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My Lai at 50

Originally Appeared in: The American Interest: Volume 13, Number 5 | Published on: March 15, 2018

Reminded that the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre looms on March 16, I decided to reread Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods. The novel’s title might recall for many readers the story “On the Rainy River” from his now classic collection,The Things They Carried. The wide river separating Minnesota and Ontario is the site of the protagonist’s crisis of conscience in the summer of 1968: Obey his draft notice or flee to Canada.

The protagonist’s name is Tim O’Brien, but beware of identifying character and author in these first-person stories. “This is one story I’ve never told before,” he announces in the first sentence. “For more than twenty years I’ve had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I’m hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams.” Another caveat: Necessary though storytelling and remembrance may be to survival, they are not necessarily curative.

O’Brien’s works ply the uncertainties of fact and fiction, identity and persona, memory and invention, survival and salvation. In Going After Cacciato (1978), episodes of Paul Berlin’s unit in Quang Ngai province in the months after My Lai and his fragmentary ruminations during a solitary night watch are braided together with the story of the pursuit of the AWOL Cacciato. The Cacciato story begins realistically but steadily becomes implausible and ultimately fantastic, a compound of wish-fulfillments and anxieties woven from Paul Berlin’s need to imagine a “possibility” to replace the raw fact that in a fit of panic he blindly killed Cacciato. His lieutenant covers up the event by reporting Cacciato MIA.

O’Brien’s first work, the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1975), details his experience in a unit patrolling Quang Ngai province and Pinkville, the area that included the My Lai villages, in the same months that Paul Berlin prowled the territory. Much of the short fiction in The Things They Carried(1990) also takes place there. Fiction grew from memoir for O’Brien, as though memoir could not exhaust memory. Even as certain events in If I Die in a Combat Zone recur with little or no alteration in later short stories and novels, the writer’s stance changes. Rather than recounting his own experience, he now projects it into his characters’ life experiences and gives it new contours and ramifications. In the Lake of the Woods (1994), written a quarter century after My Lai, shifts from the atrocity to its reverberating aftermath.

John Wade is a Vietnam veteran and telegenic politician who is poised to win the 1986 Democratic primary in Minnesota for the U.S. Senate only to see his career collapse three weeks before the election, when it is revealed that he participated in the My Lai massacre and later altered military records to expunge evidence that he was even there. He and his wife Kathy retreat after election night to a cabin in northern Minnesota. She disappears. Is it a boating accident? Her flight from her disturbed, disintegrating husband? A conspiracy hatched between them to escape into new identities? Or, the most likely possibility, did he murder her?

The unnamed narrator is a writer, a blend of journalist and novelist. He reconstructs events and tries, as a journalist would, to solve the mystery after John Wade too disappears; he fabricates possible narratives—“conjectures” he calls them—from an archive of documents, interviews, and evidence, as a novelist would.

The archive itself combines historical and fictional records. In half a dozen footnotes the narrator elaborates on the meaning of his act of writing in light of his own experience in 1969 of patrolling, burning, and killing in the same cluster of villages and fields where the fictional John Wade and the historical Lieutenant William Calley were on March 16, 1968. Calley directed a four-hour operation of murdering old men, women, and children. Many were raped or mutilated. Between 350 and 500 villagers died. The American soldiers present encountered no enemy fire.

John Wade avoids the action until the moment he turns and kills an old man, believing—or afterwards convincing himself he believed—that the old man’s hoe was a gun. Near the end of the butchery, he looks up from the irrigation ditch filled with bodies and sees a smiling PFC Weatherby, who has energetically participated in the killings. John Wade shoots him point-blank in the face. The press uncovers that he shot the old man and altered his military records. No one ever learns that he killed his comrade in arms.

The narrator invents John Wade’s dissociated memories and forgetfulness to recover something of his own past. Every angle of Wade’s motives, as a child, soldier, husband, politician, is investigated only to dramatize how elusive truth can be and often is. The grimmest of war crimes is detailed in order to confront the blurred line between duty and atrocity. Two dramas are intertwined in the novel, Wade’s and the narrator’s. Both are dramas of denial and invention:

We moved like sleepwalkers through the empty villages, shadowed by an enemy we could never find, calling in medevac choppers and loading up the casualties and then moving out again toward the next deadly little ville. And behind us we left a wake of fire and smoke. We called in gunships and air strikes. We brutalized. We pistol-whipped. We trashed wells. We kicked and punched. We burned all that would burn. Yes, and these too were atrocities—the dirty secrets that live forever inside all of us. I have my own PFC Weatherby. My own old man with a hoe. And yet a quality of abstraction that makes reality unreal. All these years later, I cannot remember much, I cannot feel much. . . .  On occasion, especially when I am alone, I find myself wondering if these old tattered memories weren’t lifted from someone else’s life, or from a piece of fiction I once read or heard about. My own war does not belong to me. In a peculiar way, even at this very instant, the ordeal of John Wade—the long decades of silence and lies and secrecy—all this has a vivid, living clarity that seems far more authentic than my own faraway experience. Maybe that’s what this book is for. To give me back my vanished life.

There again is the redemptive thirst, that hope to restore the self through invention or memory. As in O’Brien’s other works, the sought-after redemption is hard to come by.

In the months after John Wade’s My Lai “the whole incident took on a dreamlike quality, only half-remembered, half-believed.” Getting wounded helps his psychic survival. “In a peculiar way the pain was all that kept body and soul together,” and he volunteers for a second combat tour, hoping that some show of valor will expiate his deeds in My Lai. When he removes his name from Charlie Company’s rolls, he finds that it “helped ease the guilt.” Ten years later, as his political star is rising, Vietnam scarcely touches his consciousness: “He genuinely wanted to do good in the world. In certain private moments, without ever pondering it too deeply, he was struck by the dim notion of politics as a medium of apology, a way of salvaging something in himself and in the world.

In the Lake of the Woods eerily forecast the Bob Kerrey story. In April 2001, as the Clinton scandal was fading away and George W. Bush was enjoying his uneventful pre-9/11 presidency, the story broke that on the night of February 25, 1969, Lieutenant Kerrey led six other Navy SEALs on a raid on the hamlet of Thanh Phong in the Mekong Delta where they slaughtered as many as 20 women and children. Late in 1998 the journalist Gregory L. Vistica confronted Kerrey with the implicating documents he had gathered for Newsweek. Soon thereafter the charismatic Nebraska Democrat, a veteran who lost a leg in Vietnam, decided not to challenge Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 primaries. If Newsweek had hoped to boast of Senator Kerrey’s fall, it had robbed itself of the chance with an inadvertent knockout punch before the opening bell. Newsweek dropped the project. Kerrey decided not to seek reelection to the Senate.

Vistica’s investigation migrated to the New York Times and CBS’s 60 Minutes II. As the Times Magazine prepared to publish the story in the spring of 2001, Kerrey, by then president of New School University, gave his version of events in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, a news conference at the New School, and an ill-fated interview with Dan Rather. Was he remembering the truth or parrying his conscience? He told Vistica that the rules of engagement he followed in the Mekong Delta considered crossfires and human shields irrelevant. “Standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we made contact with. . . . Kill the people we made contact with, or we have to abort the mission.” His memory of what happened in Thanh Phong was, in his words, “clouded by the fog of the evening, age, and desire.”

Like Tim O’Brien’s protagonist, Kerrey may have no longer known exactly what happened, even as he knew himself to be “a man who killed innocent civilians.” Like O’Brien’s narrator, he may not have known the difference between his own experience and some movie he saw. His account, contradicted by another SEAL and a Vietnamese witness, resembles the firefight in Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone’s film based on Ron Kovic’s memoir, where Americans kill women and children who shield the Viet Cong.

The accuracy of any of these real and fictional warriors’ memories cannot be known. What can be known is that any sense of moral equivalence is false. Neither the enemy’s tactics nor the war-is-hell mantra balances American responsibility. There’s the rub: American responsibility. Elected Presidents and Congresses, the CIA, Pentagon intellectuals, and layer upon layer of military commanders and soldiers made the war in Vietnam what it was. After the fall of Saigon there was little national reckoning. Instead the Vietnam Syndrome raised its Janus-faced head. The one face shouted, avoid all military conflict. The other, never fight without overwhelmingly superior might and certain swift total victory.

Bob Kerrey’s story and John Wade’s are compelling because they are politicians—not indeed those who designed and prosecuted the Vietnam War and might have been held accountable, but those whose lives and careers were shaped in its aftermath. The most charismatic politicians of their generation, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush, all avoided serving in Vietnam. The symbolic tie between citizen-soldier and statesman—an ideal originating in the Athens of Pericles—invigorated the public imagination in the political careers of World War II veterans like Dwight David Eisenhower, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, George Herbert Walker Bush, and Bob Dole. The Vietnam War shattered the symbolism. John Kerry, Al Gore, and John McCain served with distinction, but neither Democrats nor Republicans were ever able to connect a leader’s experience in Vietnam to a coherent understanding of the war or a new vision of American foreign policy. Kerry, a decorated veteran and activist in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, was shamelessly attacked in the 2004 election with the scurrilous Swift Boat fabrications, and McCain was mocked by Donald Trump in 2016 for having been, of all things, a prisoner of war! Trump, of course, did not serve at all.

The ghostly presence of Vietnam hovered over President-elect Bill Clinton’s first meeting with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Colin Powell, according to his autobiography, My American Journey, was ready to give frank advice to “a young President, shaped by the Sixties . . . , this first nonveteran American President since FDR.” Two weeks earlier he had spent the weekend after the election at Camp David consoling George H.W. Bush, “a man who had been the Navy’s youngest fighter pilot in the war years of the forties.”

Clinton and Powell discussed a volatile issue regarding democracy and the military; it was not the nation’s defense but homosexuality. Clinton had promised during the campaign to end the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. The promise was unequivocal. Facing the Joint Chiefs’ opposition, Clinton failed his first test as Commander-in-Chief: He did not hear them out and then order them to lift the ban but opted, instead, for “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Powell himself was not a Vietnam hero, nor did he ever claim to be. He served on the ground for just seven months in 1963 as an “adviser” leading and training a battalion of 400 South Vietnamese troops. In those months his battalion burned villages, killed livestock, and destroyed crops; seven of his men were killed and thirty wounded. The battalion had only two “confirmed kills,” one a Viet Cong killed in an ambush and the other represented by a pair of ears delivered to Powell by a South Vietnamese lieutenant, prompting the American adviser to clarify the rules: “A kill meant a whole body, not component parts. No ears. And no more mutilation of the enemy.”

Powell left the jungles and hamlets of the A Shau Valley wounded after he stepped into one of the punji traps the Viet Cong buried along the trails. The dung-encrusted wooden spike pierced all the way through his foot. By the time he returned for another tour in 1968 he was already a lieutenant colonel and assigned to the command staff of the Americal Division rather than the battlefield. Four months before his arrival a unit of that division carried out the My Lai massacre. Powell did not learn of it until the public did, after his tour ended. Other officers and officials engaged in the cover-up, discomforted no doubt by how closely Charlie Company’s mayhem hewed to its search-and-destroy mission in a designated Viet Cong stronghold.

The politicians “shaped by the Sixties,” whether veterans or draft resisters, draft dodgers or Vietnam Veterans Against the War, gun-ho special forces or terrified grunts, never adequately voiced their lived experience of the Vietnam era in their political discourse. A hollowness lay at the core of their visions and debates so long as their public image masked their youthful experiences and actions. By the same token, the unspoken irony underlying In the Lake of the Woods is that the polity that righteously, and rightly, repudiates John Wade had played its own “masterly trick of forgetting,” and one at least as extensive as his.

The novelistic imagination jumps into the breach. Novels wrench a paradox from the clear distinction of fiction and nonfiction. We know more about the inner lifeof fictional John Wade than we will ever know about that of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Bob Kerrey. John Wade’s life in politics is underpinned by a desperate need to be loved and a fascination with deception that goes back to his childhood obsession with doing magic tricks. Among his fellow soldiers he is known as Sorcerer, and his ultimate illusion is making himself disappear from the records of Charlie Company. The mental magic of his fantasy life in adolescence lies in making his father reappear, an alcoholic, half-absent father who commits suicide when John is 14. He wants to bring him back to life so he can kill him for abandoning him. The impossible yearning for the lost father’s love is answered by the magic shows he performs at school and parties:

It was a surprise to find that the applause seemed to fill up the empty spaces inside him. . . .  He liked being up on stage. All those eyes on him, everybody paying close attention. Down inside, of course, he was still a loner, still empty, but at least the magic made it a respectable sort of emptiness.

“All those eyes on him”—the future politician’s first feeling of the thrill of public life. The source and fuel of charisma is to be found in being looked at by an admiring crowd. Just before going to Vietnam, at 22, he tells Kathy “his ambitions and dreams.” Law school, party politics, “something big. Lieutenant Governor, maybe. The U.S. Senate”—but she doubts him:

“I don’t know, it just seems strange, sort of. How you’ve figured everything out, all the angles, except what it’s for
“For us,” he said. “I love you, Kath.”
“But it feels—I shouldn’t say this—it feels manipulating.”
John turned and looked at her. Nineteen years old, yes, but still there was something flat and skeptical in her eyes, something terrifying. She returned his gaze without backing off. She was hard to fool. Again, briefly, he was assailed by the sudden fear of losing her, of bungling things, and for a long while he tried to explain how wrong she was. Nothing sinister, he said. He talked about leading a good life, doing good things for the world. Yet even as he spoke, John realized he was not telling the full truth. Politics was manipulation. Like a magic show: invisible wires and trapdoors.

His first response—“For us . . . I love you, Kath”—is not untrue, for in his own mind his political success is the one thing he has to offer to capture Kathy’s love. On returning from Vietnam he has even less sense of “what it’s for,” except perhaps atonement. Deception and manipulation prevail in his political vocation because he strives to atone for something he cannot acknowledge, cannot allow to be known, to become public. Therein lies this politician’s separation of persona and person.

His growing charisma quells his filial rage, and his steady rise to power reins in his intense marital jealousy. Politics feels like salvation. His wartime deeds are held at bay by “layers of forgetfulness,” and the more he shows himself in public, the more his psychic “box of mirrors” lets him disappear into his empty inner life. The My Lai revelations wreak havoc across this entire landscape of his love, rage, jealousy, amnesia, charisma, and power. John Wade cracks. The reader, like the investigating-conjecturing narrator, never learns what happened in the Lake of the Woods. Even the motives for murder are conjectural. He might have killed Kathy because she is the most intimate witness of his shame and failure, or because she scarcely disguises her relief that their life in electoral politics is now over, or because as soon as his rage is no longer contained by public adoration and private amnesia he must, again, kill someone.

Deep currents of contemporary history and political life register in O’Brien’s novel. It warns that an inner hollowness and bottomless need for recognition are becoming part of the psychological aptitude for electoral politics. Politicians are called upon to craft images of their youth, their marriage and family, and their personality; perhaps underneath it all they also yearn to be authentic. They are in any case daring to be unmasked, and our media are eager to oblige. Yet the forms and enjoyments of unmasking are themselves somehow false. In the Lake of the Woods questions the judgments, political and aesthetic, required to penetrate the inner reality and private lives of public figures. While novelistic truth looks behind the mask, it also thwarts the pleasures and certainties of unmasking. In a final novelistic paradox, we know the fictional John Wade better than we know our actual politicians because O’Brien carefully etches the limits of our knowledge, bringing us face to face with what is unfathomable and impenetrable in motives and actions.

By fusing in a single character the soldier who commits atrocity and the politician who slips the yoke of responsibility, O’Brien shined a harsh light on our country a quarter-century after the Vietnam War. As a people and a polity, we Americans are prone to shun memory. Seldom do memory and moral reflection touch in our political life. On the 50th anniversary of My Lai, can the recollection of that event loosen even a bit the hold that tricksters and illusionists have on our body politic?