Exactly what did, in fact, occur in the village of “Pinkville” in March, 1968, I do not know for certain, but I am convinced that it was something very black indeed. I remain irrevocably persuaded that if you and I do truly believe in the principles of justice and equality of every man, however humble, before the law, that form the very backbone that this country is founded on, then we must press forward a widespread and public investigation of the matter… I think it was Winston Churchill who said, “A country without a conscience is a country without a soul, and a country without a soul is a country that cannot survive.”
—Letter by Ron Ridenhour, requesting an investigation into the My Lai incident.
He followed the shadow of the helicopter along the earth, against the green of the paddies and the gold of dry ground, and thought it resembled the body of a bird in flight. In his bubble there was a jarring, a terrible roaring that made contemplation impossible, only a leading to and then avoidance of danger. Their job was to draw fire, to act as bait, to protect the men on the ground, but until there was the electricity of firepower, his mind took other paths.
He switched places, pretended that instead of being contained in the hot pounding of the machine, he was underneath, lying in the tall, burnt grass, or better still, lying in the moistness of the green stalks of rice. Leaving the imprint of his body on the tender crushed blades. Yes, even the lukewarm muck of the paddies would be preferable. He pictured himself lying there prone, staring into the blue of the sky, and then like a dark genie, like a portent of the future, this black vulture shadow would swoop overhead, blocking out the sun momentarily, the rush causing the air temperature to drop a degree or two. After, the sky would appear even more blue, the sun so bright that it would burn the blue wings of a butterfly he had never seen the likes of before. It was small. Delicate. The roundish wings homely. In his years of high school collecting, he’d never come across one that was quite this color, as if infused with light, or the energy of the land, like a spirit made manifest, electric, in motion. If he ever returned home, he would unpin each of his specimens and release them from their glass prisons.
The four reasons that I did not report the shooting of any innocent or noncombatants at the village of My Lai 4 and the reason that I suppressed the information from the brigade commander when I was questioned are as follows: Number one, I realized that instead
of going in and doing combat with an armed enemy, the intelligence information was faulty and we found nothing but women and children in the village of My Lai 4, and, seeing what had happened, I realized exactly the disgrace that was being brought upon the Army uniform that I am very proud to wear. Number two, I also realized the repercussions that it would have against the United States of America. Three, my family, and number four, lastly, myself, sir.
—Captain Ernest Medina, Charlie Company
The earth turned against us. I’d never experienced anything like it. We’d trained in the jungle in Hawaii—backbreaking, brutal, Medina made sure we were ready—but it was, like, neutral, you know? It didn’t care. Nam, every step you took, that could be your last. The place wanted to shit us out.
The first guy that stepped on a mine, that shook us up. But then in the next two weeks, our men were falling left and right, never in combat, just mines and snipers. You knew it was coming for you, and there was nothing to fight.
When X stepped on the mine, I’d never seen anything like it. It split him open, from groin to chest, like the earth raised up and bit him in half. Like lightning splitting a tree. Never seen anything like it. No one should. They lifted him over to a plastic poncho spread out, and that blew up. You only wished that it could turn into a nightmare; a nightmare had nothing on this.
The same fields that we got blown up in, you’d see villagers making their way through to go to work. Clear as day that they knew where was safe. If that’s not a sympathizer, I don’t know what is. Why didn’t they warn us? So, yeah, sure, sometimes we grabbed one of them and made them walk ahead. They knew, you see. Sometimes they got blown up, I guess they can’t remember everything, but at least we could follow and figure to be fairly safe.
Even now I remember the smell of the place, and it makes me sick. What I’m saying is that we were in a bad way.
Did I participate? I did not. Did I stop it? I … did…not.
The Enemy Is in Your Hand
Pocket Card, Nine Rules
…The Vietnamese had paid a heavy price in suffering for their long fight against the communists. We military men are in Vietnam now because their government has asked us to help its soldiers and people in winning that struggle. The Viet Cong will attempt to turn the Vietnamese people against you. You can defeat them at every turn by the strength, understanding, and generosity you display with the people.
The American soldiers had come before so we were not afraid. The first time they smiled, handed out candy and played with the children. We said among ourselves that they were like children themselves. The second time they didn’t smile, no candy. They took water, but they didn’t trust us. The last time we were invisible to them. They were fighting demons in their heads, our bodies in the way.
My brother and I were in the field before breakfast. There was a drumming noise, the sky filled with planes, then the sounds of guns. I looked down and my brother’s hand was bleeding, a bullet had hit him, but he just stood there, watching, mesmerized, while I begged him to run away into the trees. Then I was in the ditch. What scared me most was the sound of the adults screaming and crying. The water sealed my ears so the cries sounded as if they were coming from inside me, but I did not make a sound. I did not speak again for over five years. The dead covered me, protected me, and I felt safe. When the soldier pulled me out by my shirt, I did not want to go. I felt naked as if plucked from my mother’s belly. A sad birth. The sun burned my eyes, and all I wanted was to go back into the water. I was flying above the earth in a bubble. The soldier held me and cried. Had I already died? It wasn’t until the hospital that I knew I was alone in the world. I looked out the window and saw small blue butterflies in the grass—I knew these were the spirits of my family. They wanted me to go back to the village for their burial. I ran all day and night through the forest, following the blue fluttering, knowing they protected me, back to the village.
It has been many years, yet I am still young. I tell myself I should go away, forget, start a new life. But I know what I saw will go with me. It’s better to stay, tend the graves. The women did not cry out because their tongues were gone.