Documentary on My Lai relives one of America's lowest moments
  • | Mercury News | April 22, 2010 06:48 PM

On Monday, PBS's "American Experience" will air a program about one of the dark moments in U.S. history — the massacre at My Lai.

The My Lai Massacre

It's written, directed and produced by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Barak Goodman, whose work includes "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy" and "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln." Goodman uses his highly acclaimed skill to deftly and judiciously provide an uncomfortable insight as to how something so senselessly tragic could occur.

The 1968 My Lai Massacre has the infamous distinction of being the most brutal atrocity of the Vietnam War. It is a tragedy on multiple fronts.

It was a mass murder conducted by U.S. soldiers of an estimated 547 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians. It was also tragic in that it was not investigated until the summer of 1969, suggesting that the Army engaged in a cover-up.

It could also be argued the timing of My Lai was perfect for a cover-up.

My Lai occurred two weeks before Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated, which officially marked the beginning of the turbulence of 1968. The year that would be defined by assassinations, angry protests, and urban upheaval became an unwitting ally in the Army's attempts to hide what had occurred at the hamlet that carried the code name "Pinkville."

Forty-two years since the events in My Lai, Goodman's project may offer more questions than it provides answers. My Lai cuts against any positive narrative or stereotype one holds for America.

How is it that of the 26 soldiers charged only one person, Lt. William Calley, was convicted, serving three years of what was originally a life sentence?

As the "search and destroy" mission unfolded, it soon degenerated into the eventual massacre. It was reported that Calley ordered soldiers to enter the village firing, though, there had been no report of opposing fire.

According to eyewitness reports offered after the event, several old men were bayoneted, praying women and children were shot in the back of the head, and at least one girl was raped and killed. Calley was said to have rounded up a group of the villagers, ordered them into a ditch, and mowed them down in a fury of machine gun fire.

Though the events at My Lai escalated the already growing opposition to the Vietnam War, Goodman's documentary also shows just how divided the American political climate was at the time.

It is amazing to watch members of Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment — now in their 60s with less hair and more pounds, but who were mere kids at the time — recalling how and why they were complicit in the moment.

Their commentary offers further exploration into the "I was just following orders" alibi.

It is indeed a fascinating study when one considers that many who supported such rationales for the soldiers at My Lai would very likely dismiss such arguments when they were made at Nuremberg trials a generation earlier.

Viewers of the program also will become privy to or reminded that there were several brave soldiers who risked their own lives to save the lives of those who had already lost loved ones.

Those who remember this tragedy will no doubt recall the exclusive photos placed on the front page of The Cleveland Plain Dealer that were also the lead news story that evening.

Images of the South Vietnamese village being burned and dozens of its civilian residents dead on the road, published on Nov. 20, 1969 — 20 months after the massacre — became an indelible mark for the world to see.

The events at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay cannot begin to compare to the horrific details of My Lai. My Lai dwarfs its more temporary counterparts in scope, and most likely in the level of the cover-up.

But the ultimate service that Goodman's documentary provides is to remind us of one of America's low moments. As I have opined in previous columns, a great nation embraces its high and low moments with equal vigor. A nation unable to self-reflect honestly not only has unrealistic vision of itself, but is destined to engage in a cyclical process of justifying its debauchery.

In our post-Watergate society, we have held to the notion that the cover-up is worse than the actual crime. My Lai, while the cover-up is bad, may be the exception to that adage.

Leave your comment on this story