My Lai. Photo by Mark Smith.

My Lai. Photo by Mark Smith.

Buried within Seymour M. Hersh’s look back at the massacre at My Lai, The Scene of the Crime, published in The New Yorker, there is the account of a poignant exchange between the director of the My Lai Museum, Mr. Pham Thanh Cong, and an American veteran who had been one of the perpetrators.

The American, Kenneth Schiel, says he wants to “apologize to the people of My Lai,” but that is as far as he goes. “I ask myself all the time why did this happen. I don’t know.”

In the world of happy-ending post-war stories, it might seem that his presence and his apology would be enough. The Vietnamese “live in the moment,” after all. They “have forgiven us.” But that is not what happens here. What happens is not a happy ending – or it isn’t yet. Instead it is something more important.  The interaction yields clues as to how to reach a stronger and longer-lasting healing.

In the incident, which had happened some years before Hersh’s visit, Cong presses. Schiel denies and evades. Again Cong presses, wondering what it was, in fact, that Schiel had done. Schiel won’t answer, saying he can’t remain calm.

When Hersh asks Cong why he would not yield, Cong says

… he had no interest in easing the pain of a My Lai veteran who refused to own up fully to what he had done.

Schiel had come to My Lai evidently to be a part of a documentary but it isn’t clear what intentions he came with or what he wanted to result. Perhaps all he came for was to apologize because that is all he can do in the reported conversation. But evidently Cong sees through him. Schiel wants to remain calm and Cong knows that for genuine healing to happen, his calm will have to be disturbed. Schiel will have to “own up fully to what he had done,” and he is not ready to do that.

There is deep truth in Cong’s hard line. The context of the article seems to justify it on the basis of Cong’s life story: he had the right by virtue of his suffering to reject Schiel’s apology. But Cong says something different. Until Schiel is ready to own up to what he did, to take personal responsibility for it, he isn’t ready to have his pain eased and nothing Cong could do would change that.

The article implies a larger lesson. My Lai was not the exception. There were other My Lai’s, just smaller and not exposed in the way Hersh exposed this massacre. The war in Vietnam took an enormous toll on those who fought in it, no matter what their role or their actions. That atrocity of a war produced many people like Schiel, soldiers and politicians, military and civilian, who have been living with pain for a long time. The lesson in Vietnam today, and the lesson isn’t easy, is that it is not necessary for them to die with it.