On three complex, flawed, and powerful engagements with one of our more recent and more troubling dark histories.
While only one of my week’s focal histories, the Japanese internment, has produced an official governmental apology (and accompanying financial settlement), it’s fair to say that remorse and regret are two of the central emotions which all of these memories elicit (or would elicit if they were better remembered) from most Americans. Yet it’s still pretty rare for one of the principal actors in a dark and destructive event to offer his own public apology for that history, and thus to force us to engage communally with such emotions and perspectives. And that’s exactly what Lieutenant William Calley did in August of 2009, during a speech at a Columbus, GA Kiwanis club: apologize for his role more than forty-one years earlier in the Vietnam War’s controversial and infamous My Lai Massacre. The apology, which seems (particularly given the setting) to have been impromptu and thus entirely genuine, no more erases the massacre than the reparations did the Japanese internment—as the My Lai prosecutor put it upon hearing the news, “It’s hard to apologize for murdering so many people”—but it does provide a belated yet still meaningful model for an open engagement with the worst of what American history includes.
For the last few decades, long before Calley’s apology, prominent American artists have created their own such engagements with My Lai, or at least with fictionalized versions of such massacres. Two very different 1980s films offer interestingly parallel portrayals: Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) makes a My Lai-like village massacre the center of the conflict between its pair of deeply symbolic leaders, Willem Defoe’s angelic Elias and Tom Berenger’s devilish Barnes, with Charlie Sheen’s Chris Taylor nearly giving into Berenger’s demands to participate in the massacre but ultimately siding with Elias’s resistance to it; while Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War (1989) focuses on a much more intimate yet similar moral conflict, between Michael J. Fox’s idealistic Eriksson and Sean Penn’s cynical Meserve over whether they should rape and murder a captured Vietnamese woman. There’s at least one significant difference, however: in Stone’s film the massacre becomes one scene among many charting the men’s conflict and Taylor’s trajectory, and could thus be forgotten or minimized by an audience; whereas in DePalma’s film the debate over the Vietnamese prisoners forms the movie’s heart, and lingers into and beyond the complex final homecoming scene. Given the controversial and uncertain nature of both My Lai itself and the Vietnam War in general, it’s fair to say that each effect has its place in our engagement with them.
And then there’s Tim O’Brien. The Vietnam War’s undisputed chief literary chronicler literature locates a My Lai-like massacre, or rather his protagonist’s post-war relationship to and memories of that event, at the ambiguous center of his most mysterious (in every sense) novel, In the Lake of the Woods (1994). It’s possible to argue that those ambiguities and mysteries make the massacre similarly uncertain, reflecting that side of My Lai’s presence in our national narratives; it’s also possible to argue that the massacre represents the novel’s sole and central certainty, reflecting how much My Lai has come to define Vietnam and its aftermath. The strongest analysis of O’Brien’s novel would probably argue for both sides—his book, after all, is both a mystery novel (which demands a certain answer to key questions of death, causation, and so on) and a postmodern novel (which resists any such certainty and portrays the many sides and versions of any story and history). And so it is with our darkest histories as well, of course—their existence and presence and role are unquestionable and vital; but how we remember them, what stories we tell of them, what they continue to mean for our future identity and community, are open and evolving and contested and crucial questions.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So last chance to add your thoughts for that post—responses to the week’s posts, other bad memories to highlight, different perspectives on these questions, and more.
8/24 Memory Day nominee: Howard Zinn, who embodied many of America’s ideals in his life and identity just as much as in his ground-breaking and game-changing public scholarly works.
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