Saturday, January 15, 2011


The 5th anniversary of Hugh Thompson, Jr.'s death and my tour of Vietnam renew this reflection

Memorial to 500+ Vietnamese massacred
SANITY IN THE FACE OF INSANITY.  The helicopter pilot who stopped U. S. troops from continuing to slaughter innocent people in the Vietnam village of My Lai in 1968 died five years ago this week at the age of 62.  Hugh Thompson, Jr. and his crew happened onto the massacre in process, set his helicopter down, pointed the airship’s guns at American troops and announced that he would shoot anyone who further harmed a Vietnamese civilian.  Thompson and his crew then evacuated many for medical help.  U. S. Troops, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, had massacred at least 500 civilians at My Lai on March 16, 1968.  Thompson's intervention and later testimony about this evil is, to me, an example of high courage and moral composure in the midst of the insanity of war.

"NOTICE, NOTICE, NOTICE!"  One online source (search for “Heroes of My Lai”), quotes Chief My Lai prosecutor William Eckhardt as he described how Thompson responded to what he found when he put his helicopter down: "[Thompson] put his guns on Americans, said he would shoot them if they shot another Vietnamese, had his people wade in the ditch in gore to their knees, to their hips, took out children, took them to the hospital...flew back [to headquarters], standing in front of people, tears rolling down his cheeks, pounding on the table saying, 'Notice, notice, notice'...then had the courage to testify time after time after time."

EXPOSING THE LIE. Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck reflects on the My Lai tragedy and Thompson's response in his book about the nature of evil, People of the Lie.  Peck discusses it as an example of group evil, a special kind of mob action.  Peck points not only to the act itself as being evil, but the actions of the troops and the various echelons of the military to deny, minimize, and cover-up the incident as evil.  He calls it a “gigantic group lie.”  Peck goes on: “Lying is simultaneously one of the symptoms and one of the causes of evil, one of the blossoms and one of the roots.”

Hugh Thompson, Jr. stopped the massacre
 ECHOES AT ABU GRAIHB.  Thompson has spoken to military academy cadets and ensigns repeatedly since 1968 about what happened at My Lai.  He has been in demand as a military instructor on war ethics.  Before his death, he commented on the numerous and repeated acts of torture at the hands of U.S. troops and intelligence officers that occurred at Abu Graihb prison on Iraqi and other Arab detainees.  While Thompson said he was certain the actions at Abu Graihb and other locations was the work of “thugs who happen to wear green” uniforms, he wanted to know who up the chain of command might have given implicit permission for such actions.

WHO WILL STAND UP?  The laws have changed since Thompson challenged Lieutenant Calley and his men.  Then it was against the law for a soldier to disobey his officer if he thought the command was morally wrong.  Today the law permits a soldier to refuse to obey the orders of a commanding officer that he or she believes to be morally wrong.  But I wonder if such laws would be changed, or how many more civilians slaughtered, if courageous people like Hugh Thompson did not—do not—stand up and put their own lives and reputations on the line for the sake of what is right?

1 comment:

  1. Not sure how you have time for such lengthy blog posts - here and at your cycling across Vietnam page - but I am one person who is following and who remains consistently, constantly impressed by what I glean from reading what you write! Thanks.

    Oh a friend helped me acquire from craigslist a Greg Lemond steel frame bike with good components, etc. I'm too new to say more than that as I don't "get" all the component/technical stuff for the bike - but I've been riding bikes weekly for all of my life and I've enjoyed my first few short rides on my "new" Road Bike.


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