As I’ve already explained, public expressions of strong emotion are generally not to be found in Vietnamese society; self-control is everything. This morning, however, when confronted with the durian that K has brought along for the journey, our coach driver’s face is a picture of horror, fear and disgust. There is no way that he’s going to allow that stinky fruit on board – not even in the suitcase hold down below. “But I thought we could all try some later on!”, wails K, as the rest of us sigh with relief and clamber on board.
It’s a tough day: twelve hours on the bus, with few stops along the way. Along with most of the group, I have finally learnt how to catnap (something which I have always loathed doing). In fact, Gabriel Byrne is practically never awake; the rest of us can only marvel at his seemingly infinite capacity for slumber.
Few tourists ever reach the site of the My Lai massacre; it’s too far away from anywhere else that might be of interest. Partly for this reason, there remains something raw, potent and real about the place, to which we are the morning’s only visitors. It has not been turned into a sanitised theme park, where slick guides recite the same old scripts, and your emotions are marshalled according to a pre-defined plan. There is a roughness, and there is a strange, unexpected beauty. At the front of the site, a traditional garden has been planted, with many plants and shrubs donated by US veterans’ associations. It helps to set the mood of contemplation and remembrance.
Our young guide is beautiful and elegant, standing there in the pelting rain in a full-length pale blue gown, with water pouring off her coolie hat. She is local, and lost many of her own extended family in the massacre which became the most notorious atrocity of the American War. She speaks quietly, eloquently (with perfect English), and with a controlled passion which occasionally seeps round the edges of her words, as she describes a particularly extreme horror. She probably doesn’t get to give this talk too often, and so her words remain entirely fresh and genuine.
Slowly, she leads us round the site where one of the villages used to stand. Here are the foundations of the houses, marked by plaques listing the names and ages of each of the murdered inhabitants – from the very youngest to the very oldest. Here is the long ditch, into which the US troops pushed dozens of villagers – men, women, children and babies – before opening their machine guns and slaughtering the whole lot of them in cold blood. Here is a large stone statue depicting the massacre, sculpted by the husband of one of the very few survivors. The area is deathly quiet, except for the sound of pelting rain and the soft voice of our guide, calmly and precisely detailing acts of barbaric savagery which still beggar the imagination. There is an earnestness and slight urgency to her strictly factual delivery; it still matters greatly that the simple, unadorned truth be told to all who come and visit. Let no-one try and deny what has taken place here.
I didn’t know how I was going to react to all of this. I thought I might completely lose it, and break down in tears. This does not happen, and I am thankful for it. Instead, our reaction, though no less powerful, is more considered. As we walk through the exhibition rooms (stark, haunting photos, taken while the massacre was actually happening), I ruminate on what circumstances could have led a bunch of ordinary kids (young, uneducated, bewildered, terrified, brutalised, brainwashed, drugged up, hopelessly lost) to commit such terrible crimes. In the whole platoon, there was only one dissenter, who shot himself in the foot rather than participate in the slaughter. In the same situation, would I have been the lone dissenter, or would I have been one of the killers? Do we all have this capacity for savagery buried deep within ourselves? These are awful questions to contemplate, and this is not the place for finding answers to them. This is a place for bearing witness, and for ensuring that some events are never forgotten about. Ultimately, and unexpectedly, it feels like a privilege to be here.