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					An American Atrocity:
The My Lai Massacre Concretized
in a Victim’s Face


Claude Cookman

       Some people think that the Japanese committed atrocities, that the Germans com-
       mitted atrocities, that the Russians committed atrocities, but that the Americans
       don’t commit atrocities. Well, this just isn’t so. American troops are as capable as
       any other of committing atrocities.1
            —Robert Rheault, 1970, former commander of U.S. Special Forces, Vietnam
Few military operations have been documented as thoroughly as the My Lai massacre
during the Vietnam War. Documents from army investigations and congressional hear-
ings, court-martial transcripts, articles, books, and documentaries—all based on inter-
views with the soldiers who perpetrated it and the villagers who survived it—detail how
American soldiers murdered more than 500 unarmed women, children, and old men on
March 16, 1968.2
    It might have been the most forgotten operation. The officers of Charlie Company
and their superiors in the Americal Division covered up the massacre, and it would have
remained buried, except for Spec. Ron Ridenhour, who learned of the event from friends
who participated. After his discharge from the army, Ridenhour reported the killings in a
letter to President Richard M. Nixon, several senators and representatives, and Pentagon
officials in March 1969. He quoted one sergeant who said, “They were slaughtering the
villagers like so many sheep.”
    Despite Ridenhour’s letter and the investigations it launched, the massacre would
probably have made little public impact, had it not been for photographs taken by Sgt.
Ron Haeberle. (On that same day another company massacred at least ninety women
and children a mile away in My Khe—an atrocity few have heard of.) The publication
of Haeberle’s photos in Life and Time magazines in late November and early December
1969 propelled the story to national and international attention.4

Claude Cookman is an associate professor at Indiana University where he teaches the history of photography. He
was an army officer in Vietnam when the My Lai massacre occurred.
   Readers may contact Cookman at ccookman@indiana.edu.
   1
      Grace Sevy, ed., The American Experience in Vietnam: A Reader (Norman, 1989), 129.
   2
      For an account of the events at My Lai and their aftermath, I relied on Michal R. Belknap, The Vietnam War on
Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley (Lawrence, 2002); Seymour M. Hersh, My-
Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath (New York, 1970); James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, My Lai: A
Brief History with Documents (New York, 1998); W. R. Peers, The My Lai Inquiry (New York, 1979); and Sevy, ed.,
American Experience in Vietnam.
    
      Peers, My Lai Inquiry, 6.
    4
      Joseph Eszterhas, et al., “The Massacre at Mylai,” Life, Dec. 5, 1969, p. 41; “MyLai Massacre,” Time, Nov. 28,
1969, pp. 17–19.
154                                  The Journal of American History                                   June 2007
                     The My Lai Massacre Concretized in a Victim’s Face                      155




      Figure 1. Army sergeant Ron Haeberle photographed these women and children in My
      Lai, Vietnam, seconds before American soldiers shot and killed them. They were among
      more than 500 unarmed women, children, and old men massacred by American troops
      on March 16, 1968. Photo by Ron Haeberle. Courtesy Getty Images.

    By themselves, photographs are never enough to explain the past. Combined with ver-
bal and statistical accounts, however, they enrich our historical understanding. Haeber-
le’s photographs—especially the one that shows seven villagers seconds before they were
slain—can teach us important lessons about our shared humanity and our duty as citi-
zens. (See figure 1.) Using Haeberle’s pictures to remember that American soldiers com-
mitted that atrocity has value in itself, and using that memory to formulate a personal
stance—pro or con—toward our government’s use of military force is an act of mature
citizenship.


Charlie Company’s men were angry, frightened, and struggling to stay alive in March
1968. Since their arrival in Vietnam three months earlier, four of their comrades had
been killed and thirty-eight wounded, most by mines, booby traps, or snipers. They were
frustrated because the enemy avoided open battle, denying them a chance to retaliate.
Two days before the massacre, a popular sergeant was ripped apart when he stepped on
a mine.
   On March 15, following a memorial service for the sergeant, Capt. Ernest Medina,
Charlie Company’s commander, psyched up his troops for the attack. Evoking fear, he
156                               The Journal of American History                                   June 2007


told them they would be outnumbered two to one and should expect a fierce battle. He
said the operation was their opportunity to avenge their lost comrades. Several testified
later that they believed Medina had ordered them to destroy the village and its inhab-
itants. Compounding that situation were the racist ideas internalized by many G.I.’s:
that Vietnamese were “gooks,” “dinks,” and “slopes”—subhumans who deserved to be
“greased,” “wasted,” or “hosed down.”
   Army intelligence reported that the Viet Cong’s Forty-eighth Battalion was located in
the Son My district of Quang Ngai province, located on the South China Sea about mid-
way between Saigon and Hanoi. Son My, where My Lai is located, was known as a Viet
Cong stronghold, and its people were considered Viet Cong guerrillas or sympathizers.
Americans called My Lai “Pinkville,” at first because of its color on military maps, but
soon as shorthand for Communist territory. Intelligence reports said that because it was a
Saturday morning all civilians would have left for market by 7 a.m. Lt. Col. Frank Barker
ordered Charlie Company to attack My Lai, Bravo Company to attack My Khe, and Al-
pha Company to intercept fleeing Viet Cong. At 7:24 a.m. artillery launched the attack
by bombarding My Lai. Between 7:0 and 7:47, helicopters dropped Charlie Company
northwest of the village.
   The landing zone was “cold”—no enemy fire challenged the Americans. Contrary to
intelligence, there were no guerrilla fighters, and the villagers were not at market. My Lai
was full of civilians, many still cooking their breakfast rice. As the barrage began, they hid
in underground bunkers. When it ended, they emerged to encounter Charlie Company.
The soldiers shot any villager who tried to run and herded the others into groups. Lt. Wil-
liam Calley, the First Platoon leader, ordered his men to shoot them at point-blank range.
When some refused, Calley set his rifle on automatic and executed many of the villagers
himself. G.I.’s tossed hand grenades and dynamite into the bunkers, killing villagers who
remained inside. Soldiers killed a Buddhist monk, threw his body into a well, and tossed
in grenades to contaminate the water. They set houses afire and shot the residents as they
tried to escape. They killed water buffalo, pigs, and ducks. They raped women and teen-
age girls and then killed them. Spec. Varnado Simpson admitted killing and mutilating at
least twenty-five people in My Lai. “From shooting them to cutting their throats to scalp-
ing them to cutting off their hands and cutting out their tongue,” he said, “I did that.”5
   Haeberle described the callousness of one killing: “There was a little boy walking to-
ward us in a daze. He’d been shot in the arm and leg. He wasn’t crying or making any
noise.” As he knelt down to make a picture, a “GI fired three shots into the child,” Hae-
berle said. “The first shot knocked him back, the second shot lifted him into the air. The
third shot put him down and the body fluids came out. The GI just simply got up and
walked away.”6
   A few Vietnamese, including Sa Thi Qui, survived by lying motionless under the bod-
ies that fell on top of them. She said the villagers were not afraid, because G.I.’s had vis-
ited the village before and had given the children candy. This time, however, they “killed
everybody, destroyed everything.” After they left, Sa witnessed the bodies of “a naked
woman who had been raped and a virgin girl with her vagina slit open.”7

    5
      “Remember My Lai,” May 2, 1989, transcript of tv show,   pbs:   Frontline, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/
frontline/programs/transcripts/714.html.
    6
      Eszterhas, et al., “Massacre at Mylai,” 41.
    7
      “Remember My Lai.”
                        The My Lai Massacre Concretized in a Victim’s Face                                157


   One American who acted with compassion was Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson,
who was piloting a reconnaissance helicopter over My Lai. When he and his crew saw the
piles of bodies, they tried to help. They dropped a smoke grenade near a wounded woman
and radioed for the soldiers to give her medical aide. “A few minutes later up walks a cap-
tain, steps up to her, nudges her with his foot, steps back and blows her away,” Thompson
recalled.8 At his court-martial, Medina acknowledged shooting the woman but claimed
she had made a threatening move.
   Spotting women and children huddled in a bunker, Thompson landed between them
and soldiers led by Calley. Thompson asked if Calley and his men could help get the peo-
ple out, and Calley responded that the only way was with a grenade. Enraged, Thompson
told his door gunner, Spec. Lawrence Colburn, to train his machine gun on the Ameri-
cans. “He told us if the Americans were to open fire on the Vietnamese as he was getting
them out of the bunker,” Colburn recalled, “we should return fire on the Americans.”9
Thompson radioed for a larger helicopter, which ferried the villagers to safety.
   A memorial erected in My Lai lists the total number of victims at 504, including “182
women, of whom 17 were pregnant, and 17 children, of whom 56 were of infant age.
Sixty of the men were over 60 years old.”10 Three Viet Cong were killed by helicopter
gunners as they fled the village early in the operation. The Americans were never fired on.
One G.I. shot himself in the foot so he would be evacuated because he could not stand
the killing.


Working with Haeberle was army reporter Spec. Jay Roberts. Their assignment was to
cover the operation for a division newspaper. Haeberle used an army-issue camera loaded
with black-and-white film for the newspaper but shot color film in his own camera. With
less than a week left on his Vietnam tour, he did not tell his superiors about the color
film, taking it back to the States with him. The investigative reporter Seymour Hersh
broke the story in November 1969.11 Newspapers, magazines, and network television
quickly followed with their own versions. With interest high, Haeberle sold his photo-
graphs, first to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, then to Life for $50,000.
   Some of the pictures show G.I.’s sprinting from their choppers at the landing zone
and throwing rice baskets onto the flames of burning houses. Many focus on wounded or
dead villagers. The most extreme show victims with their skulls split open, their intestines
spilled onto the ground, or their bodies lying in burning rubble. None of the published
photographs put American soldiers in the same frame with the villagers.12
   Critics faulted Haeberle for not stopping the killings and not showing his photographs
to senior officers. They accused him of being more concerned about selling his work than
about the slain villagers. Under cross-examination at Calley’s court-martial, he denied
the profit motive and said he and Roberts had decided not to report the incident but “to
    8
       Hugh Thompson, “The Heroes of My Lai: Hugh Thompson’s Story,” Famous American Trials: The My Lai
Courts-Martial, 1970, http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/Myl_hero .html.
    9
      Hersh, MyLai 4, 64.
    10
       Mark Gado, “Into the Dark: The My Lai Massacre: Cover Up,” CourtTV: Crime Library, http://www.crime
library.com/notorious_murders/mass/lai/up_7.html.
    11
       Seymour Hersh, “Lieutenant Accused of Murdering 109 Civilians,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 1, 1969,
p. 1A, 19A.
    12
       For some examples of these photographs, see “My Lai Massacre: ‘Something Dark and Bloody,’” Asia-Pacific
Network: Café Pacific, http://www.asiapac.org.fj/cafepacific/resources/aspac/viet.html.
158                                 The Journal of American History                                June 2007


keep quiet until someone came to us and not to start the ball rolling.”1 Based on a year of
photographing colonels and generals who rejected any pictures that made the army look
bad, Haeberle implied that senior officers would have destroyed his color images. With-
out condoning his inaction, one can acknowledge that he probably could not have halted
the rampage. He may also have feared retaliation from the soldiers.
    Haeberle’s most frequently published photograph documents the age and gender of
the victims and suggests the scale of the killing. In a tangle of limbs and torsos, more than
twenty-five women and children lie on a blood-soaked path. Faces are disfigured by blood
and bullet wounds.14 Chunks of flesh are missing from a torso. A boy’s blood-splattered
legs frame the head of an infant. Three toddlers are sprawled along the trail, their naked
bodies in stark relief against the dark clothing of the adults. This image has become the
primary visual representation of the massacre, but it is not the most powerful.
    The most emotionally compelling photograph shows seven villagers while they are still
alive. (See figure 1.) Two women, two teenage girls, and three children stand barefoot,
digging their toes into a muddy path. In front, a woman with an agonized expression
clutches a cloth to her abdomen. One teenager hides her face in the woman’s neck and
clasps her hands around her waist. At the left, a partially hidden woman tries to comfort a
terrified girl. A relatively slow shutter speed blurs the woman’s hand and softens the girl’s
face. On the right, the other teenager adjusts her blouse as she holds a bewildered boy
against her hip. Clutching his leg is a boy in pajamas.
    Color and tonality are crucial to the composition. The villagers’ faces contrast sharply
with their black and burgundy clothes. The lightness of the first woman’s face and its fron-
tal position make it the compositional focus of the picture as well as its emotional center;
from it, the viewer’s eye moves to the other faces, then to the hands and feet.
    Framing and space are also important. Haeberle, who probably felt rushed, failed to
observe a rule taught in beginning photography classes—“Watch your edges.” That is, be-
fore clicking the shutter, photographers should run their eye around the frame to avoid
eliminating important content. Haeberle cut off the feet of the principal woman and
most of the face of the boy at right. His tight framing removes all foreground, adding to
the picture’s shallow spatial depth. His closeness to the people and choice of lens com-
press the foreground and middle ground. A thicket of bamboo closes off the background,
except for a patch of sky. Unlike the picture of the bodies on the path, this is not a stage-
like setting where we remain outside the scene looking in. Instead, we stand on the same
path, four or five feet from the villagers.
    The photograph captures the climax of a narrative that began with attempted rape and
ended with mass murder. Roberts and Haeberle came upon several G.I.’s attempting to
rape the girl at the right. Haeberle recalled their comments as they pulled off her clothes:
“Let’s see what she’s made out of,” one said. Another called her “vc boom-boom,” or a
Viet Cong whore. As they assaulted the girl, the woman “tried to help her, scratching and
clawing at the soldiers.” When the soldiers noticed the journalists, they abandoned their
sexual assault and herded the women and children together. “I yelled, ‘Hold it,’” Haeberle
recalled, “and shot my picture.” As he did, the assaulted teenager, who had already pulled
up her trousers, attempted to fasten her blouse. The denouement followed quickly. As

   1
      “Calley Court Martial Excerpts: Ronald Haeberle, Witness for the Prosecution,” Famous American Trials: The
My Lai Courts-Martial, 1970, http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/Myl_thabe.htm.
   14
      “My Lai Massacre: ‘Something Dark and Bloody.’”
                         The My Lai Massacre Concretized in a Victim’s Face                                  159


they walked away, Roberts said later, “I heard an M-60 [machine gun] go off, and when
we turned back around, all of them and the kids with them were dead.”15
   The emotional power of the photograph derives from our knowledge that it was taken
during the last seconds these people were alive, as they realize they are about to be killed.
They were surrounded by bodies and burning houses, and they could not have missed the
sounds of gunfire and screaming. They must have understood the G.I.’s meant to shoot
them also. Few photographs show people contemplating their imminent, violent death
as vividly as this one.
   Despite the intimacy of its framing and its emotional power, the picture is not as con-
frontational as it might have been. The victims do not look into the camera and, do not,
by extension, make eye contact with us. They look outside the frame toward the G.I.’s,
letting us escape the full brunt of their pleading, accusatory expressions.
   Even so, the picture might function as a mirror. We might imagine ourselves in the
place of these people and identify with their agony. Postmodern theorists have insisted
that all photographs objectify their subjects. They claim that people from Third World
countries are especially relegated to the status of “other”—separated from the photogra-
pher and viewers by an unbridgeable gulf of cultural and socioeconomic differences. Ac-
knowledging those differences, I still believe it is possible to experience this photograph as
more than an objectification. Just as literature lets us identify with characters very differ-
ent from ourselves, so do great photographs let us empathize with their subjects. Human-
ism animates much of photojournalism, and Haeberle recorded these people as humans.
While their situation exceeds our experience, we can identify with their expressions of
confusion, fear, disbelief, sadness, and incomprehension. We can see them as more than
“gooks.”
   The picture might also prompt us to identify with the soldiers—to try to understand
what caused them to murder defenseless people and to reflect on the guilt they felt. Simp-
son’s experience is a powerful example. After returning home to Jackson, Mississippi, he
suffered profoundly for his actions. In a 1989 television documentary, he gestured to a
scrapbook with the photographs from Life and told the interviewer, “This is my life, this
is my past, this is my present, this is my future, and I keep it to remind me.” Referring
to the extreme trembling in his hands and legs, he said, “This is what made me this way.”
When his young son was accidentally shot and killed, Simpson saw it as punishment for
My Lai. Diagnosed with paranoia and under heavy medication, he committed suicide in
1997, on his fourth attempt.16


When published, Haeberle’s photographs fueled antiwar sentiment among some people
and denial among others. Over time, the photos took their place among such iconic Viet-
nam War images as Eddie Adams’s 1968 photograph of the execution of a suspected Viet
Cong and Nick Ut’s 1972 image of a girl burned by napalm. Recently, commentators
have compared Haeberle’s photographs with those showing American soldiers mistreat-
ing captives at Abu Ghraib prison, which spurred similar criticism against the Iraq War.17
   15
     Eszterhas, et al., “Massacre at Mylai,” 4, 6, 4.
   16
     “Remember My Lai”; “The Vietnam War: Update on the Vernado Simpson Story,” Coach Burke’s Home Page:
America’s Wars, http://www.homestead.com/coachburke/My_Lai_-_Vernado_Simpson_update..doc.
  17
     For Eddie Adams’s photo, see “100 Photographs That Changed the World, by Life: Execution of a Viet Cong
Guerrilla, 1968,” The Digital Journalist, http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue009/lm12.html. For Nick Ut’s pho-
160                                    The Journal of American History                                      June 2007


Such photographs cannot end a war, but they do affect the debate that surrounds it and
help shape its historical representation.
    Reaction to the My Lai story and Haeberle’s photographs revealed how sharply the
war had polarized the country. A survey of Minnesota residents found that 49 percent be-
lieved the story was false. Rep. Mendel Rivers, chair of the House Armed Services Com-
mittee, spoke for many Americans when he said, “You know our boys would never do
anything like that.” Some labeled the story a tactic of the antiwar movement. “I don’t be-
lieve it actually happened,” said a Los Angeles salesman. “The story was planted by Viet
Cong sympathizers and people inside this country who are trying to get us out of Viet-
nam sooner.”18
    Such denials are understandable given the cherished myth of the perfectly balanced
American warrior—fierce in battle but chivalrous toward noncombatants. As Edward
Linenthal has established, the ideology of the volunteer citizen soldier—who lays down
the plow and picks up the rifle to fight, and, if necessary, to sacrifice himself by shedding
redemptive blood to regenerate the nation—began with the Minuteman.19 Faced with the
impossibility of reconciling Haeberle’s photographs with the popular image of G.I.’s giv-
ing candy bars to children, many simply rejected the photographs. Others defended the
soldiers by arguing that the Viet Cong had committed worse atrocities, that “war is hell”
where such incidents must be expected, that the victims deserved it because they sup-
ported the Viet Cong, and that the G.I.’s were following orders.
    Life characterized the reaction of its readers as “horror, shame and shock, but also . . .
uncaring acceptance and even benumbed lack of interest.” A Florida mother wrote, “My
child . . . is much more precious to me (and should be to every fellow American) than the
life of any enemy, no matter what their age or condition.” A Utah woman charged, “Your
Mylai issue . . . will be responsible for many more deaths among our boys.” Some sounded
the “scapegoat” theme. “The Army will not try those who are really responsible,” one man
wrote. “The buck will be passed down and not up.”20
    Others drew parallels to Nazi war crimes. “If the principles of the Nuremberg War
trials mean anything at all,” one Life reader commented, “then these men who killed
women, children and old men should never be allowed to hide behind the excuse that ‘I
was just following orders.’” A Charlie Company soldier said the massacre was “just like a
Nazi-type thing.” The helicopter pilot Thompson said, “I finally thought about the Nazis,
I guess, and marching everybody down into a ditch and blowing ‘em away.” Two research-
ers concluded that Americans were deflecting responsibility with the same defense mecha-
nisms Germans had used to rationalize the Holocaust. A few people blamed all Americans
for not stopping the war. To find who is to “blame for this latest horror,” one woman said,
“All we need to do is look in our mirror.”21
to, see “Nick Ut and the Napalm Girl Photo,” online posting, Sept. 0, 2005, Shards of Photography blog, http://
shardsofphotography.blogspot.com/2005/09/nick-ut-and-napalm-girl-photo.html. For the photos at Abu Ghraib,
see “Photos of Iraqis Being Abused by US Personnel, page 2,” The Memory Hole, http://www.thememoryhole.org/
war/iraqis_tortured/index2.htm.
    18
       On the survey, see Hersh, MyLai 4, 15. For the Mendel Rivers quote, see Peers, My Lai Inquiry, 21. For the
salesman quote, see Hersh, MyLai 4, 150.
    19
       Edward Tabor Linenthal, Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields (Champaign, 199), 17–28.
    20
       “Americans Speak Out on the Massacre at Mylai,” Life, Dec. 19, 1969, pp. 46–47.
    21
       Ibid. For the Charlie Company soldier quote, see Hersh, MyLai 4, 72–7. For the Hugh Thompson quote,
see “Remember My Lai.” On Americans deflecting responsibility, see Edward M. Opton Jr. and Robert Duckles, “It
Didn’t Happen and Besides, They Deserved It,” in Crimes of War: A Legal, Political-Documentary, and Psychological
Inquiry into the Responsibility of Leaders, Citizens, and Soldiers for Criminal Acts in Wars, ed. Richard A. Falk, Gabriel
                         The My Lai Massacre Concretized in a Victim’s Face                                161


Four officers and nine enlisted men were charged with the massacre. Many others es-
caped charges because they had left the army and were no longer subject to military jus-
tice. Twelve other officers were charged with covering up the massacre. Most cases were
dismissed. Of the twenty-five charged, only five were tried. Four were acquitted.22
    At his trial, Calley insisted he was following orders from Medina. He spoke of an “en-
emy I couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel, and I couldn’t touch” that had “massacred and mauled”
his troops. He conflated the villagers with that enemy, adding, “when it became between
me and that enemy, I had to value the lives of my troops, and I feel that is the only crime
I have committed.”2 On March 29, 1971, a panel of six officers convicted Calley of the
premeditated murder of twenty-two Vietnamese civilians. He was sentenced to life im-
prisonment at hard labor.
    Many Americans strongly opposed Calley’s conviction. Nixon said the White House
received more than 5,000 telegrams, “running 100 to 1 in favor of clemency.” In a Gallup
telephone survey of Americans, 79 percent disapproved of the verdict, 81 percent thought
the life sentence was too harsh, and 69 percent thought Calley had been made a scape-
goat.24 Nixon ordered him transferred from prison to house arrest. In 1974 the secretary
of the army pardoned Calley, after he had served three and a half years.
    Many rejected the photographs because they challenged the myth of American inno-
cence; others because they felt helpless to respond. In 1972, the British author and art
critic John Berger theorized that we react to photographs of atrocities with despair or in-
dignation, adding that both responses leave us feeling a “personal moral inadequacy.”25
In contrast, I believe the My Lai photographs can help us reflect on our responsibilities
as humans and as citizens. Such reflection might begin with two questions: First, What
does this photograph tell us about our country’s position in the world? The disbelief that
our soldiers could murder defenseless women and children may stem from a belief in
America’s moral superiority. As Thompson put it, “we are supposed to be the good guys
in the white hats.” That attitude accords with a particular religious form of exceptional-
ism, the notion that the United States is qualitatively different from other countries. Since
John Winthrop’s 160 reference to “a city upon a hill,” many have believed that America
is a Christian nation—pure in its motives and altruistic in its actions. That our soldiers
executed defenseless women and children as they pleaded for their lives forces a reconsid-
eration of this version of exceptionalism. Robert Rhealt, the former commander of U.S.
Special Forces in Vietnam, denied any moral superiority, insisting, “American troops are
as capable as any other of committing atrocities.”26
    Second, What does this photograph tell us about our personal ethics and morals? To
ignore this photograph—to look away—is to deny one of the most powerful ways to re-
member the massacre. As Susan Sontag insists, “Remembering is an ethical act.”27 While
it can never restore these seven victims to life, remembering their suffering is a way of

Kolko, and Robert Jay Lifton (New York, 1971), 444. “Americans Speak Out on the Massacre at Mylai,” 47.
    22
       On the military justice system’s treatment of the soldiers involved in the My Lai massacre, see Olson and
Roberts, My Lai.
    2
       “Remember My Lai.”
    24
       Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York, 1978), 449–50. “A Newsweek Poll on Calley’s
Fate,” Newsweek, April 12, 1971, p. 28.
    25
        Peter Wollen, “Shooting Wars,” Nation, Sept. 18, 200, http://www.thenation.com/doc/2001006/
wollen/2.
    26
       “Remember My Lai.” Sevy, ed., American Experience in Vietnam, 129.
    27
       Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York, 200), 115. Emphasis in original.
162                                  The Journal of American History               June 2007


honoring them. Contemplating the picture and accepting our responsibility as citizens in
whose name the Vietnam War was waged can be an act of contrition.
   When American forces liberated the Nazi death camps in World War II, Gen. Dwight
D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander, ordered ordinary Germans to walk through the
concentration camps to see the bodies. He wanted them to witness what their govern-
ment had done, and he wanted proof against denials the Holocaust had occurred. Germa-
ny lost the war and was forced by the Allied victors to apologize for its atrocities. America
lost the Vietnam War but was not conquered. Nobody will force us to apologize for My
Lai. Nobody will force us to look at this photograph and remember these victims. We
must choose to do so.
   To contemplate this photograph and reflect on its meaning does not mean we are wal-
lowing in collective guilt. It does not mean we hate our country or support its enemies. It
does not mean we condone atrocities committed by our opponents. It does not make us
defeatist or unpatriotic. Rather, it means we acknowledge the moral ambiguity inherent
in all wars and accept the evil our country has perpetrated along with the good.
   What is unpatriotic is to believe that God approves of everything our country does
and to adopt a “my-country-right-or-wrong” attitude, because those positions let us abdi-
cate our responsibility to govern ourselves. True patriotism requires acting on this photo-
graph’s testimony that Americans committed atrocity. That knowledge should teach our
politicians to launch war only as the most extreme option. It should teach our military
leaders to control our soldiers. It should teach our soldiers to respect the lives of defense-
less civilians. It should teach us to speak out during current and future wars.
   An Alabama woman said of the massacre, “I think we’ll forget all about it as soon as
another crisis comes along. We don’t have very long memories as a nation.”28 It need not
be so. The number 504 is a forgettable abstraction, but the photograph of the 7 villag-
ers makes what happened on March 16, 1968, concrete. We can use it and similar pho-
tographs to remember My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and other misdeeds American soldiers have
committed. We can voice and vote our position on the government’s policy and practice
of war. Whether or not our position prevails, we will be exercising our responsibility as
citizens.




   28
        “Americans Speak Out on the Massacre at Mylai,” 47.

				
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