My Awakening: Tap An Bac, Quang Ngai, Vietnam, March 15, 1969

By Billy Kelly

I am probably the only American alive who knows this hamlet’s name. On March 15, 1969, I was involved in an all-day battle in this very area—mercifully, the only one of my brief military career. The combat took place within a two-kilometer by four-kilometer area.

I remember the name because I received a few citations with this hamlet’s name printed on them, and the date of the action was noted. I was also slightly wounded on two separate occasions that day. I kept the military map of the area.

Over the years, I have come to fully understand the terrible reality of my people’s involvement in the affairs of the Vietnamese. Beginning in 1968, the majority of my fellow countrymen designated our Vietnam adventure as a “mistake.” The poll numbers now are in the 60–75 percent range.

I bridle at that term, for I think of a mistake as something akin to forgetting to pick up the laundry on the way home from work. Millions dead and a land nearly obliterated calls for a term less facile than “mistake.”

Billy Kelly arranging the roses he brought to the My Lai ceremony March of last year

On that day in 1969, I led a company of infantry “grunts” to what appeared to be a resounding success. At the time, the “score” was approximately thirty Vietnamese killed, and our side suffered not a single loss of life. The numbers belie the difficulty of the engagement.

Our opponents, initially caught off-guard, soon regrouped and hunkered down for a fight. It was very close, and movement by either side seemed to be suicidal. Finally sanity prevailed, and a troop of cavalry was brought in. They quickly brought their firepower and strength to bear, and all resistance was crushed as the tracks and tanks, followed by an infantry company, moved forward.

Months later I was told that captured documents indicated the Vietnamese losses might have been much greater, for many had been buried as the APCs and the tanks did their work. The following day, we retraced our path, and the stench from burned and decomposing bodies lent credence to that new information.

My feelings were numb. I can only remember the fear—that “pissing in your pants” fear. There was no elation, but at least we were alive. In a military sense, it was a big win. Our opponents were uniform-wearing, arms-bearing soldiers—soldiers intent on killing us!

I will always remember that day. It was a day when I personally killed four Vietnamese. And as the CO, I was also responsible for the deaths of many others, only a day shy of a year from Calley’s handiwork at My Lai and only forty kilometers south of that bludgeoned village.

After thirty-five years of reflection, I have come to the unassailable conclusion that our presence in Vietnam was at best a cruel misuse of power, and at worst a near-genocide. I was a part of the war machine, the technological juggernaut that would annihilate all in its path.

I killed for this machine, but I gave myself a personal pass, for I did not partake in any civilian mistreatment. There was no burning of hootches; no killing of livestock; no shooting into free-fire zones. I acted morally and honorably.

This March, I was in Quang Ngai to honor the victims of My Lai. Arriving a few days before that anniversary on March 16, I decided to visit Tap An Bac and its neighboring hamlets on “my anniversary.” With a map, I strolled about the lanes and pathways. There is a martyrs’ monument for the township, something to be found in every hamlet, village, or city in Vietnam.

I stopped to observe. Together with the sculpture, there was a rectangular structure marked with the names and dates of birth and death of all the soldiers buried in that graveyard. The total came to 584, in a grouping of hamlets that probably never had more than a thousand inhabitants at any one time. An amount equal to one-fifth the casualties suffered in New York City on September 11, 2001.

I walked amidst the headstones and read the names and dates. When I first saw a name with “my” date upon it, I was hit with that fabled thunderbolt of epiphany. Now I knew the name of someone whose death I was responsible for. Suddenly my pass no longer worked. Dead is dead! Does it really matter how that death was accomplished? We humans have no Christs to bring back all those Lazaruses.

To most soldiers, My Lai seems incomprehensible. But in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter whether the death is of a noncombatant or a young soldier? Does it matter if it comes in a gratuitously brutal way or in a fair fight? Dead is dead and all families mourn.

The conclusion I have reached, with enormous personal pain and sorrow, is this: If the end is immoral, unlawful and dishonorable, then whatever the means used to reach it is equally immoral, unlawful and dishonorable.

There are no free passes. No shrink in the world can undo what I did. I killed other human beings who were fighting against me for what is now recognized as an honorable and just end. My opponents were fighting for their freedom, liberty and independence. The Vietnamese had a real goal, a justifiable end.

I envy them that. All wars suck, but some can be deemed just or necessary. Our opponents took up arms to defend their homeland from an aggressive invader occupying their land, an occupier who was intent on imposing his will by brute force. To resist that is a person’s duty and obligation.

Sadly, I now know that I was the neighborhood bully.

I mentioned that this is a cautionary tale. As veterans of the Vietnam War — one of our nation’s greatest debacles — we need to seek out and listen to our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. NBC News reports veteran suicides are occurring at a rate of 22 a day! This kind of suffering must be addressed. What I found is getting beyond the propaganda and patriotism and to real honesty and compassion works best.

Billy Kelly was a “grunt” officer in the 11th Light Infantry Brigade based in Duc Pho, 1968-69. He is a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans For Peace and Veterans of Foreign Wars. He visited the Iraq war zone in December 2003 and travels regularly to attend the annual ceremony in March at the My Lai massacre site.

Comments

  1. Woody Powell says:

    Billy. I know you as a most compassionate, thoughtful human being. Many of us have found ourselves in situations (mild term) where we understood little of the context and what was really going on. I know I was influenced by the jingoism of WWII and felt, irrationally, that any war the US got into was righteous and I had a duty to perform. When I got to Korea I started out with that idea driving me, but encountered enough humanity to change my mind before I left. However, it wasn’t before I had participated in events that now shame me.

    Like you, I have used that shame to try to gain enough humility to work against those forces that take advantage of youth. Thank you for all you have done for peace. The scales will always reflect our shortcomings, but exoneration isn’t the thing, is it? We are who we are because of what we were and did. Can’t change that. But we can, as you have done, become better human beings.

    I love you, Billy.

  2. Ted Randall says:

    I can relate to and appreciate your article, Billy. I am a retired Grunt and Force Recon Marine…I did my English Masters’ Thesis on the warrior mystique and used my personal experience and several memoirs and novels about the Vietnam War to explore this construct. It ended up being cathatic for me…Thanks to all the Vets and Veterans for Peace for putting the truth out there.

  3. Deryle Perryman says:

    Hey All,
    Well spoke, all of you, and Bravo! for having the courage to speak the truth when most folk are determined to believe that our “exceptionalism” justifies evil behavior.

    Billy, my granddad used to say”when you’re on the wrong train, every station you come to is the wrong station.” You compliment it well with ” If the end is immoral, unlawful and dishonorable, then whatever the means used to reach it is equally immoral, unlawful and dishonorable.”

    It’s been a long haul trying to come to terms with taking the wrong train to Vietnam, as you know.
    I’ve spent the past five years making a documentary film about men who’ve done something about their youthful misadventure. “Same Same But Different ” is the story of some of our colleagues who have returned to Vietnam to do humanitarian work. Trying to heal the wounds at the source, as it were.
    We’ll be showing it at film festivals around the country over the coming year. Be on the lookout for it coming near you.

    Here’s a bit of info about Same Same. The Updates are interesting and number 36, the last one, is the opening sequence.

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/320072119/same-same-but-different

    Hope to meet you along the trail.
    All the best,
    Deryle Perryman

  4. Indeed, Billy, a most compassionate and enlightened portrayal of your evolution from war warrior to peace warrior. I have always held you in the highest esteem because you have dedicated so much of your life since returning home from our unnecessary and immoral war in Vietnam to peace and on-the-ground reconciliation for Vietnamese civilians. I too believe we as a nation, as a people, are morally guilty of genocide in Vietnam with our terrible, vastly superior firepower. Though, I didn’t kill any civilians or combatants that I know of, I supplied the soldiers of Task Force Barker who did — I consider myself a combat support war criminal.

    I’ve been most privileged to share some of the road of your healing journey with you. Thanks for your service — not for your first visit to Vietnam, but for all the many subsequent visits you have made to bring, peace, healing, reconciliation and forgiveness to the Vietnamese and for all of us . . .

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