Reenacting War Crimes on a Film Set

It was the Vietnam/American War that helped me finally grok the immense failure of sentience at the heart of warfare, and the horrors of capitalist and colonialist conflicts.

In Vietnam, class, race and culture collided in the context of a truly hellish war, exposing the hypocrisy of Western society through the blood of millions of young Americans and Vietnamese.

That conflict changed our world in many ways. I don’t think its profundity can be overstated.

In 1982, director John Landis was filming a movie featuring a sequence in which an American veteran of the Vietnam War is transported back in time, into the body of a Vietnamese man trying to protect his children from an American attack on his village.

In the scene, Landis was attempting to portray the firepower of the American military by setting off a huge display of pyrotechnics, while an authentic Huey helicopter hovered above. The helicopter was piloted by a real Vietnam War veteran, Dorcey Wingo.

In the scene, the lead actor Vic Morrow is rescuing Vietnamese children from a river. Landis hired two children: seven-year-old Myca Dinh Le, and six-year-old Shin-Ye Chen. Le and Chen were paid under the table, as Landis was contravening Californian labour laws by hiring children to work at night, and in the presence of such huge pyrotechnics. The children were purposefully hidden from fire safety and welfare officers on set.

Le and Chen’s four parents were not told that there would be large pyrotechnics on set, or a helicopter involved in the scene. Le’s parents had survived the Vietnam War, and emigrated to America to escape — only to now find themselves watching a recreation of a battle, with their children in the middle of it.

Despite multiple warnings from safety officers, Landis ordered the helicopter to descend lower into the pyrotechnics as the scene was being filmed. One of the pyrotechnics clipped the tail rotor of the helicopter, causing it to lose control and crash directly on top of the three actors in the water. All three were killed instantly.

The resulting lawsuits lasted many years. Landis was acquitted of manslaughter, and the families of the dead actors all received millions of dollars in compensation.

The deep irony here is that an attempted critique of the American conflict in Vietnam ended up killing three people, including the child of a survivor of the war, by the blades of a helicopter piloted by a US veteran, due to the negligence of a director attempting to circumvent safeguarding regulations.

The capitalist system simply couldn’t bear the weight of an artistic expression of the horrors of such a capitalist war. It was a contradiction so powerful that it caused a malfunction. The absurdity of the situation contracted around itself and produced a much purer expression of the nightmare of modern America.

The parents of Myca Dinh Le and Shin-Ye Chen were not given the reassurance that their children died for a purpose, or at least given the satisfaction of seeing someone punished. Capitalism spat them some dollars and sent them on their way.

The Vietnam War was the chance for the West to see, in visceral detail, the extent of its sickness. But it turned away, and has doomed itself to repeat the same patterns until its inevitable demise.

Biologist, writer