How Many My Lai's?

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by Tom Chartier by Tom Chartier

In the middle 1970’s I had a friend who had served in combat in Vietnam. Mike was roughly ten years older than I. As an idealistic nineteen year old he enlisted into the Marine Corps in 1967. He would help keep the world safe from the threat of Communism. Despite a growing antiwar movement many were quite convinced the Communists had diabolical plans to take over the free world country by country. The Soviet Union had expanded its borders. Now Communism was creeping out of China.

At the time I knew Mike, the Vietnam war was over. We all know the results. America was defeated. We came home with our tails between our legs. It was a huge national embarrassment. Later, Vietnam was united under the Communist banner. Our returning soldiers were not welcomed as heroes but seen as losers. It was not exactly a fair deal for our uniformed forces.

Mike was willing to share his experiences with anyone who would listen. It is a normal and healthy reaction to traumatic experiences. It is also necessary. Sadly, time and time again I witnessed others show no interest in Mike’s stories. They acted embarrassed and did not want to hear about it. This hurt Mike’s feelings deeply. The same thing was happening to countless other war veterans across the nation. They had been sent into a brutal and confusing war. Those who returned were scared forever mentally if not also physically. We still see remnants of our Vietnam failure on the street corners of our cities every day. Most reentered society in varying degrees, rebuilding their lives. Many never did and still ask for handouts to survive. I’m sure this is often a dodge but I’m equally sure all too often those “Vietnam veteran – please help” signs are sincere.

I haven’t written anything here that we don’t all already know.

Now, I’m no saint, but I was different in that I wanted to hear Mike’s Vietnam war stories. I had a morbid fascination with them. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to beat a good war story. One I remember vividly as if Mike had told it yesterday:

He had only been stationed in Vietnam for a couple of months. Mike’s position was point-man on search and destroy missions through the jungle; he held the walkie-talkie. This was the most dangerous position as the point-man was usually the first to get shot or walk into booby-traps. Mike was alert and he performed his duties well.

Payday came. Some well-deserved R&R was at hand. Unfortunately some village children ran out from hiding and snatched Mike’s wallet and with it his pay. According to Mike the village elders had put them up to it. It was carefully planned and something they sometimes did to new soldiers. What an outrage! The Marines were there to help these people. Mike was livid. Basic training plus two months experience fighting Vietcong guerillas had turned Mike into a true lean, mean, fighting machine. He dropped to the ground and lined up the villagers, old men, women and children, in the sights of his M16…

On March 16, 1968, frustrated by losses, Lieutenant William Calley ordered the execution of the entire civilian population of the village of My Lai (pronounced Me Lie). South Vietnamese villagers had long been suspected of collaborating with the Vietcong. Calley snapped. The count ranges between 347 and 504 civilians, all of them being the elderly, women, children and babies, slaughtered. The My Lai Massacre was possibly the most disgraceful moment for America during the Vietnam War. Lt. Calley stood trial and was sentenced to life in prison for premeditated murder. He served three and a half years under house arrest at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Lt. Calley was clearly in over his head. By all accounts however, he was not a monster but a rather unimpressive man of average intelligence. He was better suited as a shoe salesman. Yet there he was, trained as a killer and placed in a situation of extreme danger with command over other men. Not to defend Lt. Calley, his action was unquestionably wrong, but we were not there that day. We can study what happened, we can judge it, but we cannot fully comprehend the stresses which led him to make that fateful order.

How many of us would do exactly the same thing under the same circumstances? I fear all too many. Without exception, we all have our breaking points. It is in the nature of war for such atrocities to happen. It makes no difference how morally right you believe your quest is. Atrocities will be committed. And they will be committed by average men and women, just like you and just like me…

… Shaking with rage, Mike gently touched the trigger of his M16. The South Vietnamese villagers didn’t have the time to scatter. Time stopped… Then, Mike lifted his thumb to the safety catch and closed it. He set his M16 down and wept. On that day, in that village, no civilians died. As he calmly told me some ten years after the fact, “I was new to Vietnam. A year later I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second to kill them all. There were many My Lai’s long before the Massacre."

Mike settled down in the California town of Goleta, near Santa Barbara, and opened his own auto maintenance shop. It was something he was very good at. The last I heard the shop was doing quite well. Mike was a good friend and I looked up to him. I wish him well. I’m glad he shared his experiences. I’m glad I listened.

Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers proofread this article.

Tom Chartier [send him mail] played lead guitar in legendary Los Angeles punk band The Rotters for 26 years until their final appearance in January of 2004. He has lived in Tokyo, Japan as well as Los Angeles working in the entertainment industry. He is the primary caregiver of his nine-year-old son and currently resides on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean.

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