The Horror

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Watching horror movies all week. Though, as an aging fuddy-duddy, I somewhat deplore the way Halloween seems to start at the beginning of the month, and I even more deplore the way the impending Guy Fawkes Night is already terrorizing pets with explosive charges (including one in our stairwell, thank you very much), and Christmas is going to start as soon as we’ve finished blowing shit up, I felt that a one week run-up to the main event would be acceptable, and some readers might pick up handy hints for their weekend viewing. And UK TV continues to largely neglect the big night itself, so we have to over-compensate a bit.

This one doesn’t count as genre at all, though, but it rates a mention because it’s so impressive and it’ll probably be the most horrific thing I see this week. Joseph Strick’s INTERVIEWS WITH MY LAI VETERANS is absolutely blood-curdling, and consists of nothing but head-shots of guys talking. It’s not so much the horror of what they describe, which is appalling but devoid of graphic detail, it’s the casual, flat delivery. For most of the men, this part of their lives seems to mean nothing, have no significance. They are puzzled that anyone is curious about it. They use as justification the fact that other such massacres undoubtedly happened before and after, so what’s the big deal?

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Disconcertingly, some kind of bug (lower right) crawls across the lens as this guy’s affable recounting his mass-murder activities on the porch.

Interviewer Richard Hammer sounds stern, perhaps mimicking a commanding officer to get the facts from these men, but this doesn’t result in much expression of shame. Out of the army and free from any risk of prosecution, the men seem happy to speak frankly, unaware that what they’re saying might seem controversial (killing children is fine because they would grow up to be the enemy anyway), and able to smile at perceived ironies in the situation. Glimmers of guilt do appear, but all are reassured that they were obeying orders and therefore not accountable (the rulings of Nuremberg were never applied to any incidents in Viet Nam).

Lieutenant Calley, the only man convicted of war crimes after the incident, from these accounts doesn’t sound particularly more guilty than other officers involved, but then he served barely any of his original life sentence anyway.

Strick, whose feature films generally consisted of adaptations of unfilmable books which seemed oblivious to the very challenges they were taking on, hits it out of the park here with a simple, factual approach. Richard Pearce and Haskell Wexler shot it.

You can watch it here, but be warned, it will follow you around for a while afterwards.

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8 Responses to “The Horror”

  1. I don’t agree that For most of the men, this part of their lives seems to mean nothing, have no significance. When listening to their words one can tell that the incident did indeed affect them – their detachment and awkward smiles appear to be their way of coping with the experience, as well as a way of hiding their inner feelings of guilt. There is one man who appears to be less affected than the others – but by his words there is a sense that he still might be in denial to himself. He’s the one who is most disconcerting because it’s the men like that who blew up afterwards when the truth of the experiences finally sunk in.

    Thanks for sharing this video – it is interesting that this slash-less horror story is perhaps more freaky than any fiction with the best special effects. Just knowing that the massacre was a true-life fact seems to be all one needs to get the effect.

  2. This video proves Hannah Arendt was right about “The Banality of Evil”

  3. Scout, I would like to think that the men all feel some kind of remorse. I’m just not sure. Once something is over and you feel safe from the consequences, there’s a human tendency to file it under Homer Simpson’s heading, “Just a bunch of stuff that happened.”

    What’s chilling and fascinating is that they don’t even try to fake up some guilt, which you’d think would be easy enough, and seems to be the preferred 21st century choice.

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    I couldn’t / wouldn’t watch. But I get the gist. I know all too well that there are those who enjoy, really RELISH, inflicting pain upon others (I might add that I heard a football player say, once, “I get to hurt people, and it’s legal”). I have, therefore, no doubt that there are those who really enjoy the act of murder, whether taxpayer-sanctioned or not. Hard to comprehend on any but the most theoretical level, for most of us.

  5. Not even clear if these guys enjoyed it. Most didn’t seem to. One talks about how obedience was instilled in them in training, where they had to perform meaningless actions without questioning them. In a sense, everything seems to have become equally meaningless. Individual actions, away from the military, maybe have come to seem real and vivid and meaningful again. Everything they did in the war was just orders.

    Godard once said that the only film to make about the Holocaust might focus on the everyday running of a camp: how many corpses can you fit on a cart, that sort of thing. But he said such a film would be unbearable. I wonder if that’s true: all attempts to make films too horrible to be consumed (and there have been some sincere tries) have failed.

  6. henryholland666 Says:

    I was born on an Air Force base in 1959 and lived on various military bases until I had just turned 15. We moved to Hawaii in 1966 so my Dad could be a flight engineer on transport planes in Vietnam. Until he was transferred out of that in late 1969, we barely saw him and when we did, we often regretted it.

    He was a complete nightmare to be around, one minute listening to Mozart flute concertos while reading a novel, the next a raging tyrant because one of us kids didn’t clean their dinner plate to his liking. That’s a trait not exclusive to people in my Dad’s situation, but still.

    He got transferred to another base in 1970 and that’s when the real horrors began, because he was obviously suffering from what we’d now call post-traumatic stress syndrome, but he was around all the time. He later told me that he came within a whisker of having a complete mental meltdown ca. 1973. In that culture at that time, you simply didn’t ask for mental help, it was unthinkable.

    I bring all this up because if my beloved Dad, who I’m lucky to have a great relationship with now, could be so completely screwed up during that war when he wasn’t even a foot soldier, I can’t even begin to fathom what it was like for the guys in that clip. No, that’s not an excuse in any way for My Lai, just a reaction to them in that clip.

  7. They’re probably no worse than the majority of people would be with their experiences (military training, combat) in the situation (orders to kill). Most of the men in the unit participated in the massacre. Very few of us seem to have a clear, personal code of ethics that can survive a situation in which clear evil is portrayed by the majority as good. Our best chance seem to be to avoid those situations before we get in them (ie, don’t enlist).

    On the other hand, when Errol Morris was presenting his Abu Ghraib doc in Edinburgh, he stressed that it was no suprise that soldiers obey orders. A US marine stuck his hand up and said, “We disobeyed orders ALL THE TIME.”

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