My time in central Vietnam, where many of the most horrific events of the Vietnam war took place, was fascinating and emotional, especially as a young American. I hired a motorbike to Son My, site of the famous My Lai (pronounced Mee Lai, not my lai, as I had been taught in school) massacre. In Vietnam it is known as the Son My massacre. My Lai is a perfect example of the non-heroic American, and the downfall of the American image post World War Two. On March 16th, 1968, 503 unarmed civilians, including women and children, were slaughtered, raped and mutilated by U.S. soldiers who belonged to the 23rd infantry division.

Some “soldiers” removed the ears and noses of certain victims and wore them around their necks as triumphant symbols of this horrific barbarism. And after the massacre was exposed, 26 “soldiers” faced criminal charges, but only one, a 2nd Lieutenant named William Calley Jr., was convicted, and he received a reduced, slap-on-the-wrist house arrest sentence.

While at the memorial museum that graphically depicts the terror through photos and dioramas, there were two older women focused on one particularly graphic scene, sobbing uncontrollably. They caught sight of me (I’m kind of hard to miss). One grabbed my arm and started pointing at a depicted American “soldier” shooting a baby while in his dying mother’s arms, indicating “look at what you’ve done!” I kept saying “kawm doy, kawm doy, xin loi,” meaning, “not me, sorry.” But it didn’t make any difference, the trauma was too deep.

I was profoundly affected by her tremendous pain and her unwavering thought that I myself could do such a thing. The complexities of such a brutal and seemingly senseless attack committed by “my country” confounded me, as did my personal experience with this accusatory woman. It’s not as if the Son My massacre is an isolated incidence of the dark side of human beings, but I was still haunted by the questions of “How could these ‘soldiers’ do such things? How could men from my country, the same country that heroically rescued the world from the potential global domination of the Third Reich only 23 years previously, follow with comparable barbarism?” It’s not as if the American genetics altered over a single generation to such a degree that “soldiers” went from idolized rescuers to mere assassins. What happened?

Presence of My Lai” – Oil on Canvas -Vannessa Circe

Unfortunately the historical record of humanity, along with personal experience, has led me to the troubling conclusion that for that vast majority, the people who lack independent thought and initiative, this darkest of sides to human nature can present itself at any time, in any culture, under the right circumstances. But to the point of shooting a defenseless mother and baby? Well, it was revealed during the ensuing investigation into the massacre that the “soldiers” had been indoctrinated into believing that the babies had been booby-trapped with grenades: these American “soldiers” were following orders, just as the Nazi “soldiers,” the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the FARC and Paramilitaries in Colombia, the ISIS raiders of Kurdish Yazidi villages,  and countless other senseless massacres against civilians throughout past and present have done.

The indoctrination appears to simply take over any conception of how irrational and brutal what they are doing, is. Even if these murderers claim some form of twisted revenge, these are civilians, caught in circumstances that they have no control over. Now how people can be convinced in the first place that a mother would blow up her own child simply to hinder the progress of some interfering foreigners just further reinforces to me how human beings can be led to believe just about anything.