My Lai – Vietnam War Controversy on PBS’ American Experience

By Don North
4/22/2010 • Richard Nixon, Vietnam

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.

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