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 email@example.com.