This drama is based on a true incident during the Vietnam War reported by Daniel Lang in a 1969 article in The New Yorker. When his best friend is killed in a sniper attack in a seemingly peaceful village, the war-weary Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn) snaps. He and his four men kidnap a Vietnamese girl (Thuy Thu Le) who will, in his words, provide a little "portable R & R" during a reconnaissance mission. Clark (Don Harvey), a psychopathic soldier, eagerly rapes the helpless and terrified girl. Hatcher (John C. Reilly), a slow-witted grunt, goes along for the ride, and Diaz (John Leguizamo), who at first is against this violation, capitulates to group pressure. That leaves Eriksson (Michael J. Fox), a married Lutheran who's only been in Vietnam for three months. He refuses to obey Meserve's orders. Later, after a failed attempt to free the girl, he watches helplessly as she is murdered by his comrades.
Casualties of War is Brian DePalma's 19th film, and it contains fine ensemble performances by the well-rounded cast. In playwright David Rabe's screenplay, we see Eriksson struggle with his conscience as he comes up against the enmity of the other squad members, the ire of higher military officers, and his own doubts about his failings as a soldier and as a moral man.
"The soldier, be he friend or foe," wrote General Douglas MacArthur, "is charged with the protection of the weak and unarmed. It is the very essence and reason of his being." The finale of Casualties of War testifies to our hopes that there are still a few ethical souls out there who believe that the weak must be protected and the rules of war upheld.