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Echoes of MY LAI: A Look at Jim Frederick’s "Black Hearts"

"There's only one reality. There's only one thing that is happening, and there's only so many variables that surround it. It can be figured out and responsibility can be meted out and then problems can be fixed. If people continue to treat this like a mysterious event that came out of nowhere, and we don't change how we lead soldiers, and we don't honestly look at what caused this to happen, it's going to happen again." - Sergeant John Diem, deployed to Iraq's Triangle of Death in the fall of 2005.

We are continually dealing with the question of relevancy: what makes this event in history so important to us today? The parallels we discover are always enlightening, and invite meditation on the link between our past and our present.

Sometimes, in the chaos of the workday, a particularly striking parallel presents itself. In early March, I was deep into work on the website for My Lai, a film about a company of American soldiers who murdered hundreds of civilians during a military operation in March 1968, when I learned about Time editor Jim Frederick's new book, Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death. Frederick's book focuses on a single platoon's experience in Iraq's lethal Triangle of Death, and the events that led four U.S. soldiers to rape a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl and murder her and her family in 2006. The parallels between the events described in that book and the events examined in My Lai set our office buzzing.

I found the similarities between the two events dispiriting. Wasn't the horror of the American people after the My Lai massacre enough to ensure that innocent civilians would never again be needlessly and dispassionately murdered? After the events in My Lai, shouldn't the U.S. Army have been especially sensitive to potential leadership problems and the psychological strain experienced by soldiers in stressful combat situations and worked to prevent these problems in the future? The New York Times review of Black Hearts noted that the book illuminates "the ease with which ordinary men, under certain conditions, can transform into monsters." I sat down with Black Hearts author Jim Frederick and My Lai director Barak Goodman, to probe the circumstances that can blur ethical lines in combat.

Psychological strain on the soldiers, in both cases, was a main factor behind the eradication of any semblance of a moral code for these soldiers. In Black Hearts, Frederick describes the stress that mounted when soldiers were confronted with an unseen enemy. Iraqi insurgents escaped casualties by blending into the civilian population, blurring the line between friend and foe. In Vietnam, Charlie company was faced with similar frustrations.

These elusive enemies attacked with elusive weapons; in Vietnam, Charlie Company suffered losses from booby traps, mines and snipers. My Lai captures the anxiety the men felt knowing that any moment could be their last.

Although it is enlightening to draw parallels between the past and the present, it is easy to slip into generalizations or force events into clear-cut categories. Clearly, the incidents that Frederick and Goodman speak about were two unique events in two unique foreign combat situations. In 1968, 507 civilians were killed; in the event in 2006, four. After My Lai, American soldiers claimed they were following orders; the soldiers involved in 2006 blamed their actions on an absence of leadership entirely.

Although these two echoed many similar premises, there was one significant difference between the two stories: the public reaction to the military atrocities. Private First Class Steven Green, whose conviction brought a sentence of life without parole, drew no reaction from the public at all. "I was astonished at how little attention the public ever gave this case," Frederick said. "I covered the Green trial and there was a guy from AP and a high school blogger - [they] were the only reporters that were at this trial." In stark contrast, after Calley was convicted of premeditated murder in 1971, the public outcry was enormous. What became known as the "Free Calley" movement created immense political pressure and directly led to presidential intervention when, in April 1971, President Nixon ordered Calley released from the stockade.

What can we take from comparing the two events? I think that this replication of destructive combat situations for our soldiers is troubling and deserves immediate attention. These stories prove that our susceptibility to redefinitions of morality, is in no way exclusive to Vietnam soldiers. Our men have faced it in Iraq and are facing it now in Afghanistan. On May 18th FRONTLINE will air The Wounded Platoon, yet another story with echoes of tense psychological states in our soldiers and their negative repercussions. After watching My Lai and reading Black Hearts, I now realize the scope of complex factors surrounding these men, and hope we can move ahead from this understanding to attack the underlying issues of leadership and troop support.


Tory Starr is a Production Assistant for American Experience.

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