Photo: Artist Mac MacDevitt sets up panels Thursday for the My Lai Memorial Project at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe. The three day exhibit is free, but donations are welcome. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican.
This article originally appeared at newmexicotoday.com.
By Robert Nott | The New Mexican.
On the morning of March 16, 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, a company of U.S. Army soldiers under the command of Lt. William Calley entered a small Vietnamese hamlet called My Lai in a search of Viet Cong combatants.
They found none. Instead, the Americans came across hundreds of civilians, including old men, women and children. And they proceeded to brutalize, rape and kill most of them.
The My Lai Massacre, as the slaughter became known, was one of several events that helped turn Americans against the war, which was growing increasingly unpopular by 1968. The tragedy showed the public how foggy the line between combat and murder could become for some soldiers. It also highlighted the immense price civilians in war zones pay — a cost they continue to bear in conflicts around the world, said Chicago artist and activist Mac MacDevitt.
MacDevitt, a civilian member of the Chicago Veterans for Peace chapter, has created a touring exhibition commemorating the anniversary of My Lai to raise awareness about the human suffering that underlies any war. He is bringing the project to Santa Fe for a three-day exhibition that starts Friday at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe.
“It’s important to look at the true cost of war today, especially for people who live in other countries,” MacDevitt said. “We have the privilege of going to war in countries where other people live.”
The 40-panel exhibition includes photos (including one of some My Lai civilians taken moments before they were killed), printed memories of survivors of the massacre, and an interactive oak-block collage that allows visitors to rework images of both the massacre and the American flag.
With the Pentagon and U.S. Defense Department commemorating the 50th anniversary of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War through a series of over 300 events being held at military cemeteries, veterans’ centers and other sites, MacDevitt said he and other Chicago Veterans for Peace members felt it was time to provide a “counterweight” that looks at military procedures and policies and how they affect civilians caught in the conflict.
The same issues pop up in today’s wars, he said, be it in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Robert Josephs, a U.S. Air Force veteran (1959-66) who lives in Santa Fe, agrees. The exhibition, he said, will help “remind us of our past because our nation tends to have a short attention span.
“Hopefully,” he added, “this will also remind people about ongoing conflicts.”
MacDevitt and Josephs both said it’s possible some veterans, including those from the Vietnam era, will not like the exhibition. But Josephs said he took part in a panel talk about the Vietnam War with other veterans at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe in the fall, and when the topic came up about the My Lai exhibit possibly coming to Santa Fe, no one objected.
MacDevitt, who said he does not see the exhibition as an anti-war project, acknowledged that “there are certainly veterans who feel like commemorating or memorializing this event is not patriotic. … I would not be surprised if there are people who are unhappy, who would not want to show up or even be happy that we are discussing it.”
For Santa Fean Ken Stewart, who served in the U.S. Army Special Forces along the Cambodian border during the war, the exhibit may help “young people who are going to be cannon fodder in the next war” become more aware of the moral and cultural lines that are crossed in warfare when everyone begins looking like the enemy.
Of Calley, Stewart said: “I have no respect for someone like that. I understand that you get into a position where life is cheap and it’s all black and white and you don’t make good moral judgments. Life becomes tenuous in those kinds of environments, but at the same time, there has to be some kind of line that people draw that says, ‘Personally and culturally, this goes too far.’ ”
Stewart said that while Calley might have been a man of a “pathological personality who was put in a position of power,” he went too far.
“Way too far,” Stewart said. “Killing defenseless people takes a special kind of derangement, I think.”
In fact, many Americans were unhappy to hear Calley was found guilty at his court-martial.
He was sentenced to life in prison in 1971, serving 3½ years before he was pardoned.
Still others were outraged the massacre was not uncovered until 18 months after it occurred.
Seymour Hersh, then a relentless freelance reporter, broke the story after tracking down and interviewing soldiers, including Calley, about the mass killing. Hersh received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting without ever leaving the United States.
Calley, who is still living, publicly apologized in 2009 for his role in the massacre.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” he told members of a Georgia-based Kiwanis Club. “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
MacDevitt said it’s an uncomfortable exhibition to face. “This is hard stuff and everybody has the right to have their own feelings about it,” he said.
Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or email@example.com.