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My Lai Exhibit Highlights Dark Anniversary Of Vietnam War

People visit the My Lai Exhibit in San Diego in this undated photo.
Veterans for Peace San Diego
People visit the My Lai Exhibit in San Diego in this undated photo.

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre. U.S. troops were accused of killing roughly 500 unarmed Vietnamese villagers in and around the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968.

Veterans for Peace San Diego is sponsoring a traveling exhibit that looks at what may be the lowest point of America’s involvement in Vietnam.

“The project is really about exposing the true cost of war,” said Mac MacDevitt, a Chicago artist who designed the interactive exhibit. They were setting up Wednesday at the World Beat Center in Balboa Park. MacDevitt isn't a veteran though, even as a young college student, the images distressed him.

“When I saw the pictures of the women and children at My Lai, just before they’d been shot by U.S. soldiers. I felt like someone had just punched me in the gut. It always distressed me,” he said.

By this stage of the Vietnam war, the surrounding valley had become a free-fire zone. American troops were told to shoot at will. Though they encountered no resistance, photos later published showed a trail littered with the dead bodies of women, infants and children.

Vietnam vet Dennis Stout was in the area earlier with his unit.

“We were told to kill every person," he said. "Burn down every house. Kill every animal. Chop down every fruit tree and put blocks of poison down the wells.”

Stout reported that he saw as a war crime. Initially, no one investigated. He eventually appeared in the Ken Burns series on Vietnam. Each time he talks about the incident, his wife is worried that it will trigger depression, he said.

“I feel I have to let people know that these people lived," he said. "That there was suffering on their side and our side, but these people lived, and they were killed for an officer to get his promotion. I feel I have to let people know what happened.”

After photos of the massacre emerged, there were investigations and charges, but almost no one served time in prison. The exhibit will travel around San Diego for the next four days. Each day it will be paired with a series of lectures from people like Stout.

My Lai Exhibit Highlights Dark Anniversary Of Vietnam War
The incident called attention to the deaths of unarmed civilians and became a turning point for public support of the Vietnam War.