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ON THE SCENE: Remembering My Lai

September 14, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Fifty years ago, one of the more horrific atrocities of humanity took place in the tiny Vietnamese village of My Lai under the auspices of the American military; a massacre that took the lives of up to 500 civilians that included women, children and infants.

Brutal as that event was, it was but one of many actions that led to the deaths of more than 2 million civilians during the Vietnam War. Sadly, many other atrocities of similar nature, some with far more significant losses of life, have occurred since.

On Friday and Saturday, Sept. 7 and 8, the Whallonsburg Grange hosted the My Lai Memorial Exhibit, one of many stops on a national tour now swinging through the Northeast that has included such diverse places as Santa Fe, San Francisco, San Diego, Spokane and Iowa City.

Article Photos

People look at the My Lai Remembered exhibit at the Whallonsburg Grange.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Mac MacDevitt, former community prevention coordinator of the Substance Abuse Team of Essex County, now project committee chair for Chicago Veterans for Peace, organized the exhibition and tour as a means of commemorating the event and fostering a deeper understanding of the causes of this and other acts of cruelty.

The Pentagon's effort to commemorate the Vietnam War has sparked a range of protests across the United States led by such activists as David Cortright, a veteran who teaches peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. In 2016, Cortright raised national attention to the what he felt was a false portrayal of the Vietnam War by the Pentagon on its website. While the site praises the bravery and actions of soldiers that received military honors, it does not give attention to the government cover-ups and operations that killed many civilians, such as May Lai, or provide an accurate understanding of how the U.S. got into the war in the first place.

MacDevitt and members of Chicago Veterans for Peace decided instead of complaining about the Pentagon whitewash, they'd create an interactive exhibit. The exhibit illustrates the history of Vietnam, a country whose citizens have lived under the thumb of one occupying force after another for centuries, the details of how the My Lai massacre came to be, the aftermath and lack of consequences to those instigated it, and examples of similar atrocities since and their outcomes on civilians a high percentage of whom lives have ended in refugee camps.

Furthermore, MacDevitt and the Chicago Veterans for Peace decided to create an exhibit that could be toured across the U.S. as a means of providing a broad and diverse audience the opportunity to view it in person.

"I came of age in the '60s," said MacDevitt. "I had to make a decision when I was graduating from college because next step was going to be the draft and Vietnam. I did some reading and decided I didn't want to go because of what we were doing to the people in Vietnam. I ended up going on to graduate school and then teaching as a way of staying out of the draft, but I was always heartbroken about our actions in Vietnam and what we did."

As MacDevitt became older and developed a career in service to others, such as the community prevention coordinator of the Substance Abuse Team of Essex County, thoughts of the Vietnam War and its impact on the lives of those who served and on the Vietnamese people never left him. It was a chance move to Chicago sparked by a career opportunity for his wife that led him to connect with the Chicago Veterans for Peace, who are dedicated to educating people about the real cost of war.

"Then I heard that the Pentagon was spending 63 million dollars over 10 years to commemorate and glorify the Vietnam War," said MacDevitt. "I said to my chapter mates, 'I got to do something.' I had been experimenting with art collage to process my feelings and traveling around Chicago with those, but I felt I needed to tell a bigger story. This exhibit is what it was like for to be a Vietnamese person caught in the war zone. When I saw the picture of the women and children in My Lai just before they had been shot, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I thought it was such a clear example of the kinds of things we did in Vietnam."

MacDevitt wanted to tell the story not just about My Lai but the many My Lais, the lasting legacy of the war, to ask the question "Are we doing this in other countries now?" and to encourage people to consider the actual ramifications of our and other military actions across the globe.

"I was in the field all the time with the First Cav," said Vietnam veteran Pete Conroy. "It didn't take long to realize the futility of what we were doing. We never held or secured anything. Mac's exhibit is very moving and very difficult to read. There is no justification for the My Lais. The soldiers were put between a rock and a hard place doing stuff in a country and a culture they knew nothing about."

"Seeing this exhibit brings the Vietnam War all back in all the bad ways and reminds us that some variation of this has been going on somewhere else in the world in some other way ever since," said Steven Engelhart. "At the same time, it reminds us to speak up and become involved so we can stop these kinds of actions from happening. Thus, I feel the message of this exhibit is working."

My Lai Remembered is not an exhibition for the faint of heart but one well worth visiting and urging others to do the same. Give yourself time to see it and participate in the interactive elements. One can only imagine the time and heartache for those who researched the details of this brutal story, searching out similar incidents and the lives of the survivors, gathering the photographs, editing the copy, designing the panels, and organizing the tour.

Be glad they did as My Lai is a story that needs to be remembered no less than the atrocities of World War II, such as the Holocaust, and other acts of violence since.

To learn when My Lai Remembered will next be exhibited or to host an exhibit, visit online at



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