years. The specific visit at the My Lai massacre Museum evokes a sense of guilt. A carefully crafted guilt that starts with 504 names and depictions of domestic bliss in a small hamlet; a carefully crafted guilt that builds smoke, fire, and blood in the minds of the tourist; a carefully crafted guilt that ends in shame, an American reflection staring back through the wall of 504 names. This guilt rippled through the group of tourists in that moment of silence and refusal by the end to stare at the wall of names.