Casualties of War is a haunting and emotionally moving morality tale, involving the gang rape and murder of a young Vietnamese woman by American soldiers during the Vietnam conflict.
Michael J Fox is absolutely remarkable as conscious-stricken GI Max Eriksson who refuses to participate in the brutality wreaked by his unit, led by the demonic father figure of their squad leader, Sergeant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) – a thug who oversees the kidnap, rape and murder.
On night patrol, the platoon led by Lt. Reilly (Ving Rhames) is attacked by the Viet Cong after a soldier panics and exposes their position. Eriksson walks over an abandoned Viet Cong tunnel which collapses, trapping him. He is rescued by Meserve.
Later, near a river village in the Central Highlands, the unit comes under ﬁre, and one of Meserve’s friends, the squad’s radio operator Spec 4 “Brownie” Brown (Erik King), is fatally wounded, which deeply affects Meserve. Back at their barracks at Wolfe Base, Pfc. Antonio Dìaz (John Leguizamo) arrives as Brownie’s replacement.
Sent back out on a long-range recon patrol, an embittered Meserve orders the squad to kidnap a Vietnamese girl for sex. Eriksson tries to dissuade his comrades, but Meserve, Corporal Thomas E. Clark (Don Patrick Harvey) and Pfc Herbert Hatcher (John C Reilly) ignore him.
After sunset, the troops kidnap a young Vietnamese villager named Than Thi Oahn (Thuy Thu Le) and take her with them on patrol. The squad later shelters in an abandoned hooch where Meserve, Clark and Hatcher confront Erikkson and Dìaz, pressuring them to join in the victimisation of Than.
To placate the others, Dìaz decides to go along with the rape. Erikkson, now outnumbered four to one, is told to stand guard while the other squad members rape Than.
At dawn, Erikkson is left to watch over Than while the other troops position themselves by a railroad bridge near a Viet Cong river supply depot.
Erikkson decides to go against his orders and bring Than back to her family, but Meserve sends Clark to get Erikkson and Than, thus thwarting Erikkson’s plan. Meserve commands Dìaz to radio for air support so that the squad can attack the depot and then tells Dìaz to stab Than to death.
To rescue Than, Eriksson ﬁres his weapon and gives away their position to enemy combatants. During the battle that follows, Than and Eriksson attempt to ﬂee, but Meserve takes down Eriksson who is left to helplessly watch as his squad members exterminate Than and leave her to fall off the bridge.
Eriksson awakes in a ﬁeld hospital and relays his story to a friend, Rowan (Jack Gwaltney). Rowan encourages Erikkson to relay his story to their superiors, Lt. Reilly and the company commander, Captain Hill (Dale Dye), which he does.
Rather than take action, both Reilly and Hill choose to sweep the situation under the carpet and reassign Erikkson to a position digging tunnels. The other four squad members are also split up and reassigned to other units.
Later that evening after Corporal Clark tries to ‘frag’ (assassinate) him, Eriksson, armed with a shovel, confronts Meserve and his men, who back off.
After Eriksson meets with Captain Kirk (Sam Robards), a chaplain, and tells him the story of Than’s grim fate, an investigation is launched and the four men involved in Than’s rape and murder are court-martialed.
Clark is sentenced to life in prison, Hatcher receives 15 years hard labour, Meserve receives 10 years hard labour and Dìaz receives 8 years.
The story is based on fact, adapted from a famous 1969 New Yorker article about the November 1966 “Incident on Hill 192” where a 21-year-old Vietnamese woman named Phan Thi Mao was kidnapped, gang-raped and murdered by four American soldiers, who were subsequently court-martialed and convicted, based on the damning testimony of the ﬁfth member of the squad who refused to participate.
There is no mention in the film, though, of the fact that the sentences handed out to the convicted men were greatly reduced on appeal.
As if in deference to the material, director Brian De Palma resisted his usual trickery, diverting his stylistic impulses into masterful widescreen compositions.
This film should rank among the best attempts to define the Vietnam War and, in general, the moral complexities of military combat.
Michael J Fox
Sergeant Tony Meserve
Corporal Thomas E Clark
John C Reilly
Thuy Thu Le
Sergeant Frank Brown
Brian De Palma