Award-winning author Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried, July, July) has incorporated his experience in Vietnam into several of his novels and short stories. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968, he served in the 23rd Infantry Division, also known as the Americal Division. It was a platoon from this group that had been responsible for the massacre at My Lai nearly a year before O'Brian's arrival in the same area.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and the producers of My Lai interviewed O'Brien in November 2009.
Q. Tell me about the area of Vietnam that you were in.
Well the area, we called it Pinkville, that was along the South China Sea, that was notoriously, going way back to the time of the French, notoriously enemy country, we called it Indian country. It was dangerous just to walk because of all the landmines, just littered with landmines of all sorts — toe-poppers, and little bouncing betties, and these rigged huge artillery rounds — and a kind of frustration build up in us because you can’t shoot back at a landmine, it’s inanimate, you can’t kill it, and partly because of that this kind of rage built up inside of you, and even in my own case — although I was admittedly opposed to the war — I could feel it boiling up inside of me, a sense of real frustration, not being able to defend yourself, essentially.
The villages were ragged, tangled, poverty stricken places. The best I could tell — and who knows, because I couldn’t speak the language — as best I could tell it was enemy country. The brothers and uncles and fathers and sons were probably more or less siding with what we knew as the Vietcong in the same way there were grandfathers and fathers inside with the Vietminh. And, I think it was not a political thing. I think it was simply, this is our country and these are our people, and it was more of a nationalistic thing. It was a terrifying place to visit.
Q. Why did they call this place Pinkville?
Pinkville was called Pinkville because in the military maps it was shaded a bright kind of shimmering pink, which signified what was called on the maps a built up area, which was extremely misleading — built up only meant there were little villages and it wasn't just desolate paddy land or unpopulated. And so we called in Pinkville.
But the word came to mean — the color pink took on associations for us that went way beyond something you’ll find it a color chart — it meant, it meant the prospect of death, and it meant sin, and it meant evil, and it meant lost legs or the threat of it, and it meant… the word Pink even to this day will do it to me. I received an email from a fellow who was in my company a day before yesterday, and in that email was the word ‘Pinkville’ and if I could remember the chills as I sat at my desk that went threw me just to see that word again.
Q. Why does that area have so many associations for you?
Well it’s where people died, and where arms and legs were lost, and where you lie squirming, thinking, “this is my last breath,” or, “is this going to be my last breath, or is this?”
It took on these associations because of the mines all around, where you set, and where you put your feet, there or there? And that choice is life or death. If by some accident your boot touches down on a piece of ground that’s been mined you’re gonna be messed up for life or dead. And just the deed of walking, day by day, took a kind of valor that’s hard to describe, walking down a street in New York or Chicago you don’t think about it, just walking. But in the Pinkville area because it was so heavily mined, and so heavily VC, and so dangerous, just walking was a kind of nightmare.
Q. When you entered a village given this environment, tell me what you observed and your emotions towards the people in the village?
Well we entered many villages on many different days, and in a way each was discreet and separate but they all now, in memory, combine into one village and one experience. Which is — an experience of incredible terror.
These places were shaggy, tangled places, there were very few vistas where you could see more than a few yards in any direction. And it was always a feeling of, "what’s behind the next hedge? And, what’s beyond that banana tree? And, what’s on the other side of that house?" And there was a tension — you feel your neck muscles go tight and your breathing get shallow out of a kind of expectation of what’s going to happen. On most occasions nothing did — but on enough occasions things happened to make the next experience equally fearful and fearsome because Pinkville was Pinkville, meaning dangerous, and it felt as if the ground were shimmering with a kind of "we’re gonna get you."
Q. And so the people – these were peasant farmers essentially, how did you see them through the eyes of the young soldier?
I saw the people of that area in two radically different, contradictory ways. On the one hand, because of the values I carried to Vietnam, I felt a sense of incredible sympathy and empathy and pity — they were poor farmers. And they were being run over by the American war machine, coming into their villages and peeing in their wells and walking into their rice paddies and essentially just taking away their villages for an hour and a half or an hour, however long it took to search the village and leave it, sometimes beating up on people, sometimes not, certainly always speaking to them gruffly and herding them into little piles of groups of people, making sure they weren’t armed and so on.
So part of me felt like an occupying evil guy, and the other part of me was terrified. Really afraid of what [could] happen to me in the next instant, or the next. And you carry these two things inside of you — sympathy with fear — and you have a kind of moral schizophrenia thing going on, your division of self. One of you wants to be super careful and make sure those people don’t kill you, and the other part of you feels, “man, these poor people, they’re just civilians and innocent — maybe their brothers and uncles and sons and so on are Vietcong but that’s a baby, and that’s a child, and that’s a teenager, and that’s a mom — and if that were my village I’d know how I’d feel.”
Q. If [Quang Ngai province] was a target of intense aerial bombing, did that manifest in what you saw on the ground when you walked through?
Well yeah the whole area of operation which encompassed Pinkville and places beyond it was an area of destruction. Houses gone and foundations left. Many, many refugees — they’d be herded into little enclaves. There were maybe 400 people who had once lived in surrounding hooches and villages. The object was pacification during my time there, to pacify this area essentially by taking people out of their villages and putting them into little concentration camps, little tin roofs and herd together, and we sometimes would be assigned to pull guard around these enclaves which were situated in beautiful spots along the South China Sea, I mean places where you could build a Hilton today and people would take vacations on the white sand — but then, they were not that at all, they were ugly....
Q. What was this [local destruction] doing to hearts and minds of the villagers?
That’s where the sympathy part of me kicked in — what would I do to a person in Columbus, Georgia if they were taken out of their house and they were — with all their neighbors — herded out... three miles away into a new place with tin huts. What would it do to your heart and mind? Would you be all for it? I doubt it. I can’t image they were. I think that the citizenry which was probably more or less indifferent to how the outcome of the war — and I didn’t meet any communists out there preaching Marxism, and Engels — you met poor people who were trying to stay alive and feed their families and themselves, and where they may have been indifferent 10 years before, they weren’t indifferent anymore, nor would anyone else be. It was the way to lose a war.
Because you take people out of their houses and you move them. And big aggregates of people, and you boss them around, and you call all the shots, and you beat up on people, and you trash everything that could be trashed — all in the name of searching for the enemy. The consequences are you make enemies. You may kill a few Vietcong along the way, but you are making enemy — just imagine one baby being shot by accident — it’s got a mother and a father and an uncle and aunt and friends and brothers and sisters — and they may have been indifferent before that baby died, but they’re not indifferent anymore and nor would you or anyone else. Bullets can kill the enemy, but they can also make an enemy, and it’s something we forget, they can manufacture an enemy. And I felt at times during my stay there that we were cranking out enemy soldiers or sympathizers by the way we treated the place.
Q. So your feeling at the time that the civilians you encountered in the village were trying to kill you may actually not have been paranoia? That might have actually been true?
Who is a civilian? That’s a tough thing. Who do you call a civilian in a guerilla war? I mean, it might be a farmer by day or a merchant, a housewife, and by night the housewife may be helping to make landmines and booby traps and who knows. You have to, in a situation like that, have some sort of barometer or gyroscope in which you judicate these issues — and if you can’t prove someone’s an enemy soldier you can’t just go shoot them in the head, maybe. Or you don’t interrogate them roughly or beating on their shins with a stick out of an issue of maybe. That’s where I think our nation and our army back then lost its sense of what sin is and what evil is, and then somehow justify it all and say “that’s war for you, and this is how you have to conduct yourself.”
Q. Did you feel your own moral compass wavering, or the guy around you?
I could feel my moral compass as a soldier, in danger of — I could feel the squeeze, the pressure of frustration and anger and fear combining on me… I felt the danger, I felt the squeeze of it. The sorrow you feel when a friend dies, and the subsequent anger when there’s no way to strike back. The frustration of who’s your friend and who’s your enemy, and you do it day after day after day after day, and people are dying and losing arms and legs and you’re— you look at your own hands and, "oh man what about tomorrow, will they be there?" Or what about your feet?
And you do that repetitively, and it’s your life day and night. You feel this sizzle happening inside of you. That’s where evil comes from. It comes from not just badness or not just from fear, it comes from a combination of these things boiling inside of you and stewing together, and that’s why, in part, I think that there’s no final definite answer for what happened on the day in March of ’68. It can’t be pinned to one thing. There’s a frustration that comes even to me — who was there in that area a year later — that I don’t understand it, I don’t know what happened that day, how could people, so many people, shoot babies in the head. How— I don’t— it’s a mystery to me.
Q. It’s interesting that you have so much empathy and so much understanding to a point, and then it stops. There’s a threshold, there’s a divide still between what you can imagine your own guys having done and what they did. How do you explain that? Using your imagination, what is the explanation for that divide, were they just bad guys?
No, I don’t think it is that they were bad guys. What I really believe is that it’s a lasting, enduring mystery of the spirit. …We can find threads of explanation — you know, war, the pressures of a war, and being ordered by your superiors to take care of a place, and your own fears — these are all threads. But the threads combine and they get tangled together, and somewhere inside that tangle there’s a pulse of mysterious alchemy going on that somehow explodes into crime and into sin.
And that mystery is — as much as I studied my own past and what I endured there, and as much as I’ve read about what happened at My Lai and March ’68, it’s a mystery to me. Even listening to the men talking about what happened that day, their explanations ring hollow to me, they don’t satisfy something in me that would say, “oh, that’s what occurred.” And I wonder how many of those people who did that that day understand even in their own hearts why it happened or how it happened. Listening to some of the things they said in their testimony, there were many of them [who] were explicit about saying “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know what happened,” I kind of believe them. I think there is a mystery even pulsing inside of those men.
Q. Were there moments where the frustration was so high that you could imagine that explosion?
There was an incident that in it’s own way was an atrocity. Not an atrocity involving bullets and bombs. We had taken a number of casualties in the morning hours and around noon we walked into one of the villages — somewhere in that chain of the My Lai’s and My Khe’s — and a re-supply helicopter came in bringing in bags of iced soda pop and beer, and little cartons of milk, pint sized cartons.
And there was this old man, 70, 80 years old who was completely blind, his eyes looked aluminum, and he was smiling and dunking into this well with a bucket and bringing out buckets of water, and was actually giving us showers, you know slashing the water over our backs and bellies and heads, and then for reasons I don’t— that also remain a mystery, one of my fellow soldiers, a kid named Tom, blond, blue-eyed son of American, somewhere from the Midwest I think, picked up a pint-sized carton of milk from about 10 feet away, or eight feet, threw that carton as hard as could at that man, and struck him square in the face, near the eye, and the old man, fell back and milk was over his face, a little blood was trickling by his eye, and we all stood and, 30 of us or so just stood in stunned silence staring at that man, and staring at that kid who had done it, and no one said a word. Including myself, no one moved to help that old guy. I think that all of us kind of understood what happened, as much as you can understand that thing, two guys had been hurt earlier in the day, so there was anger and frustration but that old man had nothing to do with it, he was blind and he was helping us, he was giving us showers.
That event, that’s something that I carry with me till my last breath, because it represented the threshold of going over the edge, and the inexplicability of it, and the horror of that milk all over that old guys’ face, that has to do with thresholds, and it has to do with where these acts of evil come from, and a mystery of it. That guy Tom, I kind of liked him, seemed like a nice guy in a lot of ways, but that wasn’t nice that day.
Q. You quote in your article in The New York Times, Jonathan Schell, when he says that there can be no doubt that such an atrocity is impossible, only because a number of other methods of killing civilians and destroying their villages had come to be the rule and not the exception as a product of the war. First of all, do you agree with that statement, and can you explain what it means?
Well it means that in war — and probably any war, not just Vietnam — it’s a kind of sanctioned homicide. We’re all for it, and people vote for it, and money is appropriated for it. Weapons are built for it and then they’re all used. So you’re in an environment of killing people, and it’s not only okay, [but] you’ll be court-martialed if you don’t do it. You’ll be thrown in jail if you’re in the army, and you could theoretically be shot, get killed, I mean executed if you didn’t do it. And so there’s that strain which again is in contradiction to and in conflict with ‘thou shall not kill,’ and murder is a bad thing and killing people is bad, and even in a war it’s not good.
And so you have these two things putting pressure on a human spirit, on an 18-year-old or 19-year-old kid, what do you do? You’ve got an environment where it’s sanctioned and you’re applauded, and that’s in contradiction to everything that you believed your entire life until you get into a war. And when you get a 19- or 20-year-old with those life and death, and those things are in opposition, you got a pretty complication moral situation going on, and so when Schell writes what he writes, I utterly agree, and even go a bit farther than he does. It’s why I’m cautious about my rhetoric about war — any war. There are always reasons to kill people, there’s never been a shortage in world history, but there seems to be a shortage of reasons not to….
Q. Tell me about Ron Ridenhour — what was his act?
Well Ron, Ron of all the human beings I’ve known in my life is up there among the top four or five men of moral excellence and moral discipline, and persistence and tenacity and ferocity of spirit. He had heard about what had happened in Pinkville that day from people, one man in particular he’d known in Hawaii and encountered in Vietnam. Heard the story, then heard it again and heard it again, and began investigating, couldn’t interest anyone and then finally in an act of desperation flooded the media and congress with letters, and the Pentagon detailing the stories about what he’d heard had happened that day.
Ron rode that thing of his with the kind of moral outrage that I don’t find enough. There was a wrong committed, and if nobody’s gonna do anything about it then I, just a normal soldier, I’m gonna try to do something about it. And his letters finally led to what became the investigation, Peers commission, CID investigation of what had happened that day.
I will wonder forever, if this film would be made if it weren’t for Ron Ridenhour, if it’d still be buried. I think more or less single handedly he at least lit the flame. It became the trial of Calley and it became the newspapers stores and the pictures in Life magazine and now it has become the My Lai we know of in the textbooks....
Q. People do forget about the time period that passes between the massacre and the time when it comes public, and there you are after the fact, in the same area that seemed incredibly hostile... Tell us about that.
I arrived in Vietnam roughly a year after the massacre happened. And I was assigned just by serendipity to a unit battalion that had the Pinkville area, the My Lai area. And so a good portion of my tour, I was walking through these villages where this horrible atrocity occurred prior to my arrival to Vietnam. And part of our fear for the place, of the place, and part of our real terror of being told you are going into the Pinkville area had to do with the hostility that you could read on the faces of the people there, even among the little children. [It] was hostility mixed with fear that you encounter now and then but never in that concentrated distilled form that you would see in Pinkville on the faces of four-year-olds and seven-year-olds who must have heard from their parents about what had happened. And it was beyond the ordinary.
I mean, going in there I could remember a day we were in a place called Chu Lai, a big army base. Our battalion commander flew in to be telling us where we would be going the next day. And he said the word Pinkville. And instantly for all of us, it was this drop a truck door feeling in the stomach. It had to do with the obvious hostility and terror in the faces of those kids that I came remember in the string of villages. We were afraid of it too for what would happen to us. It was a mixture of our looking at those people, what we were getting from them... survivors, let’s call them. And our memories of what had happened to some of our fellow soldiers in that place. And those two things made that place terrifying.
I returned to Vietnam in ‘94 and even then, all those decades later, walking around that place I remained afraid. And, in some ways, rightly so. The place is still littered with landmines. And kids were still getting blown up now and then by the artifacts of the, you know, all those years back. But there was a shimmer of -- history shades a place, and you look at a place differently in the same way for you to visit Antietnam or Gettysburg or places like that where you feel the ground has still got a little heartbeat of evil inside of it, and of human, human shortcoming that still seems to beat with that, for me anyway….