No matter what it is that you disagree with, you will be sure to find something to disagree with in the PBS American Experience episode dedicated to the My Lai Massacre.
To produce this documentary film, Barak Goodman convinced Charlie Company veterans, some of whom had never spoken publicly about that event, to be interviewed. He brought his team to Quang Ngai Province, where the hamlets in which the massacre took place are located, and filmed the spoken recollections of its survivors. Audio recordings from the court martial of Lt. William L. Calley Jr. are played back, as is footage shot from the helicopter of Hugh Thompson, who famously intervened and attempted to save the lives of some of the victims.
If it had to be said that this documentary has narrators, the choice would be the set of Army veterans who participated in events leading up to and including the My Lai Massacre, plus British investigative journalist Michael Bilton, the author of Four Hours in My Lai.
It is a well-known fact that soldiers in wartime, having become accustomed to the act of killing other human beings, believing that they are acting in the service of their homeland, witnessing their closest friends being maimed and killed, suffering all forms of deprivation and disease, can reach a state of moral lawlessness and abandon and descend to an animalistic level of behavior. The movie opens with Charlie Company veterans describing the days immediately preceding March 16, 1968, recalling the series of landmine explosions which victimized platoon members and produced a growing sense of rage and a desire for revenge. This is not to justify the mass murder of innocent civilians — this is to explain how a normal, law-abiding citizen who you would never suspect of being capable of such a thing might come to participate in an act of this nature.
Michael Bilton explains how the soldiers were prepared on March 15, 1968, the day before the incident: Intelligence reports had indicated that the 48th Viet Cong Infantry Battalion were being harbored in the My Lai area. Commanders desired that the troops be especially aggressive in attacking the presumed encampments and endeavored to "psych up" the troops. The exact instructions given by Captain Ernest Medina in his briefing is a subject of dispute. Some later testified that they understood his directions to extend to civilian suspects.
Having been prepared with the presentation from the point of view of the perpetrators, you are now introduced to the victims. Real life, actual survivors of the My Lai Massacre. Those who were children at the time describe watching as their families were blown to pieces. They recall being left homeless, literally. Mistakes enhanced by a burning rage can have very evil consequences.
Efforts made by scout helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. to rescue defenseless civilians are recounted by crew member Lawrence Colburn and by Dan Millians, who was escorting Thompson in a UH-1 Huey gunship. Trent Angers, author of The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story, accents the fact that Thompson was a "soldier's soldier": His father was a lifer in the Navy and his brother served two or three tours in Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force. Hugh Thompson had already served with the Navy and enlisted again, with the Army, when the Vietnam War broke out. These facts are brought out to demonstrate that his actions were done not as a rebel, but out of a sense of duty.
Aftermath and Cover-up
Those directly responsible for the My Lai Massacre claimed to have believed that they were carrying out orders. For higher-ups, this creates a risk of being deemed responsible and court-martial. Initial reports of the incident were suppressed. Michael Bilton tells the story of Ronald Ridenhour, who as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam heard of the massacre from friends and upon his return to the United States made strenuous efforts to make Pentagon and civilian government officials aware of it. Archived news broadcasts let you virtually sit in front of the TV and watch as the U.S. public is made aware of My Lai Massacre and as Lieutenant Calley salutes while striding from the courtroom.
This brings us to the segment that will be the most difficult to comprehend, for those who grew up well after the Vietnam War had ended, Presidents no longer had names like "Johnson" or "Nixon" and entities like the "Soviet Union" had ceased to exist: A villain to most, Lieutenant William Calley Jr. became a martyr in the eyes of a significant sector of the U.S. public.