Lost among the headlines about Iraq and secret detentions was the story of the death last week of a hero and a patriot: Hugh Thompson.
In 1998, Thompson was awarded the Soldier's Medal, for heroism not involving conflict with an enemy, for his actions to save civilians in My Lai, Vietnam, on March 16, 1968. Thompson died of cancer Friday morning in Alexandria, La., at the age of 62.
Reading the press coverage of the presentation of the Soldier's Medal to Army pilot Thompson and his two helicopter crewmen, Larry Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, could leave the impression that the award was the culmination of a natural and just process.
These three heroes, led by Thompson, rescued 10 Vietnamese villagers who were about to be killed by American soldiers, and they were responsible for stopping the My Lai massacre, led by Lt. William Calley Jr.
It took 30 years for Thompson to receive proper recognition for his actions that day, 30 years before it became safe to honor him for standing up to fellow American soldiers.
Hugh Thompson believed deeply that the military was an honorable profession and that in time of war it was important to behave in an honorable way. He paid a heavy price for his beliefs.
Flying a reconnaissance mission over My Lai that March day, Thompson looked down to see carnage. Bodies of Vietnamese villagers were strewn over the ground, and he could see 10 villagers huddled in a bunker as Calley's soldiers approached them. Thompson landed his helicopter and ordered Colburn, his gunner, to train his machine gun on the American GIs. He told Colburn to "open up" on them if they began firing on the Vietnamese. Then Thompson coaxed out the terrified villagers using hand signals and radioed for another helicopter to come rescue them.
When it became known what Thompson and his crew did to stop the My Lai massacre, his life became a living hell. He was nearly court-martialed for his actions. He was shunned by fellow pilots, dead animals were thrown on his doorstep, and he received death threats.
Contrast this behavior with the treatment of Calley. When he was finally sentenced to life in prison, the outcry by the American people against the sentence persuaded President Nixon eventually to pardon Calley. The lieutenant served only three years under house arrest, with organizations such as the American Legion raising funds for his defense.
Judging by the treatment of these two men, who did the American people really see as a hero?
The betrayal Thompson felt was so profound he never recovered from it and spent the rest of his life committing suicide by alcohol.
This feeling of betrayal is something most veterans have in common. All of us were taught to know right from wrong, to know good from evil. We trusted our institutions our government and our schools. We listened to so many of our churches promoting war and bowed our heads as our chaplains prayed over us to be successful in killing other human beings. We trusted our parents, who told us we were doing the right thing, and then we went to war in Vietnam (and now Iraq) and found we had been duped. We had been tricked into committing evil.
It comes as no surprise, after having the very foundations of life betrayed, that so many veterans have committed suicide. Or that so many veterans end up in jail or homeless or addicted to drugs.
Referring to the men who took part in the massacre at My Lai, Ron Ridenhour wrote in "Four Hours in My Lai": "Only a few people in those circumstances had the presence of mind and the strength of their own character that would see them through. ... Only an extraordinary few could withstand the pressures and maintain their moral beings in that awful place, in those terrible conditions. ... But we shouldn't our society shouldn't be structured ... so that only the extraordinary few can conduct themselves in a moral fashion."
Think about this. We are horrified when we hear about the massacres perpetrated in Vietnam and Iraq, and yet our society created the conditions for these atrocities to happen.
These atrocities will not end until we Americans, all of us, whether we were soldiers or not, recognize our own culpability. Like most Americans, I lived with the myth that as an American I could not possibly commit evil and that those Americans who did were deviants. It took me years to realize that the only difference between me and those who committed the massacre at My Lai (or Auschwitz or Nanking or Rwanda) was that I was lucky; I wasn't there. I had to face the deeper truth that the capacity for evil exists in all of us.
As long as there is war there will be atrocities and the need for the courage of men like Hugh Thompson. Only through the abolition of war will there finally be an end to atrocities.
© 2006 The Capital Times