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.”
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.