Midyear retreat and My Lai

Apr 10, 2019 by

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I went on a Mennonite Central Committee mid-year retreat March 22-24 to Hoi An, a once-crucial port city in central Vietnam that is now pretty much solely a tourist town.

When we first arrived in Vietnam we thought that there might be a SALT retreat for all of Southeast Asia, and though that didn’t end up panning out, it was great fun to spend a few days relaxing and reflecting.

We did plenty of touristy things, like shop, spend a day at the beach, and ride a water buffalo, but we also did quite of bit of serious thinking as well. The most substantive part of the trip was a visit to the site of the My Lai massacre. Surprisingly, it is one of the most idyllic places I’ve visited in all of Vietnam.

In a sheltered turnoff from a medium-sized highway, it sits beside a small museum of one medium-sized square room. Flowers and shrubs have grown up among the foundations of the straw houses that were burned to the ground, and a cement path, placed over the old dirt paths of the village, allows visitors to walk to various plaques recording the names and ages of those killed.

Visiting was a study in contrasts — it should have been horrible to visit this place, to see the ditch where more than 100 people were shot to death, and yet it is now a sheltered, peaceful area in the midst of the chaos of industrialization. I think the peace of this place, rather than speaking to any psychopathic tendencies on my part, speaks to how much healing can occur in 50 years. This is not to say that the massacre My Lai wasn’t horrible or should be forgotten — rather, we should work to remember tragedies but also rest assured that with time and forgiveness, healing can come to even the most devastated places.

On a less uplifting note, though, I am conceptually bothered by how much attention is given to this event and not the bombing that happened during the war — bombs completely destroyed many other villages full of non-combatants, and we have never learned those villages’ names. Yes, the hands-on killing that was done here was terrible, but one of the tricks of the modern world is pretending that remote killing is somehow less terrible — drones kill children just the same way bullets do. How completely tragic war is.

The visit to My Lai and time to reflect over the weekend has made me think a lot about stewardship. Money management is a part of stewardship, obviously, but right now it’s a stewardship of time, in a big sense, that worries me. Though work has been alright this year, and I am definitely helping Thế Giới, I can’t help but feel like I’m not doing enough — some days I feel like I’m not working hard enough or doing enough good, and the perks of taking retreats often make me feel complacent rather than active.

I think living a healthy lifestyle with self care is great and all, but I also can’t help but think I continue to approach the problems of the world too casually. This next week, when I pay my taxes, I will do so with only minor thoughts given to the bombs that are being dropped using my dollars.

During the American War in Vietnam, carpet bombs exploded and shot out metal darts designed to maim, not kill, as the wounded were seen as larger draws on enemy resources than the dead. Today, those darts are made of heavy plastic so that they can’t be detected by metal detectors or x-ray machines, and many have radioactive tips to cause cancer in those that survive. Our guilt as Americans is far from cleansed, but the broad American anti-war movement seems to have faded away. The U.S. has been at war since I was five years old, and I don’t think about it even on a monthly basis. This should change.

Caleb Schrock-Hurst is a copy editor for Thế Giới Publishers in Hanoi, Vietnam, via Mennonite Central Committee’s Serving and Learning Together program. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va, and Hesston (Kan.) College. He blogs at Thoughts and Thinks, where this post first appeared.

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