My Lai on PBS: A Dark Day That Still Resonates

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The slaughter of hundreds of unarmed villagers in Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam, in March 1968 — an event that came to be known as the My Lai massacre — is both an open wound in the American psyche and a cautionary tale at a time when we are once again fighting wars, and killing civilians, on foreign soil.

The story of the killings and the subsequent cover-up is also vividly theatrical: a three-act drama of idealism, horror and slow, fumbling justice. It is told superbly by Barak Goodman in his documentary “My Lai,” a presentation of PBS’s “American Experience” on Monday night.

The dense and complex tale goes beyond the actions of the American soldiers — from Charlie Company of the First Battalion, 20th Infantry — to explore the nature of combat in Vietnam. The documentary also delves into faulty intelligence and failures of command (as well as flashes of heroism); the cover-up, investigation and series of trials; and the poisonous domestic politics of late-1960s America.

Mr. Goodman has had to leave out a lot, and many viewers may fault him for this or that omission. But any reasonable viewer should be amazed by how much he has been able to fit within the limits of a 90-minute television documentary. (Some will wonder why the role of the journalist Seymour Hersh in exposing the massacre is not covered. At a screening of the film last week, Mr. Goodman said that Mr. Hersh turned down his request for an interview.)...

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