The book Four Hours in My Lai was written by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim in 1992. The book chronicles the details involved in the My Lai massacre, occurring during the Vietnam War in 1968. Through the gruesome accounts, sad remembrances, and actual interviews, Bilton and Sim were able to capture the intensity and horror of March 16, 1968, when hundreds of Vietnamese were killed senselessly. In this book, the authors were trying to show us what war can do to the people involved. In this case, Four Hours in My Lai was explaining what war can do to young men from our own country.
The authors base this thesis, about what war can do to young men, on the tales from Vietnam veterans who were there. Also, which was a very important aspect, Bilton and Sim spoke with Vietnamese survivors as well. Throughout all of this, the authors managed to keep the book well-written by not even taking sides as to whether the My Lai massacre was justified or not. History is also told accurately in this book. Though the firsthand stories made the book chilling, a certain amount of history was needed to back the occurrences up and the two meshed together well to create a book full of knowledge. This is a story the country needs to be aware of.
One example of a very intense account is that of Varnado Simpson. His story opens the book and unfolds into the events of My Lai. His story also closes the book, appropriately. Simpson was a member of Charlie Company, a soldier who followed orders and killed innocent men, women, and children in the small village. Simpson tells of the past: the killings, the “traumatic events occurring during this action” (Bilton p5). His story was told in a way that was conversational. He is presently suffering from serious post-traumatic stress due to the events of the war. His reasoning behind his actions, his “following orders” was to speak of how he didn’t know he had it in him to kill like that, and his mind had completely gone. Killing without a second thought, any kind of way possible. Simpson also believes his young son was shot as punishment for his actions in Vietnam. Simpson nowadays sits inside, smoking, shaking, and trying to make the pain go away. Later on in the book, where the events of My Lai are reconstructed, Simpson refers to it as “what Hitler did.” I believe this to be the best example in the book as to how war affects people’s lives. To start off the book with this anecdote makes the reader delve deeper and deeper into the story.
The second individual who tells various unbelievable accounts throughout the book is Fred Widmer. Widmer was also a member of Charlie Company, the radio operator. His accounts in chapter 4 in this book are very moving. In one story, he tells of how he saw a boy who was injured and had a questioning look on his face, as if he was asking WHY was this happening. Widmer shot the boy and instantaneously realized the seriousness of what he had done. These two accounts are just two of many in this book that are given to show how war has affected these soldiers. The war had been going on for years already. Men were losing the desire to fight. They began to kill without thought.
I believe the thesis of what war can do to our own young men is a very valid one. Many soldiers returned home physically injured, but just as many were emotionally scarred by the war. It has been said a million times: many men feel they “died in Vietnam” though they are still physically alive. Veterans Associations refused for a very long time to believe that soldiers were suffering from a type of traumatic syndrome. I believe this book is something that should be read. In the movie “Secret Agent”, a movie about Agent Orange and its affects on soldiers, these associations claimed there was absolutely no relativity between the chemical and the diseases the veterans were suffering from. This book AND overall story is similar. The country and army refused to believe this happened for the simple reason of money. They did not want to admit this happened because they would have to take the blame and pay for the soldier’s medical bills. With My Lai, it was pretty much that those who weren’t actually there couldn’t believe it had happened. Those in our country blew it off, or felt that it must have been justified. This goes back to the thesis of the book. How can the lives, concerns and health problems of these soldiers be dismissed? The Bilton and Sim book faces the harsh reality that these men changed because of what they did or did not do at My Lai that morning. On an even greater scale, the entire war changed these men for the worse. The authors remain incredibly objective when it comes to stating the events. At no point do they really state up front that My Lai was right or wrong.
The detail of the trials is very well written also. As they speak about Calley and his memoir (Bilton p372), again they never seem to take a side. I read this part and couldn’t understand how Calley, a man who shouldn’t have even had a high ranking status could try to justify the situation. After Paul Meadlo stepped on a mine the day after the incident he told Calley “God will punish you” (Bilton p373). I hope that this is true because what our country considered a punishment (a few days in jail, a few years of house arrest) can never make up for the brutality this man showed in My Lai, claiming he was only following orders. What about his morals? Did he have any of those?
One review I read was the one at Amazon.com. There is an actual posting from Michael Bilton. I don’t recall reading in the book that it was the first time anyone had written about Hugh Thompson and Larry Colburn, but apparently this is true. Thompson and Colburn were shocked at what they had seen. Landing in a field in the middle of the Vietnamese prisoners and American troops, they turned their own guns on the troops and tried to save as many Vietnamese as they could. Again, the government wished to forget the whole incident happened. For Thompson and Colburn to not be recognized for years was disturbing also. In the chapter on Vietnam Revisited, it was somewhat an idea that Thompson would be concerned over his actions, but once he got on the stand, it was apparent that he wasn’t afraid to state that his actions were right. I very much agree with this review. Bilton says that “America has still only grasped a fraction of the reality of My Lai”. Personally, I never heard of the My Lai massacre until this class. Reading this book shocked me. So many questions float around in my head still. What possessed Calley and Medina to give out orders like this? The fact that Medina denied seeing any killing and then seemed to give a justification for it makes him appear pretty clueless to me. If these soldiers had only been in Vietnam for 3 months before the incident, how could they have been so driven to kill and rape in such ways? How are these same people living with themselves today?
Overall, this book is one I would recommend. People can be affected by it in different ways: students, veterans, the family of veterans, government officials. Bilton and Sim have written an objective book which simply wants to make the country aware of the events which happened in such a short time that created years of struggle and confusion. This is what war can do to a human being.
Four Hours in My Lai Michael Bilton & Kevin Sim 1992 Penguin Books
Secret Agent – Movie viewed in class