Casualties of War (1989) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • During the Vietnam War, a soldier finds himself the outsider of his own squad when they unnecessarily kidnap a female villager.

  • During the Vietnam war, a girl is taken from her village by five American soldiers. Four of the soldiers rape her, but the fifth refuses. The young girl is killed. The fifth soldier is determined that justice will be done. The film is more about the realities of war, rather than this single event.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The story is presented as a flashback from the point of view of Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) as he sits on a subway train in 1974. A young Vietnamese woman gets on the train. Eriksson looks at her with a haunted expression as he remembers his experiences in the Vietnam War.

    In November 1966, a group of US soldiers are on patrol in the jungle when they are suddenly attacked by the Viet Cong. During the attack, the ground cracks open beneath Eriksson and he becomes trapped in the hole, part of a tunnel system below the jungle. Sergeant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) saves his life by pulling him out and shooting a Viet Cong who is preparing to stab him.

    The next morning, Eriksson, Meserve and the rest of their squad, Corporal Thomas Clark (Don Harvey), Private Hatcher (John C. Reilly), PFC Brown (Erik King), are taking a break in a river village in the Central Highlands. Suddenly Brown is shot in the neck. The soldiers manage to fend off the attack, and Brown is taken to the hospital by helicopter.

    After the incident with Brown, Meserve's squad is granted a 48-hour leave and they prepare for a night out in the nearest ville. However, their leave is cut short and they have to report for patrol the next morning at 6 AM. Meserve plans to go to the ville to a brothel, but not before he tells the squad that Brown died of his injuries.

    The squad are refused entry into a brothel by an MP, their company command. Private Antonio Diaz (John Leguizamo) arrives as Brown's replacement. Meserve tells his men about their next assignment and says that he plans to kidnap a local girl for their own amusement -- Meserve attempts to legalize the kidnapping by saying they'll "requisition" her. Eriksson tells his friend Rowan (Jack Gwaltney), about his concerns but Rowan assures him that Meserve is obviously joking. The squad arrive at a village and kidnap Than Tai Oahn (Thuy Thu Lei) in front of her mother and sister. Meserve tells Eriksson that they are going to have some fun with the girl when they arrive at their outpost. Eriksson and Diaz are both opposed to the idea and Eriksson tells Meserve that there's no way he's going to participate in rape. Meserve tries his best to get Eriksson to take part, even making threats on his life but he stands his ground against his superior officers. Diaz refuses to go against his comrades, and takes part to avoid been an outcast in the group. Infuriated, Eriksson is ready to help Oahn when Clark puts a knife to his throat and tells him to go on security for the night. Hatcher keeps his gun pointed at him as he walks away to make sure he doesn't try anything. Eriksson sits on watch, helpless and horrified, as he witnesses his comrades take turns with Oahn in the hut.

    Later on the squad have to take position on a railroad bridge overlooking a Viet Cong river supply depot. Eriksson and Hatcher return to the outpost to collect some more ammunition. Clark wants in on the action and tells Eriksson to stay with the girl, while he goes off with Hatcher. Eriksson fully realizes how severe Oahn's abuse has been. She is weak, cut, bruised, dehydrated and sick. He gives her some food and water. Meserve is furious when Clark and Hatcher arrive without Eriksson. He tells him to get back to the outpost and collect him and the girl. Eriksson is just about to leave the outpost with Oahn, and get her to safety when he realizes that it will make him a deserter. Seeing how desperate the girl is for him to go with her, he decides to go, but just as they are about to escape, Clark arrives and stops them.

    On the railroad, the squad are watching and waiting to attack. Oahn is coughing and, realizing she could give them away, Meserve tells Eriksson to kill her. When Eriksson refuses, Meserve orders Hatcher to do it but he pleads that he doesn't want to. Clark sees some helicopters approaching, and Meserve desperately orders Diaz to kill her. With Meserve goading him on, Diaz prepares to stab her, when Eriksson fires in the air to get the attention of the Viet Cong, stopping the murder. As the shootout takes place, Clark stabs her a few times but Eriksson is so occupied taking enemies out with his rifle that he doesn't notice. The situation becomes desperate when the Viet Cong move mortars up the river and begin lobbing shells onto the bridge. Meserve manages to take them out with a machine gun. Oahn, bleeding profusely from the stab wounds, slowly gets up and tries to make her escape. Meserve orders the squad to shoot her. Eriksson tries to intervene, but Meserve knocks him down with his gun. The squad shoot Oahn dead and her body falls off the bridge. Meserve leads his men away from the scene. As Eriksson slowly falls unconscious from the head injury dealt by Meserve, helicopters approach and they fire missiles, hitting the riverboat the Vietcong were using. In the course of the explosion, a passing U.S Navy boat catches fire and the crewmen are killed.

    Eriksson is carried out by an helicopter and wakes up in hospital. He tells Rowan about the kidnapping, rape and murder of Oahn. Rowan tells him to go and talk to Lt. Reilly (Ving Rhames). Reilly gives him a long-winded reply about how the incident could affect the operational record of his unit and suggests it's best to just forget the incident. Desperate to see justice done, Eriksson jeopardizes his military career and goes over Reilly's head and informs Captain Hill (Dale Dye) about the matter. Hill deals with the situation harshly, berating Eriksson and warming him about pursuing the matter by telling him that the soldiers won't get much of a sentence if they are convicted and that they could make life very difficult for Eriksson and his family when they are released.

    Not realizing that Eriksson has already informed the superiors, Clark tries to kill him with a grenade. Eriksson suspects something when he sees Hatcher at the door of the latrine and he greets the unseen Clark and then runs away. Eriksson sees the grenade and jumps out of the latrine just before it explodes. Eriksson confronts Meserve and attacks Clark with a shovel to the head. He tells them that everyone already knows what they've done and that nobody in authority wanted to listen to him anyway. At the bar, Eriksson drowns his sorrows and pours his heart out to a chaplain. An investigation begins and Oahn's body is discovered, Captain Hill telling Eriksson that his actions will have consequences because he couldn't leave the situation alone. The soldiers are court-martialed. Meserve is sentenced to 10 years hard labor, Diaz is sentenced to 8 years hard labor, Hatcher is sentenced to 15 years hard labor and Clark is sentenced to hard labor for life. As they exit the court, Meserve leans over in Eriksson's ear and whispers something inaudible with a crazed look in his eyes.

    Eriksson wakes up from his flashback on the train, deeply haunted. The train reaches the next stop, and the Vietnamese woman, who reminds him of Oahn, gets off. Noticing the woman left her scarf behind, he grabs it and gets off the train to return it to her as she walks up to street level to Mission Dolores Park in San Francisco. The Vietnamese girl notes Eriksson's haunted expression and comfortingly tells him that his bad dream is over now. A slight smile crosses Eriksson's face.

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