16 March 2012
Certain words or phrases are freighted with intense emotion, or with pivotal history. 43 years ago today, on 16 March 1968, American soldiers and officers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division murdered between 350 and 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in what became infamous as the My Lai Massacre. Most of those killed were women, children, and the elderly. Of 26 soldiers charged with criminal offenses, only Lt. William Calley was convicted. He served only three and a half years of an original life sentence.
When the killings became public knowledge in 1969, they prompted outrage worldwide, and dramatically increased U.S. civilian opposition to the Vietnam War. On that horrific day, three brave men earned the much-abused title of 'hero'. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., was a helicopter pilot who, overflying the killing zone, saw dead and dying civilians, and others still being executed. The only weapons in sight were those wielded by U.S. troops. At personal risk to their lives and their careers, Thompson and his crew landed and intervened, using their own weapons to hold off approaching American soldiers in order to rescue children trapped in a bunker. Repeated radio calls brought no military intervention or medical assistance, so Thompson returned to the slaughter scene to save more lives.
I've written about My Lai and about Thompson's heroism several times in the past. It remains one of the defining moments of that bloody and shameful conflict, an emblem of all that can go wrong in any war. By chance, I had arrived in country a week before the events at My Lai, and I did not hear about it until well after I had returned to the U.S. Most of those who face the prospect of combat ask themselves whether they will have the courage to stand and fight. Beyond that, here is the burning question that every man or woman who takes the oath of service must ask ~ if faced with egregious, criminal, lethal behavior by my peers, what would I do? If ordered by an officer or senior NCO to execute an unarmed civilian, what would I do? If I came upon a scene of mass murder being committed by several hundred troops, and I was one of only three present to oppose their bloodlust, what would I do?
In my thinking, courage is not about acting fearlessly. Courage is feeling fear, and acting past the fear to do the right thing. More than once during my year in Vietnam, I was confronted with the choice between hiding from danger, or facing it to save lives. Each time, I passed the test. I do not believe that qualifies me as a hero, a word I've come to detest because it is applied these days to anyone in uniform who happens to get shot, regardless of circumstances. I only know that I could not have done otherwise. I did not face the gut-wrenching scene that Hugh Thompson faced, and I cannot claim to know the degree of fear or surreal disconnect that he must have felt. But I think he would understand what I'm describing. He is one of my personal heroes.
Hugh Thompson, Jr., died of cancer on 06 January 2006, at the VA Medical Center in Pineville, Louisiana.