The courage to stand up for what is right

It takes enormous courage to stand up and oppose one’s peers when they are doing something wrong, especially so when it is in the middle of a war and you have to make a snap judgment. Hugh Thompson Jr. was a person who had that kind of rare courage. He was a young 24-year old helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War who came across fellow American soldiers in the process of massacring Vietnamese civilians during the infamous My Lai massacre in March 1968. The events that immediately preceded his arrival were described this way:

As the “search and destroy” mission unfolded, it soon degenerated into the massacre of over 300 apparently unarmed civilians including women, children, and the elderly. [Commander Lt. William] Calley ordered his men to enter the village firing, though there had been no report of opposing fire. According to eyewitness reports offered after the event, several old men were bayoneted, praying women and children were shot in the back of the head, and at least one girl was raped and then killed. For his part, Calley was said to have rounded up a group of the villagers, ordered them into a ditch, and mowed them down in a fury of machine gun fire.

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When Thompson came upon this scene while the massacre was in progress, he “put his helicopter down between the soldiers and villagers, ordering his men to shoot their fellow Americans if they attacked the civilians.” He had only a two-man crew (Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta) with him so the three of them ran the real risk of being easily overwhelmed and gunned down by the Charlie Company troops doing the massacring. (A company can have anywhere from 62 to 190 soldiers.) After staring down his fellow soldiers, Thompson called in other helicopter support and they airlifted the few remaining survivors to safety.

(In the photo, Thompson, Jr., left, and his gunner Lawrance Colburn are seen leaving the My Lai Memorial, in Quang Ngai, Vietnam, March 15, 1998 after a reunion with two female villagers they rescued during the massacre. Glenn Andreotta was killed in combat a month after the My Lai event. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File)

Although Thompson reported to his commanders what he had seen, the story of the My Lai massacre remained secret and no action was taken until journalist Seymour Hersh reported it in November 1969, 18 months later, creating a worldwide uproar.

For his actions, rather than being hailed for an act of extraordinary courage, Thompson “was shunned for years by fellow soldiers, received death threats, and was once told by a congressman that he was the only American who should be punished over My Lai.”

This is the war mentality at work that says that any atrocity must be defended if it is committed by “our side.” As I have said before (see here, here, and here), war brutalizes all of us by making us ignore our common humanity and sense of normal human decency and tempts us to justify the unjustifiable purely on the basis of some warped understanding of “supporting our troops” or patriotism. We see the same phenomenon at work now, except that Arabs and Muslims in general, and Iraqis in particular, have replaced Vietnamese as people who are less worthy.

Thompson did not fall into that trap. He saw the Vietnamese civilians for what they were, ordinary people like you or me. “There was no way I could turn my back on them,” he said.

Thompson and his fellow helicopter crew members were belatedly recognized for their courage in 1998 with the Soldier’s Medal. He died of cancer on January 6, 2006. He was 62 years old.

It is easy to recognize and honor physical courage. But physical courage combined with the kind of moral courage demonstrated by Hugh Thompson is rare indeed.

(A friend of mine pointed to the recent death of Frank Wilkinson, who was victimized during the McCarthy era for standing up to the Congressional bullies of the early 1950s. It is interesting how people who stand up for their principled beliefs and are willing to pay the price are always the ones whom history recalls favorably, while those who go along with whatever the hysteria du jour are viewed with contempt.)

POST SCRIPT: Interview on blogging

I will be interviewed on Tuesday, January 10, 2006 on Cleveland’s NPR station WCPN 90.3 program 90.3 at 9 which runs from 9:00am to 10:00am. The topic will be blogging. There is a live audiostream which you can get at the WCPN website.