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My Lai (American Experience) (DVD Review)

7 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 6/8/10
$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

Pressure-packing a prodigious amount of information into just over 80 minutes, April’s PBS presentation is a huge sock to the gut — though, of course, you’d have to deem this particular documentary a failure were it not.

Chronicling still controversial events that resulted in the massacre of between 347 and 504 Vietnamese civilians (the figure is debated but the huge children-babies component is not), Emmy winning director Barak Goldman’s portrait begins with the story belatedly breaking well after its occurrence. Then, it backtracks by giving due to the brutality that laid the groundwork for the famed March 16, 1968, tragedy — which occurred after Charlie Company members of First Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Brigade had been regularly assaulted by mines and booby-traps even before faulty intelligence told them that the village to be invaded was exclusively inhabited by combatants (who, in fact, were 150 miles away). 

After an impressive volume of first-hand accounts from both sides of the actual massacre, the story progresses to a predictable cover-up that lasted about a year and, for reasons probably more politically expedient than any worries of moral ambiguity, the intervention of president Richard Nixon.

The event’s key participants were Lt. William Calley and his superior Capt. Ernest Medina — the latter a tough and demanding but popular officer the documentary says Calley always tried to impress without too much success. Calley, like other platoon members said he was just following orders, and this is at least one crux of the matter. How much were the men simply adhering to Medina’s leadership (his term for them was “Death Dealers”), and how much was Medina responding to what had been laid down to him?

It’s a provocative question, but of course, once you begin rationalizing even the most reprehensible human behavior, there’s the likelihood that standard operating procedure will quickly degrade to one of, “oh, a bunch of children got slaughtered — tough.” But it’s also true that underlings often take the full fall for odious actions that are uncomfortably condoned or swept under a rug of denial by higher-ups.

The last is why the sentence of Calley, who definitely was the standout perpetrator of slaughter, turned out to be at least semi-controversial even with some who hated the war — and probably a deep, down factor in Nixon’s peace of mind when he commuted Calley’s sentence to time served (four months in the stockade). No one else was convicted.

Extremely moving are interviews of soldiers who remain ripped up by the event, as well as heroic accounts of U.S. helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson — who, upon witnessing an event he couldn’t believe, rescued victims and tried futilely to get officials to listen to his story. Instead — and this is really chilling — a colleague says Thompson was repeatedly sent out on dangerous missions, just as Charlie Company interviewees say their men endured a non-stop litany of post-massacre jungle assignments, as if maybe someone was trying to get rid of them.

One major omission here is any mention of Seymour Hersh, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his explosive reportage of the incident — and explosive it was. And it’s interesting and perhaps ironic that combat photographer Ron Haeberle’s candid shots of the massacre — which brought home the magnitude of My Lai to millions — first appeared not in those so-called bastions of liberalism like The New York Times or Washington Post but in The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Cleveland was Haeberle’s hometown.

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