As mentioned in our first war post, Vietnam is permeated by the Vietnam War. The war had such a profound effect on the country, there was no way we could fit it all into one post. And so, after previously covering Saigon in part 1, we now move the center of Vietnam for part 2.
Please note: Inna and I have written three Vietnam War posts in total. We recommend they be read in order. Our first post can be found here.
As the dividing area between communist North Vietnam and capitalist South, Central Vietnam saw a lot of action during the Vietnam War. As such, some of the most important events in the war occurred here, some of which have been recognized, while others have not.
My Lai Memorial (not propagandistic)
My Lai, the location of the My Lai Massacre, is one of the most infamous sites in Vietnam. It was here that US soldiers killed between 350 and 500 Vietnamese civilians, with gang rapes and other atrocities also reported. Afterward, not a single connection was made to enemy combatants at this site. Twenty-six US soldiers were charged with crimes related to the massacre but only one was convicted; he was originally sentenced to life imprisonment but this was later reduced to 3.5 years of house arrest. Everyone soldier’s defense was that they were following orders, while the senior ranking official who gave the orders died before he could be prosecuted.
Unlike virtually every other war site in Vietnam, the My Lai Memorial was not propagandistic. Not only did this memorial pay an honest tribute to the victims of the massacre, it also does not disrespect the American troops. Instead it tries to understand them, even depicting some as victims as well. This was very uncharacteristic for Vietnam, and as a result this was the most powerful war destination on our trip.
My Lai was a farming village, and during the massacre it was completely burned to the ground. One house was rebuilt for the memorial, while the rest were cleared away, only their foundation remaining. On each foundation was a sign specifying the victims who used to lived there.
Irrigation canals cut through this village, canals that massacre victims were thrown into and then executed. Many American soldiers refused to do this but threatened with court martials or even on-the-spot executions (most likely meant as intimidation, not literally) for disobeying orders. Other soldiers willfully executed civilians, some numb to what they were doing, others sadistic, all hopped up on briefing misinformation as well as a desire to avenge the soldiers who were lost in the months leading up to the massacre.
A testament to the Vietnamese people’s desire to move on, locals still use My Lai for farming. Throughout the site, rice grew right next to ditches where the victims were executed. It was so surreal, how can someone eat rice grown here?
Accompanying the My Lai Memorial was a small museum, which, like Saigon’s War Remnants Museum, consisted mostly of pictures.
In addition to the victims, the museum also focused on several US soldiers. The two most prominent were Hugh Thompson and Lawrence Colburn, helicopter pilots who intervened on behalf of the Vietnamese, saving several civilians, demanding the killings be stopped, and eventually reporting the massacre to supervisors when they personally could not stop them. Afterward, both testified against those responsible for the massacre, actions that got them denounced as traitors by members of the military, government, and the US public. However, thirty years later Thompson and Colburn were each awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the US Army’s highest award for bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy.
I should also note that a third crew member, Glenn Andreotta, intervened alongside Thompson and Colburn. Andreotta was killed shorty after the massacre, and has since been awarded the Bronze Star and Soldier’s Medal.
According to the description above, US soldier Herbert Carter purposely shot himself to avoid participating in the massacre. According to Carter, he shot himself accidentally. According to official documentation, he was shot by a hostile enemy (what?). A nearby GI believes Carter shot himself on purpose. Other GIs corroborate Carter’s story. Whatever is true, Carter has gone on record stating that the massacre made him “sick” and he was one soldier in this company who did not participate in it.
I should mention that the description in the above picture, specifically the word “holocaust”, does border on propaganda (level 2). “Criminal partners” could also be construed as propagandistic, although the US government has gone on record stating that the events at My Lai were unlawful, so that mitigates things. No other description at My Lai used language like this, and I’m not sure why this one did.
A list of those who died in this massacre.
All this and I haven’t even mentioned the most powerful aspect of the memorial: a BBC documentary on the massacre and its effects on those who participated in and also those who survived it. All the survivors were severely traumatized by what happened, as were several US soldiers. One survivor spearheaded the creation of this memorial. And at least one soldier was traumatized enough to commit suicide; beforehand, when his son died tragically, he said it was God punishing him for his actions at My Lai.
Visiting My Lai was a difficult experience, one that left us drained and even moved Inna to the verge of tears. But it was a powerful experience, one we are glad we had. And when we returned to our car and our driver saw Inna’s state, he told her “Don’t worry, we’re friends now.” That was a wonderful response that made us feel better.
My Son bomb craters (not propagandistic)
During one US carpet bombing campaign, several bombs fell on My Son. And by several I mean an entire week’s worth. Many of My Son’s buildings were destroyed, including the largest single construction at the site. Today, the bomb craters remain, although there are minimal references to them; they are mainly treated as part of the landscape.
Above are three of the many bomb craters in and around My Son. The bottom crater was formed by the bomb that destroyed the largest building in My Son, the building whose foundation can be seen in the upper left of the photograph.
The Massacre at Hue (propaganda level 3)
During the Tet Offensive, amongst many other feats, the Viet Cong actually captured Hue. It took American and South Vietnamese forces a month to recapture the city, during which time the Viet Cong executed somewhere between 2800 and 6000 civilians.
There are no references to this massacre anywhere in Vietnam. No memorials, no tributes, nothing. Not even an acknowledgement that it happened. Vietnam’s communist party has no problem telling the world about the 350-500 civilians the US killed at My Lai, but when it comes to their own massacre (a ten times larger one to boot), they are mum. By doing this, Vietnam is basically saying that the US massacred civilians but they didn’t. I’m sorry Vietnam, but this is an ugly, bald faced lie.
Despite having zero reference to the Massacre at Hue, Hue did have these American and Russian war machines on display. This display didn’t seem to be part of anything and I couldn’t find any explanation as to why it was here; this whole thing just seemed random and out of place.
With no tributes to the Massacre at Hue, the city doesn’t have many war destinations. And so, without further war sites to visit, we’ll continue north, to our last war destination in Vietnam.