A Lesson from Viet Nam
Another American hero died today. His name was Hugh Thompson. As a young helicopter pilot in Vietnam back in 1968, Lt Thompson saw a tragedy in progress and took heroic measures to stop it. Like many heroes before him, he died at a Veteran’s Hospital in obscurity. Few Americans know his story. Fewer still will ever grasp the true measure of his courage.
It was early in the morning of March 16, 1968, when Thompson, door-gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta came upon U.S. ground troops killing Vietnamese civilians in and around the village of My Lai. Thompson landed his helicopter in the line of fire between American troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians, pointed his own guns at the U.S. soldiers, and ordered his men to fire on the Americans if necessary to prevent more killing. It was an act of courage unprecedented in the history of warfare. His valor went unrecognized for 30 years.
In 1998 the Army honored the three men with the prestigious Soldier's Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving conflict with an enemy. It was a posthumous award for Andreotta, who had been killed in battle three weeks after My Lai.
Lt. William Calley was the other young officer at My Lai. He was the platoon leader who ordered his men to kill an entire village of old men, women, and children, to “waste” them in the vernacular of the day. Calley was later court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison. But the public supported Calley and disagreed with his sentence. He served about 3 years of “house arrest” before Nixon pardoned him altogether.
Here is the account at My Lai village on the morning of March 16, 1968 according to author, Doug Linder:
The men began their usual search-and-destroy task of pulling people from homes, interrogating them, and searching for VC. Soon the killing began. The first victim was a man stabbed in the back with a bayonet. Then a middle-aged man was picked up, thrown down a well, and a grenade lobbed in after him. A group of fifteen to twenty mostly older women were gathered around a temple, kneeling and praying. They were all executed with shots to the back of their heads. Eighty or so villagers were taken from their homes and herded to the plaza area. As many cried "No VC! No VC!", Calley told soldier, Paul Meadlo, "You know what I want you to do with them". When Calley returned ten minutes later and found the Vietnamese still gathered in the plaza he reportedly said to Meadlo, "Haven't you got rid of them yet? I want them dead. Waste them." Meadlo and Calley began firing into the group from a distance of ten to fifteen feet. The few that survived did so because they were covered by the bodies of those less fortunate.
Two weeks after the Calley verdict was announced, the Harris Poll reported for the first time that a majority of Americans opposed the war in Viet Nam. The My Lai episode caused the military to re-evaluate its training with respect to the handling of noncombatants. Commanders sent troops in the Desert Storm operation into battle with the words, "No My Lais-- you hear?"
David Egan, a professor emeritus at Clemson University, saw an interview in a documentary and launched a letter-writing campaign that eventually led to the awarding of the medals in 1998. According to Tulane history professor, Douglas Brinkley, "He [Thompson] was the guy who by his heroic actions gave a morality and dignity to the American military effort."
For years Thompson suffered snubs and worse from those who considered him unpatriotic. He recalled a congressman angrily saying that Thompson himself was the only serviceman who should be punished because of My Lai.
As the years passed, Thompson became an example for future generations of soldiers, said Col. Tom Kolditz, head of the U.S. Military Academy's behavioral sciences and leadership department. Thompson went to West Point once a year to give a lecture on his experience, Kolditz said.
"There are so many people today walking around alive because of him, not only in Vietnam, but people who kept their units under control under other circumstances because they had heard his story. We may never know just how many lives he saved." (AP, Jan. 7, 2006).
The Lesson: Heroism in war is not limited to just the actions we take against the known enemy; it can include the actions we take in honoring our own consciences and our principles. Hugh Thompson was that "one man with courage” that Andrew Jackson predicted so long ago who transcended the event and made the singular actions of one man as powerful as those of the majority.
It is also worthwhile to recall the words of John Donne: “Every man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; therefore, do not send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”