Remembering the Legacy of War

Photo by Charissa Kehr

I walked the perimeter of a small rice paddy, surrounded by a few simple houses and groupings of gravestones. The plaques nearby list the names of people who died there, but no one is exactly sure who ended up in which mass grave. Most haunting was the cement-covered path, now imprinted with the steps of barefooted children and soldiers’ boots–a reminder of the tragedy that took place in this Vietnamese hamlet 50 years ago.

On March 16, 1968, Lt. William Calley led his platoon into My Lai in the Quang Ngai province of Vietnam. Convinced the village held enemy combatants, they were ordered to kill everyone –women, children and the elderly. Soldiers shot indiscriminately at civilians as they tried to escape the terror. Survivors were rounded up and executed in a ditch. Over several hours, more than 500 civilians were massacred.

As a participant in a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) learning tour focused on the legacies of war, I had the opportunity to visit the My Lai memorial site weeks ahead of the 50th commemoration. On the trip we spoke with Vietnamese people about the impact of the “American War” on their families–stories of displacement, illness from chemical weapons, grief and loss. The war undoubtedly shaped their memory, but many expressed that the war is a thing of the past. The collective memory in Vietnam pushes them to pursue a different future, seeking friendship with all countries, including the United States.

Photo of a vigil held in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre

Photo by Charissa Zehr

Back in the U.S., I participated in a vigil on March 16 to remember those who died, acknowledging the crimes committed and to exhort our government to never again repeat the atrocities of war. As I stood in front of the White House with a group mostly comprised of the “Vietnam War” generation, I wondered if my generation has a collective memory of My Lai.  Are we motivated by the legacy of past wars enough to avoid repeating history?

Although this particular episode in My Lai has few parallels in scope, it is not unique. The haunting memory of My Lai must compel us to seek a different path forward. As the current administration leans toward advisors who have advocated for confrontation and military conflict, we must be the generation that says, “no more, and never again.”

As we remember the tumultuous history of 1968 and reflect on the terrors of war that were committed by the United States in the name of spreading democracy, we cannot remain silent. Ask your representative to acknowledge the legacy the Vietnam War has left behind and commit to speaking out against the dehumanization of our “enemies” so that atrocities like My Lai will have no place in our society.