Although Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had been taking a chronological approach to “The Vietnam War,” the filmmakers delayed the coverage of the horrifying My Lai Massacre, which occurred in 1968, until Episode 8 of the series, which takes place over the course of April 1969 through May 1970. IndieWire spoke to Novick to discuss how the series decided to handle the most shocking and incomprehensible events of the war.
“The My Lai Massacre happened in March of 1968, soon after the Tet Offensive [covered in Episode 6], so it could have been the next episode,” said Novick. “But we chose to tell the story of the events when the American public found out about it, which was in the fall of 1969, almost a year and a half afterwards. That’s when the photograph and newspaper article by Seymour Hersh came out and shocked the American public.”
Although the incident is covered in retrospect in the series, viewers can’t help but be appalled at the events that unfolded. That the figurative ghosts of these victims had lain dormant for over a year, did not lessen the impact of the horror.
On March 16, 1968, U.S. soldiers murdered anywhere from 347 to 504 unarmed civilians that included men, women, children, infants, and the elderly in South Vietnam. Many of the women were gang-raped before being killed and having their bodies mutilated. Although three U.S. servicemen attempted to halt the massacre and hide the civilians, they were later shunned and denounced as traitors by some American congressmen. As for the 26 men who were charged with criminal offenses in the incident, only one was found guilty of killing 22 villagers and ended up serving less than four years under house arrest.
“It’s hard even to talk about My Lai, it’s so distressing, so upsetting, and so incomprehensible, but we have to reckon with that as well,” said Novick. “It’s very important. It’s not so well understood. In the film we really try to just explain what happened that day, and who did what, and who’s culpable.”
Besides testimonies, evidence of the massacre had to be uncovered through pictures taken by an army photographer who used an official camera and his own camera.
“I do often ask myself if those pictures did not exist, would we Americans be able to believe that that actually happened?” said Novick. “It flies in the face of what we think Americans would do. We just have a very hard time as a country reckoning with the fact that these things happen in war and this happened in this war, and not only that, that our military covered it up and didn’t want it to see the light of day, and just wanted to brush it under the carpet.
“Had it not been for the persistence of a whistleblower — a guy named Ron Ridenhour, who was a veteran, came home, he heard about it, and he wrote letters to everyone he could think of, saying, ‘This thing happened. You have to look into it.’ And eventually the military had to choice but to look into it. They avoided looking into it, they didn’t want to punish anyone. They didn’t want to know what happened. And that is deeply disturbing. It should be disturbing to all Americans that we didn’t have the moral courage as the army at that moment, and our leadership did not want to expose this.”
Killing in combat, killing spies or traitors, killing armed civilians — all of these are occur in the course of war. The planned mass killing of hundreds of innocent civilians by multiple men is just beyond comprehension. How it was handled raises questions why this behavior was not just accepted, but covered up.
“We try very hard in film to put this in the context of the larger narrative of the Vietnam War and America’s involvement in it,” said Novick. “Did that happen every day? Did every American soldier do things like this horrendous war crime? Did no American soldiers ever commit a war crime?
“Obviously the truth is complicated and nuanced, and what we thought was important also to say that while civilians are killed in every war, this was different. It was different than what happened ordinarily in Vietnam, and it was different from the course in every way. This was particularly brutal and particularly large scale, particularly purposeful. And all those things have to be called out.”
Americans claimed far more Vietnamese civilian lives than those at My Lai though, and “The Vietnam War” tries to put that into context as well.
“We rightfully are appalled and horrified and ashamed of what happened at My Lai. All Americans should be,” she said, “but we also have to pull back a little bit and understand that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of civilians were killed in Vietnam during the war. Most of them were not murdered at point blank range by American soldiers. The vast majority were killed by artillery and aerial bombardment and Napalm, and the enormous firepower that we brought to there. And so, that’s killing innocents. And easier to abstract, and easier to call it collateral damage, which is a very antiseptic word for this horrific thing that happened. We talk about that too.”
Episode 8 of ”The Vietnam War” airs at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Sept. 25 and continues nightly at 8 p.m. ET through Thursday, Sept. 28 on PBS.