Monday, June 12, 2017

Howard Jones's "My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness"

Howard Jones is University Research Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Alabama.

Here he shares his vision for a big screen adaptation of his latest book, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness:
On December 13, 2016, Larry Colburn, a Vietnam veteran, died of cancer, the last living member of a three-man helicopter crew who participated in the My Lai operation on March 16, 1968, along with twenty-five-year-old Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson (died in 2006) and twenty-year-old Crew Chief Glenn Andreotta (died in combat three weeks after My Lai). Colburn was the youngest of the three, an eighteen-year-old door gunner on a small OH-23 helicopter assigned the task of drawing enemy fire that would expose the Viet Cong’s location to American ground forces.

I was fortunate to interview Larry numerous times while writing my account of the My Lai massacre. He was always generous with his time, detailed in his explanations, and passionate about telling the story accurately and fairly. He was also self-effacing and modest, though the more he told me about what had happened at My Lai, the more humbled I felt in the face of someone who never lost his moral compass in the midst of horrific wrongdoing while enduring far greater personal challenges in life than I could ever imagine.

Early in the morning of that day at My Lai, Thompson saw more than 100 bodies in a ditch and angrily set down his helicopter to talk to the American officer in charge. That officer was 2nd Lieutenant William Calley, who outranked Thompson and made clear that he needed no advice from anyone. Shortly after leaving the scene, the three airmen spotted a squad of American soldiers in pursuit of a small number of Vietnamese villagers—an elderly man and some women and children—fleeing toward an earthen bunker. Once more Thompson landed his craft, this time between the two groups to save the Vietnamese, and ordered Colburn and Andreotta to stay behind with machine guns and shoot any soldiers who fired on him or the Vietnamese. No one interfered. On a final swipe over that same ditch, Andreotta saw life below and, after a hurried landing, waded through the bloody water filled with dead and dying Vietnamese to rescue a young boy who was in shock and clinging to his dead mother. Thompson reported the mass killings to superiors of what turned out to be the deaths of 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in less than four hours and brought about a cease-fire that likely saved the lives of hundreds more noncombatants.

Thompson and Colburn’s ordeal continued in the years that followed, when they testified before congressional committees about what had happened in My Lai, often to those who vehemently rejected their charges of a massacre. When badgered by committee members determined to discredit both men for their account of that day, Colburn, by then barely in his twenties, and Thompson not much older, maintained their composure. They adamantly denied being mere whistleblowers, asserting that they had directly confronted those soldiers; they also denied being pacifists, insisting that they would fight only a “legitimate enemy.” For years afterward, both men were accused of treason and received death threats.

The U.S. Army at first tried to cover up the massacre but finally gave in to public pressure and launched an investigation that, combined with the investigative work of journalist Seymour Hersh and others, exposed the reality of My Lai. As the years passed, the army came to recognize the heroism of all three men. In 1998 it awarded each of them (Andreotta’s posthumously) the Soldier’s Medal, the highest honor for bravery in a noncombat situation.

Colburn repeatedly told me that he and his two companions had acted out of ordinary decency in doing what anyone would have done. Yet it was clear to all who knew them—and knew of the horrors of My Lai—that this was not so. Their decency that day was not ordinary. In my mind, and in the minds of those who knew what they had done, their actions embodied the essence of heroism—a story of courage that needs telling everywhere, including on the big screen.

A movie?

Many friends have insisted that the My Lai story deserves telling by Hollywood. Follow-up conversations have almost always led to questions about who should be the director? The cast? My first choice for director would be Michael Mann, who has recently agreed to direct a TV mini-series based on Mark Bowden’s new book, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. Who should play the three main characters in a movie on My Lai? As Hugh Thompson, I would recommend Liam Hemsworth or Nicholas Hoult. For Larry Colburn, I would support either Brenton Thwaites or Alden Ehrenreich. And as Glenn Andreotta, I would choose either Aaron Taylor-Johnson or Will Poulter. All these actors have played important parts in movies and are on lists of the top Hollywood males under thirty years of age.
Learn more about My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue