FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Hugh Thompson and My Lai

There is an Ugly American, a Quiet American and then there’s Hugh Thompson, the Army helicopter pilot who, with his two younger crew mates, was on a mission to draw enemy fire over the Vietnamese village of My Lai in March, 1968. Hovering over a paddy field, they watched a platoon of American soldiers led by Lt. William Calley, deliberately shoot unarmed Vietnamese civilians, mainly women and children, cowering in muddy ditches. Thompson landed his craft and appealed to the soldiers, and to Calley, to stop the killings. Calley told Thompson to mind his own business.

Thompson took off but then one of his crew shouted that the shooting had begun again. According to his later testimony, Thompson was uncertain what to do. Americans murdering innocent bystanders was hard for him to process. But when he saw Vietnamese survivors chased by soldiers, he landed his chopper between the villagers and troopers, and ordered his crew to fire at any American soldiers shooting at civilians. Then he got on the radio and begged U.S. gunships above him to rescue those villagers he could not cram into his own craft.

On returning to base, Thompson, almost incoherent with rage, immediately reported the massacre to superiors, who did nothing, until months later when the My Lai story leaked to the public. The eyewitness testimony of Thompson and his surviving crew member helped convict Calley at a court-martial. But when he returned to his Stateside home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, Thompson received death threats and insults, while Calley was pardoned by President Nixon. Indeed, for a time, Thompson himself feared court-martial. Reluctantly, the massacre was investigated by then-major Colin Powell, of the Americal Division, who reported relations between U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese civilians as “excellent”; Powell’s whitewash was the foundation of his meteoric rise through the ranks.

Hugh Thompson died last week, age sixty two. Thirty years after My Lai, he, and his gunner Lawrence Colburn, had received the Soldiers Medal, as did the third crew member, Glenn Andreotta, who was killed in combat. “Don’t do the right thing looking for a reward, because it might not come,” Thompson wryly observed at the ceremony.

Something stuck in my head when I learned of Thompson’s death. “There was no thinking about it,” he said before his death. “There was something that had to be done, and it had to be done fast.”

Words similar to these are often used by combat heroes to describe incredible feats of courage under fire. With one possible difference. According to the record, Thompson did have time to think about it as he took off from My Lai, hovered and tried to wrap his mind around the horror below. Then he made a conscious decision to save lives. Some of the Vietnamese he rescued, children then, are alive today.

Ex-chief warrant officer Thompson is a member of a small, elite corps of Americans who have broken ranks and refused to run with the herd. They include Army specialist Joseph Darby, of the 372d Military Police Company, who reported on his fellow soldiers who were torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. His family has received threats to their personal safety in their Maryland hometown. And Captain Ian Fishback, the 82d Airborne West Pointer, who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tried vainly for seventeen months to persuade superiors that detainee torture was a systematic, and not a ‘few bad apples’, problem inside the U.S. military. In frustration, he wrote to Senator McCain, which led directly to McCain’s anti-torture amendment. I wouldn’t want to bet on the longevity of Captain Fishback’s military career.

Thompson’s death also reminded me of Captain Lawrence Rockwood, of the 10th Mountain Division. Ten years ago, Rockwood was deployed to Haiti where, against orders, he personally investigated detainee abuse at the National Penitentiary in the heart of Port au Prince. He was court-martialed for criticizing the U.S. military’s refusal to intervene, and kicked out of the Army. While still on duty, he kept a photograph on his desk of a man he greatly admired. It was of Captain Hugh Thompson.

Some of my friends get so angry at the Bush White House, and so despairing, that they slip into a mindset where Americans – the great ‘Them’ out there – are lumped into a solid bloc of malign ignoramuses. They forget that this country is also made up of people like Hugh Thompson, Joe Darby, Ian Fishback and Lawrence Rockwood – outside and inside the military.

CLANCY SIGAL’s Zone Of The Interior, is finally being published in the UK, by Pomona at £9.99. Sigal can be reached at clancy@jsasoc.com.

 

More articles by:

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

May 27, 2019
John Grant
Congress is Being Punked: Will They Find Their Backbone?
Robert Fisk
The Evidence We Were Never Meant to See About the Douma Gas Attack
Basav Sen
The Terrifying Global Implications of Modi’s Re-Election
Peter Certo
Pardoning War Criminals is a Terrible Way to Honor Veterans
Howard Lisnoff
When War Crimes are Pardoned
Joe Emersberger
Guillaume Long on Ecuadorian President Moreno’s betrayal of Assange and the Citizens Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
Monsanto, Scientific Deception and Cancer
Elizabeth Keyes
Demonstrating for Assange in NYC or Life on Pluto
Mike Ferner
Another Empire’s Boot Stomps on Ireland
Lizzett Talavera
Toward a Culture of Animal Protection in Cuba
Ed Sanders
Monsanto is Evil: a Glyph
Elliot Sperber
The Snow Leopards of Central Park 
Weekend Edition
May 24, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Iran, Venezuela and the Throes of Empire
Melvin Goodman
The Dangerous Demise of Disarmament
Jeffrey St. Clair
“The Army Ain’t No Place for a Black Man:” How the Wolf Got Caged
Richard Moser
War is War on Mother Earth
Andrew Levine
The (Small-d) Democrat’s Dilemma
Russell Mokhiber
The Boeing Way: Blaming Dead Pilots
Rev. William Alberts
Gaslighters of God
Phyllis Bennis
The Amputation Crisis in Gaza: a US-Funded Atrocity
David Rosen
21st Century Conglomerate Trusts 
Jonathan Latham
As a GMO Stunt, Professor Tasted a Pesticide and Gave It to Students
Binoy Kampmark
The Espionage Act and Julian Assange
Kathy Deacon
Liberals Fall Into Line: a Recurring Phenomenon
Jill Richardson
The Disparity Behind Anti-Abortion Laws
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Chelsea Manning is Showing Us What Real Resistance Looks Like
Zhivko Illeieff
Russiagate and the Dry Rot in American Journalism
Norman Solomon
Will Biden’s Dog Whistles for Racism Catch Up with Him?
Yanis Varoufakis
The Left Refuses to Get Its Act Together in the Face of Neofascism
Lawrence Davidson
Senator Schumer’s Divine Mission
Thomas Knapp
War Crimes Pardons: A Terrible Memorial Day Idea
Renee Parsons
Dump Bolton before He Starts the Next War
Yves Engler
Canada’s Meddling in Venezuela
Katie Singer
Controlling 5G: A Course in Obstacles
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Beauty of Trees
Jesse Jackson
Extremist Laws, Like Alabama’s, Will Hit Poor Women the Hardest
Andrew Bacevich
The “Forever Wars” Enshrined
Ron Jacobs
Another One Moves On: Roz Payne, Presente!
Christopher Brauchli
The Offal Office
Daniel Falcone
Where the ‘Democratic Left’ Goes to Die: Staten Island NYC and the Forgotten Primaries   
Julia Paley
Life After Deportation
Sarah Anderson
America Needs a Long-Term Care Program for Seniors
Seiji Yamada – John Witeck
Stop U.S. Funding for Human Rights Abuses in the Philippines
Shane Doyle, A.J. Not Afraid and Adrian Bird, Jr.
The Crazy Mountains Deserve Preservation
Charlie Nash
Will Generation Z Introduce a Wizard Renaissance?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail