'No survivors': US massacre in Vietnam's My Lai

Fifty years on from the massacre and 10 years since Al Jazeera first travelled to Vietnam, have lessons been learned?

    The My Lai massacre was one of the worst atrocities of the Vietnam War. Ten years ago, Al Jazeera's Josh Rushing, a former marine himself, visited My Lai as US veteran Ken Schiel returned to the site of the massacre for the first time to meet survivors and set the record straight.

    Rushing spoke with Al Jazeera about his experience meeting people on both sides of the atrocity and his personal take on the events as a former soldier.

    Al Jazeera: Can you take us back to that moment in the film when Ken Schiel met one of his victims. What was that moment like?

    Josh Rushing: When Ken [Schiel of Charlie Company] came, it was straight from the airport, and that was my first time to meet him; you see it on camera, me shaking his hand as he gets out of the van. We asked him to walk around the place [My Lai], see what he remembers… while doing that, Cong [a survivor of the massacre] saw us and inquired about who Ken was and where he was during Vietnam; it all started to unfold before our eyes.

    As the emotions evolved, it came to the point where we thought we should stop [the interaction] and come back to it later. I was new to journalism and thought that kind of moment must happen all the time. Now, 10 years later, I realise that that was an extraordinary moment.

    Al Jazeera: He [Ken] seemed to struggle with answering your questions. What do you think was going through his mind?

    Rushing: I believe that for Ken to be able to continue living his life, he had to silo what had happened in Vietnam. He had the memories, but there was no way that he was going to engage with the morality of it. I got the sense that he felt if he started to, he might not be able to control the flood of emotions and the guilt.

    When we had the idea to try and find someone from Charlie Company to take back [to My Lai] we got the court records and had all these names and social security numbers; and so we started contacting people. An alarming number of those people had actually killed themselves. Another group of these people were just in terrible shape.

    We finally found one guy who would go, he calls us back a week later and says his therapist said "absolutely no way, not a good idea". On the day we were about to leave the country, Ken was the last number that we called, and he said he would go. We were rather surprised. After Vietnam, he had gone on to be a cop, and he had just completely walled off inside himself what he did there and what had happened there.

    When Ken and Cong first met, the men were not aware of each other's part in the My Lai massacre [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

    Al Jazeera: As a former soldier yourself, how difficult is it when you're in the field and you're asked to do something that you morally disagree with?

    Rushing: I think it would be easy to sit back, judge that situation and think that you would act differently. The reality of it is, when you go through boot camp, they really break down who you are and they build you back up to this other "thing".

    For me, it was this US Marine. That was my identity. You had this ultimate trust in your leadership, that you're not going to be given orders that are illegal and so, of course, you follow them. Then you take that person and put them in a place like Vietnam, where everything you've ever learned about a moral compass has been thrown out the window. You lose the sense of what's right and what's wrong in that kind of environment and you end up following orders.

    The thing about war is, we send young people to fight these wars, who don't have the wisdom that we gain as older people. There's a reason why there isn't a bunch of 40 and 50-year-olds fighting wars.

    Josh Rushling, Al Jazeera

    But I still think there's that sense of humanity in you that says: this isn't right. In the court documents with Ken, someone testified they saw him firing into a crowd of civilians while saying, "I don't wanna do this, I don't wanna do this", so clearly he was struggling with it.

    The thing about war is, we send young people to fight these wars, who don't have the wisdom that we gain as older people. There's a reason why there isn't a bunch of 40 and 50-year-olds fighting wars.

    The entire [US] Marine Corps is 172,000 people. If you take the average age, including all the four-star generals in the Marine Corps, the average age is still just over 20 years old. That's how many young people are at the bottom of that pyramid. At my age, 45, looking back at a 19-year-old kid - that is a child.

    And yet, we give them weapons and put them in the most complex situations that you can imagine and have them make life-or-death decisions and then sit back and morally judge them for doing so.

    Al Jazeera: Can you look back at the My Lai massacre and tell us what lessons can be learned?

    Rushing: The massacre didn't even get reported or "come out" for a couple of years [after]. It only came out because one soldier talked to another solider, who eventually talked to a young reporter named Seymour Hersh. That kind of warfare - go in and kill everything that moves - is not effective, it's not legal, it's not morally correct. I think we know that now but war seems to repeat itself.

    There actually are no survivors in war. The village in My Lai wasn't even named My Lai; it was called something else. My Lai was a misnomer on an American map - so even that original village name didn't survive. No one really survived in that village that day. Cong a completely different human than he was before that happened and that shaped who he ended up bwas ecoming.

    The soldiers we tried to get to go [to My Lai]… none of them really survived either. The ones who didn't kill themselves - they weren't really the complete pictures of human beings that they would have wanted to be. But those who do survive war and get old enough to realise its atrocities and how wrong it is… it's already too late. The next generation is already there, fighting - they're fighting the next one.

    The My Lai massacre was one of the worst atrocities of the Vietnam War [Ronald S. Harberle/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images]

    Al Jazeera: As a former soldier, what was it like for you going back to what was one of the US army's biggest disgraces?

    Rushing: It was really personal. There wasn't a separation that there might be for another reporter. At every moment I was wondering, "What would I have done?" That was not long after I had left the Marine Corps, and I had been quite public about the regret I had over the role that I had served as a spokesperson, going into the Iraq war and how I had been used to sell that war.

    In dealing with my own feelings about that I had a sort of empathy for Ken, even though what I did is not on par with what he did, I had an empathy and a very personal curiosity: what would I have done in My Lai? I'd like to think that I would have done the right thing… I don't know.

    I will say there were heroes to come out of My Lai; My Lai was stopped by an American officer, Hugh Thompson, who literally lowered his helicopter in between Americans who were firing machines guns into the crowd of Vietnamese. He told his door gunner on the helicopter that if they didn't stop their fire - the Americans - to open fire on them.

    That would have been the only case of US troops intentionally firing at each other. But that's the level it was at, to stop what he witnessed that day. Thompson and his crew were the heroes that came out of that.

    As many as 500 people were killed or injured by US troops in the attack, which took place over several days [Ronald S. Haeberle/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images]

    Al Jazeera: What are you hearing now from the families of the victims, years after the massacre. How are they coping?

    Rushing: I haven't talked to Cong since then but the next day when I ran into him, he said that he'd been drinking all night at the grave of his relatives. He told them that he was sorry, that he met the very man that may have killed them and yet he couldn't avenge their deaths.

    He couldn't kick him, or hit him or kill him because he represents the government of Vietnam and they have a different policy now. But he was absolutely wrecked by it. We met another survivor who had returned, and they were there just by chance; she found her home standing. She was emotionally destroyed by it. It's like I said, there were no survivors on that awful day.

    Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.  

    Heart of Darkness: Return to the My Lai massacre

    REWIND

    Heart of Darkness: Return to the My Lai massacre

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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