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U.S. Army’s Darkest Day Nearly Three Decades Later, My Lai Massacre Commemorated With Modest Ceremony

The gray memorial stones poke up from the village paths and paddy fields, bearing grim legends. Here, 15 women were herded together, raped and killed. Sixty yards down the lane, 102 civilians were machine-gunned to death in a ditch.

More than a dozen gray stones mark the path Company C of the Americal Division took through the houses, bamboo groves and rice paddies of My Lai on March 16, 1968, one of the blackest days in the history of the U.S. Army.

Vietnam says 504 people died in the four-hour massacre by U.S. troops, an event that shocked Americans and added fuel to the bitter divisions over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Nearly three decades later, a U.S. Army captain says the Army has never learned the lessons of the My Lai massacre. He’s here as the first step in a campaign to highlight those lessons in order to avoid future My Lais.

Capt. Lawrence Rockwood, who traveled from Cedar Key, Fla., to attend Saturday’s modest 28th-anniversary commemoration, wants U.S. officials and Army officers to participate in the 30th-anniversary ceremony in 1998.

He also wants the Army to use My Lai to teach new generations of soldiers respect for human rights.

“The lesson of My Lai for the American Army is that for us to be successful, no matter what we do, we have to plan for the protection of non-combatants,” he said.

Rockwood’s passion for human rights has already made him controversial. He was court-martialed last year after he tried - without permission - to inspect a Haitian prison where he thought prisoners were being tortured and killed.

He said his superiors were ignoring human rights violations, but other officers said there were violations everywhere in Haiti, and Rockwood should have accepted his commander’s priorities.

Rockwood, on unpaid leave while his case is appealed, said he became interested in My Lai when a senior Pentagon official told him many officers don’t believe there was a massacre, even though an Army probe confirmed it.

“I feel, among the officer corps and somewhat among the American culture in general, there’s really not an appreciation of how savage this massacre was,” said Rockwood. “They relate it to much less serious or much more understandable incidents.”

The investigation found that U.S. soldiers spent four hours rounding up everybody they could find - farmers, mothers, children, a Buddhist monk - and shooting them. Hundreds of corpses lined ditches and trails in an atrocity that shocked Americans.

The Army eventually court-martialed the commander of one of Company C’s platoons, Lt. William L. Calley Jr., who was released after three years under house arrest. Other officers were censured or demoted.

The war left a legacy of bitterness, and Vietnam and the United States normalized relations only last year.

Rockwood believes the United States need not apologize for the massacre because it wasn’t U.S. policy. “I think the Vietnamese would appreciate a wreath.”

Vietnamese officials said they’ll discuss Rockwood’s proposal. People in the village also seemed receptive.

Said Truong Thi Le, who survived in the ditch where 102 died by pulling a corpse over herself and playing dead: “Americans should come here if they really want peace, if they want to be friends with Vietnam.”

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