Last night JB and I went to the World Premier of My Lai, a monodrama for tenor, string quartet, and Vietnamese instruments, composed by Jonathan Berger. The Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert (tenor), and Van-Anh Vanessa Vo (traditional Vietnamese musician) performed to a packed house in Harris Theater. It was an incredibly moving and powerful piece, one and half hours without an intermission. Both JB and I were brought to tears.
My Lai, of course, is the name of the village where the massacre of 504 innocent Vietnamese citizens, mostly women and children (50 who were three years old or younger, 69 between the ages of four and seven) and elders ( 27 in their 70s and 80s) took place by American soldiers on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War. (The Vietnamese call this war the American War.) Some claim that it was this event that began to turn the country against this war, that Americans were shocked and horrified at the behavior of our military.
None of us would know about this story at all if it hadn’t been for a warrant officer, Hugh Thompson, who with two other soldiers was flying reconnaissance over the area and spotted the massacre while it was going on and tried to intercede. Thompson was appalled at what he saw and reported the incident by radio many times. He made three unauthorized landings to try to stop the carnage. The first time, he landed near an irrigation ditch filled with the bodies of the villagers. He tried to persuade Lt. Calley, the officer in charge, to stop the fighting and help the villagers who were still alive. He was ordered by Calley to leave and as the helicopter rose, Thompson witnessed Sargent David Mitchell open fire on the dead and wounded in the ditch.
Passionately angry, he landed his helicopter again, this time quite literally between a bunker of Vietnamese civilians and American soldiers. He got out of the helicopter after telling his gunner, Larry Colburn, and crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, to train their guns on any soldiers who attempted to stop him, and was able to bring those villagers out of the bunker where they were hiding, after persuading another helicopter to come and fly these villagers to safety.
On his way to refuel, Andreotta saw movement in the irrigation ditch where they had landed the first time. Thompson landed a third time. Andreotta walked into the ditch and rescued a small five year old boy. Thompson flew the boy to safety with a nun in a hospital/orphanage in Quang Ngai. Back at the base, Thompson reported the incident again, in person, which led finally to the official cease-fire and the ending of the atrocities.
Thompson refused to stay silent about this incident which put the military in an embarrassing situation requiring them to investigate. My Lai was apparently the beginning of a larger operation to rout out Viet Cong and their sympathizers that intended to include 6 other communities. President Nixon and other high military officials at first tried to vilify and court-martial Thomson for disrupting a military operation, but he was never brought to military tribunal. In fact, he stayed in the military for twenty-three years, retiring in 1983.
In 1998 he was finally decorated with Colburn and Andreotta (posthumously) with the Soldier’s Medal at the Vietnam Memorial in DC. According to the U.S.army, “The Soldier’s Medal is awarded to any person of the Armed Forces of the United States or of a friendly foreign nation who, while serving in any capacity with the Army of the United States distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.” Thompson died in 2006 from cancer at the age of 62. It is in his hospital room a few weeks before his death that this opera takes place. We were told by the moderator of a panel after the performance that Larry Colburn was in the audience last night.
On a simple stage, The Kronos Quartet was on our left, Van-Anh Vo to the right with the four types of Vietnamese instruments she used, the musicians separated in the center by a slightly raised platform, where Eckert, playing Thompson a few weeks before his death, sang in a bare hospital room, the white drapes behind him serving as a screen for imagery from the war and abstract imagery of his emotional state. We were told later, after the performance, that Larry Colburn, Thompson’s gunner, was in the audience.
Poignant, provocative, weighty— the legacy of the Vietnam War is still visceral, still emotional, still overwhelming. As we careen toward the third decade of the 21st century, we would do well to remember and embody what bravery and conscience really mean and reveal. As Eckert (as Thompson) sang last night, “Once you land, there’s no turning back.”