The massacre at My Lai [pronounced Me Lie] occurred in Viet Nam in March, 1968, and the resulting cover-up, exposure, trial and press coverage from 1969 through 1970 greatly increased the US civilian opposition our involvement in Viet Nam. Tonight, PBS’s American Experience is airing My Lai, a compelling new documentary by Barak Goodman. Here’s the promo for it.
I’ve seen it. It’s great storytelling and I strongly recommend it. But for here and now, I’m going to put aside the American Experience and tell you about My Experience (which happens to be as American as you can get).
Like so many people in the last sixty years, my childhood was influenced by Mad magazine (and when I write “people” I mean “guys”), and Mad poster child Alfred E. Neuman was one of my heroes, a sort of spokesman for the irreverent. I regularly trolled the used comic book shops looking for old issues, and in 1980, on one of these junkets, I came across a 1971 issue of National Lampoon, the counter-culture humor magazine that was a direct descendant of Mad. The cover referenced Alfred E. Neuman but being only eleven years old, I didn’t understand what the joke was.
OK, now let’s skip to two weeks ago. I’m in theater watching an advance screening of the My Lai documentary. Lt. William Calley was a key figure in the massacre, was found guilty for his actions and sentenced to life imprisonment. To many, he was the face of My Lai, and controversy surrounded his trial and conviction from all sides, left and right. In the midst of the documentary, there’s this photograph of him:
…and in the audience, I’m the one person who said “Oh, shit!” for a reason not related to war atrocities. I mentally rolodex back thirty years to a comic book store in South Jersey and all the pieces fell into place:
For the last two weeks, with all the cultural info now at my fingertips (unlike back in ’80 when knew nothing about that war), I’ve been pondering that cover. I know it’s (purposely) tasteless but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I suspect the My Lai/Me Worry pun made the cover irresistible to the folks at Lampoon. As for morphing the face of Neuman into Calley, well, if you see enough pictures of the latter, you easily see their resemblance. (And with cover art done by former Mad artist Kelly Freas, it only helps it’s authentic Mad magazine look.)
Ultimately, placing myself into the mindset of an American living through the Viet Nam war–something Goodman’s documentary does brilliantly, by the way—I noticed the cover melds a 50s icon with a late 60s icon. The fact is if you were in your twenties in 1971, it doesn’t matter whether you were burning your draft card or be burned by the draft–you were raised on Alfred E. Neuman and you had a strong opinion of the war. This cover artfully conjures that whole Loss of Innocence rap I always hear from those who lived in America between Kennedy getting shot and Nixon resigning. (Let’s face it: you old guys do go on about that.)
Anyway, if you made it this far that means you’ve seen the magazine cover. Now I suggest watching My Lai tonight on PBS. And afterwards, if you want more on the twisted relationship between the Viet Nam war, the media and the Loss of Innocence, just Google “Lt. Calley Esquire cover.”