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My Lai - Vietnam War Controversy on PBS' American Experience

By Don North 
Originally published by Vietnam magazine. Published Online: April 22, 2010 
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Ron Haberle's photos first appeared more than a year after the events in My Lai. On April 26, The American Experience on PBS will explore the controversial event. Photo by Ron Haberle. Courtesy National Archives.
Ron Haberle's photos first appeared more than a year after the events in My Lai. On April 26, The American Experience on PBS will explore the controversial event. Photo by Ron Haberle. Courtesy National Archives.

My Lai, directed by Barack Goodman, premieres on The American Experience, PBS, April 26, 9:00 pm Eastern Daylight Savings Time. This review originally appeared in the June 2010 edition of Vietnam Magazine.

A new television documentary takes another look at an old subject: My Lai.

It's been 42 years since the massacre at My Lai. It was revealed by journalist Seymour Hersh a year later. Few controversies of the Vietnam War have received such overwhelming attention in print and on TV as My Lai. Is there anything new here that hasn't been said before?

It is probably the most ambitious TV program attempted on this complex subject and at 90 minutes covers the issues very well, particularly the new interviews with C Company soldiers. Aubrey Daniel, Chief Army prosecutor in the trial of 2nd Lt. William Calley is particularly dramatic in explaining his role and the anger he reflected in his letter to President Richard Nixon for removing Calley from the stockade. Helicopter door gunner Lawrence Colburn effectively tells how he and pilot Hugh Thompson confronted troops rampaging through My Lai to save lives of villagers. They are now recognized as heroes of the incident and were awarded the Soldiers Medal in 1998. It is unfortunate some of the old interview clips with Thompson, who died in 2006, were not also included.

Other old interviews from when the story broke help document what happened at My Lai. When these are intercut with excerpts from new interviews of some of the Vietnamese survivors, who were children at the time of the massacre, viewers get a searing sense of the tragedy from both sides.

Others appearing on the program include the British journalist Michael Bilton who wrote Four Hours in My Lai and produced the documentary Remembering My Lai. Author Philip Caputo, a U.S. Marine veteran of Vietnam and author of Rumors of War, also makes an appearance, as does celebrated author of If I Die in a Combat Zone and veteran of the Americal Division, Tim O'Brian. Regrettably, there is no sign of newspaper reporter Hersh, who first tracked down Lieutenant Calley and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his story.

It has been fashionable in the past year to publish books suggesting the Vietnam War was one long atrocity committed by American troops. War Without Fronts by Bernd Greiner and The War Behind Me by Deborah Nelson seem to ignore the fact that 3 million Americans fought in Vietnam without committing or covering up atrocities. My Lai cannot compare with the massacre by Communist forces of 2,810 Vietnamese civilians in Hue during Tet 1968.

My Lai was so shocking to us, however, because atrocities are not the accepted American way of war. Through the searching interviews with the soldiers involved, the documentary My Lai shines a light on how such tragedy in wartime can happen.

The use of excerpts of audio tapes from Calley's trial are also instructive and suggest that cameras should be a regular part of courtroom procedures in order to more effectively inform the public on the pursuit of justice.

The final portion of My Lai, covering the trial of Calley and what most Americans viewed as a miscarriage of justice, is not as detailed as earlier parts of the documentary, presumably because cameras were not present in court. Even the U.S. Army investigation of My Lai, exhaustive and brilliantly directed by Lt. Gen. Ray Peers, does not receive the intensity of earlier parts of the documentary.

Extensive archival film research turned up grainy but amazingly similar scenes of war in Vietnam as those described by C Company survivors, but it is obvious they are not all actual scenes of the Americal Division at My Lai.

And, while I like music to emphasize visual scenes, the Apocalypse Now–type music track often obscures important parts of the interviews.

For a country that values and respects the lives of civilians who get caught in the crossfire, My Lai is an important contribution to our understanding of why atrocities, and our attempts to cover them up, occur in wartime. It is a program that should be seen by every active duty soldier concerned with civilian casualties and the issue of obedience to unlawful orders.—Don North

Don North covered the Vietnam War beginning in 1965, first as a freelancer before becoming a staff correspondent for ABC News and then in 1970 for NBC News. North was a producer on the television series The Ten Thousand Day War and is a frequent contributor to Vietnam Magazine.


43 Responses to “My Lai - Vietnam War Controversy on PBS' American Experience”


  1. 1
    Deborah Nelson says:

    I want to correct Mr. North's highly inaccurate characterization of my book, The War Behind Me, which he must not have read. The book does not in any way suggest that the Vietnam War was "one long atrocity committed by American troops." The book is a careful analysis of a large, declassified archive of U.S. war-crime investigations, internal memorandums and statistical reports compiled by Army Staff in the early 1970s. The files do not show — nor does the book say — that most U.S. soldiers committed atrocities. However, the records do show there were many more war crimes reported and substantiated by Army investigators than publicly acknowledged. The archive also reveals a systemic problem: conditions, policies, practices that contributed to commission of atrocities and that allowed a violent minority of soldiers to act with impunity.

    To provide context, I conducted extensive interviews with combat veterans, including witnesses and suspects, former commanders and all the way up the chain of command to the Pentagon and the White House. The book gives wide berth to a diversity of perspectives.

    While the Army archive isn't a complete accounting of U.S. war-crime reports from Vietnam, it's the largest compilation to emerge from the Pentagon thus far. Mr. Greiner, a German historian, drew similar conclusions from his separate review of the same records.

    The Vietnamese committed war crimes too, but it's unlikely Hanoi compiled a similar archive. Even if it did, the press likely would be greatly restricted in its ability to write about them. That's a significant difference between our political system and theirs. And I believe our country's a better place because we have the right — and responsibility — to hold our government accountable.

  2. 2
    Michael says:

    so what's the controversy?

  3. 3
    James O. Clifford says:

    I hope NPR now does a documentary on the massacre at Hue. Say "massacre" and the knee-jerk is My Lai. Two wrongs don't make a right but they balance – especially in news reporting.

  4. 4
    Sailordude says:

    I'm going to hear about this my whole life aren't I?

  5. 5
    Pera Petlic says:

    All US soldiers who commited those murderes should be STAKE IMPAILED!!!!!!

  6. 6
    AmericalDoc says:

    A lot of us had a christian upbringing that tought us to be kind and giving to others. Nothing in our childhoods could prepare us for the horrors of war. All of a sudden all sanity in our lives was taken away from us and we were just kids. I cannot condone the killing of innocent civilians, but in Nam who were the innocent civilians? You had to have been there to understand that. I cannot condemn a soldier for following orders while in combat. After all if you disobey you might get shot.

  7. 7
    Pera Petlic says:

    There was a combat??? Are you insane?! Those were unarmed villagers. And punishment for US troops was just Calley's short house arrest?! For killing over 500 innocent people?! That is outrageous!!! And I don't belive that US soldier could kill another US soldier for not following orders. These soldiers were blood-thursty animals on opium!!! Mix that and you get the result, 500 innocent dead people!!! Nation of idiots, that's what US are!!!

    • 7.1
      John says:

      Pera…You are truly another idiot that has all the world's problems solved.

      Throughout the war the North Vietnamese government had a detailed and systematic plan to execute and murder South Vietnamese citizens they deemed as threats.

      Ho Chi Minh was absolutely vicious to the people in the North. R.J. Rummell estimates that from 1957 to 1975 the North Vietnamese government executed around 50,000 North Vietnamese civilians (most were executed by 1960). Source: R.J. Rummell (1997). "Vietnam Democide: Estimates, Sources & Calculations".

      North Vietnam’s brutality did not stop at the war’s end. An estimated 95,000 South Vietnamese civilians died in the communist “re-education” camps, another 500,000 were involved in forced labor projects, which killed 48,000 civilians. Another 100,000 were executed. Finally, 400,000 people died while trying to flee Vietnam.

      This does not include the unknown fate of thousands of indigent people enslaved for laborious work on the Ho Chi Minh trail throughout the war.

      I find it disturbing when everyone (seemingly) rips the USA apart because of the much publicized My Lai Massacre. Clearly this was committed by a few individuals and not US government and army policy.

  8. 8
    Pera Petlic says:

    No comment, right???!!!

  9. 9
    howard says:

    i have a comment f@ck you the only reason us have idiote is because of morons like you!! i have no doubt you would have joined in the maddnness!

  10. 10
    Daphne Gilbertson says:

    During the Vietnam War many GI's (58,000, dead, The Wall), experienced children, women, old men throwing Grenades at them, even having bombs on their bodies to KILL GIs. We lost alot of young men and terrible limb loss where men are stuck in VA Hospitals and Nursing Homes for the rest of their lives. The Order came down from Capt Medina to shoot these people via Lt Cally.. These people were murdering our GIs. Look at the atrocities done to our soldiers – POWs, MIA, Torture. Men captures in Cambodia and Laos.
    Either killed via torture. Never returned to USA. Write articles and info on these events. We had all the boat people come to our country in 1975. Given jobs and homes. A business license, where White Americans can not get any handouts. I am tired of minorites coming to USA because of Wars. They get handouts, welfare, an everything they need. Help the American Homeless – do somehting for our people.
    .

  11. 11
    E says:

    As a veteran of 25+ years, but not of the Vietnam era, I have experienced enough to know that no one sitting in their nice little home with electricity can ever understand combat. The war we are in now confirms the terrible cruelty of using civilians as weapons. Most cruel is the effect on the US military member, forcing us to make split second decisions with all too often no clue if it'll be the right one.

    Deborah Nelson, put some of your energy into exposing the evil our men faced daily just as James Clifford suggests. Vietnam won't give you the detail, but with your skills, I'm certain you could pull it off.

    Michael and Pera Petlic, you are ignorant and must get a clue. I thank the Lord I defended the Constitution, not your sorry backsides.

    Sailordude, we should never, ever, forget what evil can do to the strongest of men and women.

    AmericalDoc & Howard, you are right, and I understand. Thank You.

  12. 12
    E says:

    Daphne Gilbertson, sorry I missed you. Your input was right on and my thanks to you as well.

  13. 13
    Gordon young says:

    LT. Calley was not fit to command 2 boy scouts let alone a platoon of Army combat men. If one looks at how the Army builds up new units then you can see how this might of happened. The Army sends a lot of there bad troops and officers to newly forming units.LT. Calley was one of the lower rated officers sent to the Americal Division. Calley lost command of his men and when you loss command of troops this is what happens. There was no discipline in his plt. I put in 2 13 month tours in Vietnam as a US Marine grunt and gun grunt.

  14. 14
    joe says:

    hello a todos lo que combatieron en nam.especialmente a la raza, de la que pertenezco y tambien me siento orgulloso.combati codo a codo con mis hermanos latinos y si bien no conocí a calley estuve en el delta peloton de la americal division cuando suceder my lai.nadie que no combatio puede hablar de la guerra.yo no aceptar la matanza pero si entiendio a soldados. yo vigilancia la semana anterior en my lai 4 cerca del rio, y desde las aldeas cuando regresabamos a LZ murio un soldado por un disparo desde aldea, a mas de 100 yds.volvimos a aldea y no poder saber autor del disparo, nada de armas, nada de charlies.era un tormento,mucha presion porque sabiamos que estaban alli y no poder saber quien era author de disparo.todas esas aldeas 4, eran muy peligrosas.un abrazo a todos.

  15. 15
    Pera Petlic says:

    To Daphne Gilbertson
    And your ancestors were native americans???

  16. 16
    Tex Hargrove says:

    As a young man who served in that era ai remember all of the details (good&Bad) that came out in the news.It was not until later that I understood how something like that could have happened.Anger,the constant losses in ambushes,the not knowing if the guy in front of you was an enemy or friend.All theese yhings couoled with an average age of 18 years,sometimes allowed things to get out of hand.For an officer like Calley to give that order is appalling.For the NCO'S to allow that order to be carried out is unthinkable.Would it have happened to me?Maybe.Like I said I understand. combat is probobly the only thing that brings prolonged terror to men.So Pera,if you haven't served ,don't judge

  17. 17
    Pera Petlic says:

    I understand war confusion but this is MASSACRE, killing of unnarmed civilians like skip-shooting. You 'Americans' (only true Americans are natives) have some problem with education and manners in childrens ages. As one man said a long time ago: 'You shape the iron while it is still hot'!

  18. 18
    Don Lomax says:

    One difference between the "My Lai" incident and the NVA and VC butchery in Hue is that the body count for Hue was in the multiple thousands and no one was brought to account. As distasteful as My Lai was the sustem worked in that we faced it and owned it.

  19. 19
    Pera Petlic says:

    And remember how you closed your eyes on massacres over the communists (of whom some were not) by the South Korean authorities in Korean war… Some evidences claim that you were deeply involved in executions as well! A sick nation, that's what the USA are!!!

    • 19.1
      flanagan says:

      Mr. Petlic, allow me to explain to you, on behal of all descent, loyal americans, former vets or not, all ages. Once in awhile, a midea corp. Does objective investigations tragic and sensitive topics of the past. 'Dig up bones' so to speak. Sometimes they open old, deep wounds, among many people, some directly and inderectly get involved In what hopefully is a constructive discusion…your responses are negative and anti- american in context. It is obvious to me, you are a foriegn and or domestic enemy of u.s. and are not worth responding to. We have nothing to say to you. I will think of you dead, till god makes you so!

    • 19.2
      Pera Petlic says:

      Yes, you are great, always helping others (by bombing them and then offering tnem aid)… Whole world knows you are just bullies who enforce their will in every corner of the world by intimidations (usually by bombings and embargos) The truth is that you want all people to be your slaves, each people on their own way. You even called assault on Iraq "Operation Iraqui fredom"?! Just an excuse for robbing their oil and gold. When you bombed my country you called it "Operation merciful angel", excuse was removal of regime in my country… The truth is that you wanted army base on my country's soil because of large ammounts of uranium in our mines… And please stop calling yourselves peacekeepers when you are occupators and stop acting some world police because NOBODY wants you in their lives!

  20. 20
    Don Lomax says:

    Funny how hated the United States is around the world …that is until they have a disaster then they all come with their hats in their hands and we are the first on the scene to help.

  21. 21
    Don Lomax says:

    Pera…And yet…even those who hate us so devoutly including your ambitious
    countrymen, would come here (and do)in a heartbeat if they had the opportunity. They open minimarts and send their children to our universities on our government supplied scholarships and enjoy our hideous way of life. I don't hate you. I wish you well. There are another 300 million of us in this country who do not hate you. The danger of blaming us for every ill and heartbreak in the world is that you might have a tendency to miss most of the stupidity and hatefulness of all the other government entities with your blinders of mindless hate.

  22. 22
    flanagan says:

    Mr. Petlic…..I normally don't communicate to those I deem..dead….yet it dawned on me…, your youth! Allready knew you were muslim….then u told us. U were iraqi….took me a few , that u reside in the u.s.a…..so you listen to your pop…@ history?……you have no business,..son, talkin' directly…and by the way, disrespectly,…about subjects…and to people abrubtly…like u have!…shame on you…….boy!

    • 22.1
      Don Lomax says:

      Mr.Flanagan..
      You are very astute. I must admit I got suckered. I didn't consider the fact that I might be talking to a youngster who really knew nothing about real life. Education is a wonderful thing. He should get some.

    • 22.2
      Pera Petlic says:

      You are so wrong. First I am not a muslim (Iraq was only an example of your "peaceful" world politics), second, you should learn to read (carefully), third i would never come to USA ("the promissed land"), fourth I consider myself very educated (I am going to colledge by the way) and fifth (most-important) I don't hate your people like no one in my country does, you didn't understand me good. I hate your government and your country's politics…their involvment in everybody's lives (no one asked them to do it) and their "role" as world police and world tribunal. YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO INTERFEAR IN OTHER NATIONS POLITICH AND LIVS!!! That's my point. Who gave you right to attack Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and to bomb many others? And ofcourse who gave you the power over the life and death? You were killing civilians in some countries for fun like they were mosquitoes!!!

  23. 23
    flanagan says:

    Mr. Lomax……I know …it's a we bit of bite…..do feel swindled!….unfortunantely sir, instead of some good conversation….a wrench was thrown in it….by a child! …..don't forget…..that's o.k. big dog! Funny thing is ….I got your back!

  24. 24
    flanagan says:

    ….Mr. Petlic…..I hope u grow son……to be a man of knowledge…..so far… u. ..display traits ..of. a juvinile…..would u like to be known as th at? It is not a degree !….to weigh in on subjects….that not only..u have no idea of ….but, u have no personality!..I'm going to give now the keys to life……its the two g's……greed and gossip….try to put and end to it in any cullture…..all I. Can say is w/ that being said…..quit flappinyour jaws…..and start……listening…..cause…everybodys a dreamer….and as the 'kinks' said…..everybodys a star!…so relax son..

    • 24.1
      anonymous says:

      im getting rather annoyed at all those little dots in your comments, please for the love of god stop it, it is highly irritating! from an annoyed person

  25. 25
    flanagan says:

    Pera……are you a women?……..be straight up…..I have certanly been w/ you!….it will simply …help us to communicate…on the level…..right?

    • 25.1
      anonymous says:

      wow,*laughs* yeah i reckon Pera is a girls name. The moment of epiphany has arrived for flanagan and 'help us communicate on the level' and what level may that be sir? does pera being a woman affect communication? rather absurd

  26. 26
    flanagan says:

    Pera…..now that I know your a spanish women……how do yo feel…@ your…pretenses…..still shame on you…girl!

  27. 27
    flanagan says:

    Mr. Lomax…..all I personally wanted to do….was to listen. I bumped in this dark corner….to. see if that 'my lai'thing was going to be run again….why ….cause me keeper is a. 73 yr. Old jag….who was in nam from 64-67……that's why sir!….now bubblegum!…I think its o.k.

  28. 28
    flanagan says:

    Mr. Lomax…..it was a troubling….trip…sir …..happy trails to you …dog

  29. 29
    Andrew Philips says:

    excuese me sir but we had a reason to attack iraq and afganistan…9/11!!!1 rember that buddie?????? yeah run n tel that homeboy

    • 29.1
      flanagan says:

      I gotta say…hav'nt visited this site for awhile…..mr. philips…what are you talkin' about!….leave…..it…alone……..

  30. 30
    Jay says:

    While American Experience did a great job of describing the climate in which these men operated and outlining the months leading up to My Lai we must keep in mind that 2 hours is not nearly enough time to convey the fear, anger, hatred, and hyper vigilance that arises from months of participating in combat operations. While listening to the accounts of the helicopter pilots it is easy to see how even for someone exposed to similar dangers can have a different perspective.

    Please keep in mind that the decision of when, where and whom the Grunt fights is not made by him but by his Commanders and Government.

  31. 31
    john says:

    Throughout the war the North Vietnamese government had a detailed and systematic plan to execute and murder South Vietnamese citizens they deemed as threats.

    Ho Chi Minh was absolutely vicious to the people in the North. R.J. Rummell estimates that from 1957 to 1975 the North Vietnamese government executed around 50,000 North Vietnamese civilians (most were executed by 1960). Source: R.J. Rummell (1997). "Vietnam Democide: Estimates, Sources & Calculations".

    North Vietnam’s brutality did not stop at the war’s end. An estimated 95,000 South Vietnamese civilians died in the communist “re-education” camps, another 500,000 were involved in forced labor projects, which killed 48,000 civilians. Another 100,000 were executed. Finally, 400,000 people died while trying to flee Vietnam.

    This does not include the unknown fate of thousands of indigent people enslaved for laborious work on the Ho Chi Minh trail throughout the war.

    I find it disturbing when everyone (seemingly) rips the USA apart because of the much publicized My Lai Massacre. Clearly this was committed by a few individuals and not US government and army policy.

    We that have never experienced the tremendous stress of war could never imagine committing such an act. This is not to be used as an excuse. What these few soldiers did was wrong. This terrible event amounts to nothing, compared to the planned and premeditated slaughter of civilians, throughout the war by the North Vietnamese government and NVA official policy.

    • 31.1
      flanagan says:

      Speaking some…words of wisdom….let it be…and let it heal….is that o.k.? So that these sureal morons …close this web site down?…..not too much to ask…eh?



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