It is inconceivable to me that anyone who kills or harms another human being can be considered a hero; any act of violence represents a failure of the person's humanity and imagination. It is inconceivable why people should feel the need to kill, simply to survive, profit, or as a matter of emotion. There is no reason a human being cannot transcend this. Yet not only are most humans incapable of doing this, they put their faith and trust in those who have less control than they themselves do.
The plot for Casualties of War is apparently based on an actual event from 1996: five soldiers are serving in an unit during Vietnam War, led by Meserve (Sean Penn), a forceful but effectively psychopathic personality. Eriksson (Michael J Fox) is a new member of the unit, and still unjaded by the violence around him. Frustrated, Meserve leads his team into a village where they kidnap a young girl, Oahn (Thuy Thu Le) and rape and violate her, physically and emotionally. They take her along with her, and force her to be their slave. Eriksson refuses to take part in this and attempts to set her free. However, in the end, the battered and broken girl is killed by Meserve's team, with Eriksson unable to do anything to stop it.
Eriksson tries to find some semblance of justice, but runs up against a wall of people who refuse to look into the abyss. But he perseveres and finally the people who committed the actions are brought before a military tribunal.
Sean Penn portrays Meserve highly effectively. Michael J. Fox is surprisingly good as the naive recruit. The performance of Thuy Thu Le is heart-wrenching. Brian DePalma's direction of the primary subject matter (the brutality of Meserve and his unit; and Eriksson's conflicted position) is top-notch. The film is based on Daniel Lang's article in a 1969 New Yorker, and a subsequent book. The score by Ennio Morricone is excellent. The ending is a bit of a cop-out.
Casualties of War is one of the best war films I've seen. It s emotionally manipulative but it's effective (unlike films like Saving Private Ryan). It illustrates how war demonises in a stirring manner, while also showing that it doesn't need to be that way.
War is the refuge of the lazy and the foolish. Institutionalised violence represents the failure of humanity as whole. Casualties of War brutally illustrates the affect of institutionalised violence, and how it shapes ones thinking so that any action can be dismissed (not justified or rationalised). By not taking a position on the Vietnam War itself, and by illustrating the resistance Erikson runs into when he wants to do something right, the film goes beyond war and points to the failure of humanity's institutions as whole.