Ethnic Cleansers

Stephen Smith

  • Four Hours in My Lai: A War Crime and its Aftermath by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim
    Viking, 430 pp, £17.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 670 83233 2
  • Tiger Balm: Travels in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia by Lucretia Stewart
    Chatto, 261 pp, £10.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3892 0

Born too late – and that was the least of it – to be James Fenton, I cannot claim to have spent the fall of Saigon hitchhiking to President Nguyen Van Thieu’s palace aboard a Northern Vietnamese tank. By the time I reached the city, more than a decade after the President’s government was toppled, I was also a little late to experience the thrill that the poet and war correspondent had felt in living through its death throes. Nevertheless, I called on the former United States Embassy fondly hoping to pick my way through poignant debris like portraits of Presidents behind crazed glass, and the bust of a bald eagle gleaming dully from a nest of old communiqués. The miserable photographs I had seen of the Embassy failed to do the place justice. The real thing was much worse, windowless and swaddled in concrete. It reminded me of a vast cold storage vault at Nine Elms, South London. Because I turned up on a Sunday, I was able to convince a guard called Tuan that I might promenade the grounds with him. A bonfire was smoking, and chicken pecked the dirt beside a cycle-rack.

I wanted to get inside the Embassy, but Tuan said foreigners were not allowed. He wouldn’t accept anything from me: not cash, not cigarettes, neither threats nor entreaties. But then he pointed to a door at the side of the building and held up three fingers – three minutes. The door was the entrance to a stairwell finished in drab lime. The stairs themselves were cordoned off by padlocked mesh. Tuan undid the lock, and I followed him up one flight and through a firedoor onto a silent corridor, barely illuminated by a couple of naked light-bulbs. The firedoors on the next two floors were locked. Above them, the staircase was barricaded behind more mesh, a bolted gate, another padlock – Tuan said the Government had the key. It was up this dingy stairwell that embassy staff and their dependents, service personnel, businessmen and journalists had fled for their lives in 1975. The only sign that the Americans had ever been there were the chrome drinking-fountains on the first floor. The Embassy is now occupied by workers in the oil business, one of Vietnam’s most prestigious and dynamic new industries. The security measures safeguard Vietnam’s future rather than preserve its past.

It is quite likely that as a journalist, one may want for sensitivity about intruding on grief; it is possible that as a foreigner in Vietnam, one may intrude on it without knowing it: while Four Hours in My Lai is ostensibly an inquiry into the massacre of up to four hundred unarmed civilians by American troops, it is also a cautionary tale about Western arrogance in South-East Asia. Nevertheless, there is a clear impression that Vietnam has got over the Vietnam War – something, this books reminds us, that cannot, and should not, be said of the United States. The surviving physical evidence is regarded in Vietnam with a lack of sentimentality that borders at times on the cynical. The pits and bunkers sunk by B52 bombers are as incongruous as crop circles, but go unremarked by passengers aboard the Hanoi-Saigon express. On the bridge over the Perfume River in the ancient capital of Hue, boys sell the dog tags of dead GIs for 20,000 dong each (less than three dollars). The Vietnamese have fought in Cambodia and on their Chinese border since the Vietnam War, a martial fixture-list more punishing than the one faced by the United States in the same period. Of course, Vietnam did not experience the same sense of national humiliation: and yet its losses were more grievous. As many as two million may have perished, compared to perhaps 55,000 Americans. The economy was crippled, and the years of an embargo imposed by Washington have hamstrung recovery.

An official of the Foreign Ministry told me in Hanoi last year: ‘We have changed our attitude. The Americans dropped so many bombs – as we say, enough for everyone to have a crater on each shoulder. But now we want normalisation without conditions, which means that we have forgiven.’ The official hoped that normalisation, by which he meant economic rapprochement, could begin with the opening of a State Department bureau in Hanoi enquiring after more than two thousand MlA’s – troops who cannot be accounted for. The Vietnamese, who incidentally claim 230,000 MIAs of their own, believe a resumed United States presence will be good for business. In the language you are likely to hear nowadays in Saigon, if not yet in austere Hanoi, it will be a shot in the arm. To the Americans, resolving the fate of the MIAs is also a form of therapy. George Bush announced that the Vietnam Syndrome had been kicked after Operation Desert Storm, but as Christopher Hitchens noted here in August, controversy over draft-dodging in the Presidential election campaign indicates that it was merely in remission.

The dictionary says a syndrome can be a characteristic combination of opinions or behaviour, but the Vietnamese variety typically presents in Western prose as a recurring virus, contracted in the Third World and malignly biding its time in its host. Malaria was presumably the original analogy, but it is striking how the literature of the condition, with its overtones of retribution, recalls writing about Aids. Four Hours in My Lai, which treats of the Vietnam experience in terms of a sinister illness, could almost be subtitled, with apologies to Susan Sontag, ‘Vietnam and its Metaphors’. In their attempt to answer the intractable ‘why’ of the massacre, Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim sense that the contributory factors they painstakingly assemble don’t quite amount to a reason, and reach for the viral theory. ‘Atrocity,’ they opine, ‘is like a virus known to strike soldiers in combat.’

Charlie Company of the Americal Division’s 11th Light Infantry Brigade, the men who carried out the killings, emerge from the authors’ pocket biogs or dope sheets as startlingly regular GI Joes – by no means problem rookies. On the contrary, they passed out from basic training as the best in their battalion. However, infantryman Michael Bernhardt remembers that there was lax discipline among them. There was also friction between Lieutenant William ‘Rusty’ Calley, the only man to serve time for My Lai, and the company’s commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, even though the two shared a violent animosity towards the Vietnamese. Within a few weeks of arriving in Asia, both were involved in offences against hapless locals which, by the appalling yardstick of what was to follow, come under the hitherto unthinkable category of petty atrocities. In the aftermath of the enemy’s surprise Tet Offensive in January 1968, Charlie Company was on the trail of the élite 48th Battalion of the National Liberation Front, which had been resisting the Americans for three years in Quang Ngai province. The hunt turned into a grudge after three soldiers were blown up in a minefield. Their deaths reinforced hostility to Vietnamese civilians, who were suspected of planting booby traps on behalf of the NLF. By their own accounts, the GIs ceased to trouble themselves as to whether the people they dealt with were friends or foe. They were briefed that an early morning sortie to the hamlets of My Lai would be their long-awaited chance to engage the 48th Battalion at close quarters, and to get even for their dead buddies. In case they were worried about risks to civilians, intelligence reports offered them the risible assurance that all genuine non-combatants would be out at the market at that time of day, leaving only the Viet Cong at home.

The question of whether an order was given to kill unarmed villagers remains unresolved; several of Medina’s men including Calley claim to have heard one but Medina has denied the allegation. The brute methodology of the ‘body count’, by which the success of an operation was judged according to the number of kills claimed by American forces, increased the likelihood of civilian casualties. Bilton and Sim have pieced together an all too exhaustive account of the morning’s work Charlie Company got through on 16 March – rape, sodomy, mutilation, torture and murder. Without facing so much as a single round of incoming fire, the troops subjected My Lai to their own brand of ethnic cleansing, in which some of the men refused to take part. Animals were slaughtered and thrown into wells to poison the water. Homes were burnt down. Prisoners were lined up on the bank of a ditch and shot. I took the book with me to Mogadishu, Somalia, and found that reading a chapter of summary soldiering in My Lai was a busman’s holiday after a day of anarchy and gunfire. Four Hours in My Lai is distinctly putdownable, by which I intend only praise. It argues that the Vietnam Syndrome induces a sleeping sickness in American society from which politicians, public and the media bestir themselves only fitfully; it is a bound volume of case notes on America’s chronic indifference. Charlie Company knew next to nothing of the country where they were posted, and so had no immunity to the field-canteen culture of the American Army. ‘When they arrived in Vietnam, they went along with what they found, partly because they were scared, partly because they didn’t know any better, and partly because no one told them differently. The war culture that defined the problem as “gooks” and “slant-eyes” also defined the remedies.’

Lack of interest, as much as guilt or fear, deterred their superior officers from inquiring too assiduously into rumours and allegations of abuse and executions. When at last word got out, and My Lai became a news story, the American media exhibited serial amnesia in covering it. Journalists wrote about My Lai all right, but with the exception of Seymour Hersh and a handful of others, they hardly pursued it. They attended the opening days of Calley’s court-martial in November 1970, but some of the most damning details revealed in the four-month hearing went unreported, because nobody could be bothered to sit it out in order to report them – ‘the massacre had outlived the nation’s attention span.’ My Lai is an object lesson in the cycles of American journalism; neither its manufacturers nor its consumers seem to care overmuch for news, preferring their anniversary flashbacks, their follow-ups with ‘file’ footage. What they seem to care for is ex-news.

Bilton and Sim must be hoping to catch or trigger a rising curve on the cat-scan of American consciousness. But they acknowledge what is for them a dismaying paradox: that their work sets out as a reminder of an episode apparently destined to leave everything connected with it in obscurity. As they concede, ‘My Lai is almost completely forgotten, erased almost entirely from the national consciousness.’ They also quote Milan Kundera on the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Bilton and Sim are entitled to be proud of their efforts, which involved taking a toothcomb to published but neglected documents, as well as negotiating access to material held at the US Army’s Crime Records Centre in Baltimore. The writers also talked to dozens of survivors, Vietnamese as well as Americans – a break with the navel-watching that has characterised reaction in the United States from the beginning, when ‘My Lai focused the nation’s regret on what the war had done to its boys, almost to the exclusion of what its boys had done to the Vietnamese.’ Lieutenant Calley was tracked down to the counter of his father-in-law’s jewellery store in Columbus, Georgia.

Though he was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour for his part in the massacre, Calley was released from jail after only three days on the instructions of President Nixon, following protests from Americans who could not understand why one of their boys was being punished for doing his job. He spent three years under house arrest before being freed on parole. Cornered at the mall, the jeweller with the murky past ‘starts to sweat a little’: ‘his chubby hands smudge the display cabinets’ in a dead giveaway. All he will say is: ‘This is a place of business. Don’t you understand? This is my place of business.’ The publishers reproduce a still of Calley taking the air outside the store, looking unaccountably like the late CIA chief William Casey.

There is a chilling sighting of Calley’s comrade Vernado Simpson, who went to Vietnam a 19-year-old, and perpetrated 25 of the killings in My Lai less than four months later. He didn’t just despatch his victims, who included women and children: he also scalped them, and removed their tongues, ears and hands. In 1977, his ten-year-old son died when a gun went off accidentally at home in Jackson, Mississippi. Simpson believed that he was being punished. He took to barring the windows and keeping the drapes drawn. His arms and legs shake uncontrollably, and among the dozens of bottles of pills he has is one labelled simply ‘for pain’. He has attempted suicide three times. The Vietnam Syndrome is real enough for him. He told the authors:

After I killed the child, my whole mind just went. It just went. And once you start, it’s very easy to keep on. Once you start. The hardest – the part that’s hard is to kill, but once you kill that becomes easier, to kill the next person and the next one and the next one. Because I had no feelings or no emotions or no nothing. No direction. I just killed. It can happen to anyone. Because, see, I wasn’t the only one that did it. Hung’em, you know – all type of ways. Any type of way you could kill someone, that’s what they did.

In the face of such horror, Four Hours in My Lai records feats of courage which, if they don’t quite restore one’s faith in human nature, do at least remove it from the critical list. Pilot Hugh Thompson was so revolted by what he saw of the carnage from the air that he put his helicopter down in order to intervene, giving his gunner the memorable order that he should be prepared to fire on Americans if necessary. The military hierarchy in the Vietnam theatre confined its initial inquiries to Thompson’s behaviour, ignoring reports of an atrocity, the officers apparently believing Medina’s story of an exchange of fire even though he had failed to bring back a single weapon to lend credence to his extraordinary body count of enemy dead. It took Ronald Ridenhour, a GI in another unit, to expose the crime, despite a smear campaign against him which bore the inky dabs of Mr Nixon himself. His allegations were followed up by General William Peers, who built a case against 30 individuals including two generals and three colonels – most were spared legal proceedings because of a lack of evidence, and a reluctance to pursue men who had left the services. As well as the exploits of honourable men, Four Hours in My Lai is relieved by scenes which read like black parodies of the American Dream: a rabble-rousing colonel serving ice-cream to his men in the middle of a paddyfield; a war photographer screening grisly slides of My Lai as the climax of his illustrated talk to the Cleveland Jaycees Club. John Updike has called Vietnam America’s least memorialised war. In its own way, this often ugly story is a handsome tribute to the Vietnam War of men like Thompson, Ridenhour and Peers, to the resurgent spirit of the Vietnamese, and indeed to its authors.

On her travels in South-East Asia, Lucretia Stewart visited the scene of the crime committed by Charlie Company, and fell to contemplating the wiles of the Americans’ adversary. ‘Like a dangerous wild animal, the only trace was his lethal spoor,’ she writes, in what appears to be a reference to land-mines. Tiger Balm has come in for a certain amount of stick, though less for the occasional duff note – the ugly pagodas of Vietnam’s Mahayana Buddhists ‘looked as if they should carry a stamp saying “Made in Taiwan” ’, as if Taiwan were not the least likely exporter of shoddy merchandise in Asia today – than for Ms Stewart’s alleged preoccupation with men. She passes a restless night in Laos with a balding Dutch doctor, the most successful of several wooers, and enjoys a fairground ride for two aboard a pitching gondola: ‘I had spent the afternoon with a man in the precarious intimacy of a Ferris-wheel cabin.’ In fact, the author appears to have no more sex than certain male travel writers one could mention. The swooning tropes of her confessions may be what irritate her critics; or it could be hearing this kind of candour from a woman.

Now that travel writing has caught up with literary fiction, and travel books as well as novels are willing to take us into the bedroom and the bathroom, Ms Stewart was always likely to put such places on her itinerary: as a former health and beauty editor on a glossy, her interest is more than metaphorical. In the Palace Hotel in Dalat, Vietnam, she felt herself ‘unwinding like a ball of string as I lay in a hot bath scented with Floris Rose Geranium bath essence and thought about the nature of comfort and how spoilt and soft I was’. It is hard to imagine many writers on such a commission being so frank about craving their creature comforts. In practice, her candour is a strength, an advantage over other authors who fear to show weakness. She admits to churlishness when her Vietnamese minders ask her to fork out yet again for cash and cigarettes as sweeteners for officials; and to shame, when she remembers how impoverished they all are. She confesses to fear about travelling overnight to Hue – actually says she doesn’t want to go. Much more of that and the Travellers’ Club will be inviting her to settle her bar bills.

As it turns out, Ms Stewart’s avowed softness is only skin-deep. Having failed to see any of the sights on her first trip to Laos, she forced herself back to the country at the end of her visit despite illness and fatigue, and was rewarded with the charms of the rankly beautiful city, Luang Prabang, as well as those of the good doctor. Ms Stewart is not everyone’s idea of a writer at large, but she has at least secured a niche for herself. Sighing at the exquisite ton of the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, painting her toenails with Dior’s Rouge Mysore, she is the heroine of the first sex’n’shopping title on the travel shelves.