Hugh Thompson, the Army helicopter pilot who rescued civilians from U.S. troops at My Lai, died last week. To my mind, he was one of the true heroes of the Vietnam War.
Many of my fellow Vietnam veterans still have trouble coming to terms with the existential reality of the war we fought: It was a war that made antiheroes rather than heroes in the traditional sense.
This is not to say that a lot of Marines and soldiers and sailors didn't do heroic things in Vietnam. They did, and they deserved the medals and the recognition they got. But the fact remains that they fought bravely and well on behalf of a dubious cause, and their heroism has to be viewed apart from the cause for which they fought.
One of the most celebrated heroes of the war, for instance, was a Marine officer who braved enemy fire to swing out, hand-over-hand, monkey-bar style, to plant explosives under the bridge at Dong Ha, halting the North Vietnamese advance during the Easter Offensive of 1972. It was an incredibly brave act, for which he was awarded a Navy Cross. Marines still argue that he should have gotten the Congressional Medal of Honor, and maybe he should have. But his heroism, ironically, helped prolong a war we were destined to lose anyway.
In all fairness, though, most of the heroes in Vietnam didn't view themselves as fighting for the cause. They were fighting for one another. For too many of us in Vietnam, survival became the only moral touchstone. As Vietnam novelist Larry Heinemann once phrased that existential ethic: "You cover me, and I'll cover you, and we'll all go home." The greatest heroes of the war were those few who, even in extremis, would not let go of the values and ideals that were supposed to have brought us to Vietnam in the first place.
Hugh Thompson was one of those heroes. Another one was the still unidentified soldier played by Michael J. Fox in the 1989 Brian De Palma film "Casualties of War." He put himself at great risk by first trying to stop and later by reporting the brutal rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl. For doing the right thing, he still has to live under an assumed name.
In an interview with the New Yorker's Daniel Lang, this anonymous hero remarked, "Just because we could die any minute, everybody is acting like what we do doesn't matter. I figured it was just the opposite." I imagine Thompson felt that way, too. What both men did required physical courage, but, more important, it required moral courage. In my experience, that was the kind of courage that was much harder to come by in Vietnam.
Edward Palm of Bremerton, Washington, is dean of social sciences and humanities at Olympic College.
© 2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer