Yesterday I introduced a hard-drinking veteran, and talked about the My Lai massacre which was one of the lowest points in the history of the US armed services.
The veteran’s name was Hugh Clowers Thompson, Jr. He was raised in rural Alabama to a couple of no-nonsense, God-fearing southerners. He had no special education, or at least not special as society defines it. He would go through a couple of marriages, and by his own admission, wasn’t much of a father.
But he was also an Army helicopter pilot in Viet Nam, and on a March day in 1968 he and his two crew were called in to support Task Force Barker during the My Lai massacre. The story is complicated, and the interested reader is referred to The Forgotten Soldier of My Lai. But the essence is, once Thompson realized that American troops were killing innocent civilians, he put his chopper down between the civilians and advancing troops. As he got out to talk to the American troops he told his two crew, if they shoot, you shoot. After he talked to the advancing soldiers, he evacuated some of the civilians, and went back to headquarters and expressed his outrage.
It is not clear what impact Thompson’s actions and complaints had on that day, but Task Force Barker was quickly stopped. The rest of the planned actions were canceled and untold lives were saved. The following year, photographs of the slaughter emerged in newspapers and national magazines.
A few years ago I called the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership1)The Stockdale Center, and other military ethical initiatives, were created in part because of My Lai. at the US Naval Academy, and spoke to the historian there. I wanted to know if Thompson was the first warrior, in the history of the world, to defend civilians against his own comrades and live to tell the story. The historian thought about it and said, as far as he knew, yes.
The fact that Thompson lived to tell his story is remarkable in itself. There were Congressmen who wanted him court martialed and executed, or at least sentenced to life in Ft. Leavenworth. The Army did its best to carry out such a sentence, although not by legal proceedings: Thompson was repeatedly sent on highly dangerous, even suicidal, helicopter missions. Alone.
The US military is charged as the villain in this, but the problem is complicated, and nuanced. And although some in Congress and the Army tried to punish Thompson, and were only partly successful, the fact that they did not do worse says much about American culture, and about how the modern world differs from the historical realities. We often confuse a lack of perfection with a lack of progress, and that is a mistake.
Eventually Thompson was so seriously injured in one of his near-suicide missions that he was discharged from the Army. He was a helicopter pilot and instructor for a while, and finally worked for the VA in Lafayette.
Thompson changed the course of human history. With time, his actions have come to be studied in militaries around the world, and advanced countries began to modify their approach to military discipline. Even the US military has changed, from charging our troops with “obeying all orders,” to “obeying all lawful orders.”
Which is the first thing that fits with our discussions here. As the world becomes modern, and changes in an accelerating fashion, we need people who think independently, creatively; liberally. We have already mentioned Thomas Lupo, and how his brazen disobedience helped the US win a critical naval battle. We may not think of Thompson as a liberal, but what he did at My Lai definitely qualified. He faced down historical traditions, his comrades, and the entire civilian and military chain of command. All of those that he opposed represented the conservative voices of the time. So at least on that one day, not only was Thompson ‘liberal’, he was a completely radical and original voice in the history of humanity.
The second thing that fascinates me about Thompson is, Why him? With all of the college-educated officers, some of them West Pointers,2)The US service academies are some of the most exclusive colleges in the world, accepting less than 10% of applicants. how is it that a rural southerner, a licensed funeral director with no more than a high school degree, was the lone moral voice in this massacre?
Trent Angers, author of the book noted above, credits family discipline, church, and the Boy Scouts. But those factors were hardly uncommon in the 1950’s when Thompson was growing up, and doubtless applied to many people up and down the command structure in Task Force Barker, including some of the soldiers who carried out the killings that day.
Thompson’s actions were unique, and so we need to find unique, or at least unusual, reasons for his courage. I suspect that a critical insight is that rural Georgia during Thompson’s childhood was rife with racism. Thompson’s mother was half Cherokee, and he knew what his ancestors had suffered through on the Trail of Tears. He also probably witnessed first-hand his mother’s treatment, indiscriminate of her character, but wholly discriminate of her race.
With that, every Sunday his father loaded up the family car with the black family who rented from the Thompsons, drove them to church, and then returned afterward to take them home. That was a highly unusual and courageous thing to do. This experience, combined with his mother’s story, could not have failed to greatly influence Thompson’s sense of right and wrong, and his belief in the value of people independent of race, creed or nationality.
We see in Hugh Thompson several of the themes of this blog: independent thought; a sense of right and wrong founded on the importance of people over dogma; a respect for all people; and the combination of them, the critical importance of listening to all voices so that we might move forward and improve the world. We will return to the story of Hugh Thompson and My Lai for yet other ideas in the near future, but these are a good start.
Picture of older Hugh Thompson courtesy of Acadian House Publishing.
Picture of young Hugh Thompson courtesy of Wikipedia.org.
Soldier fitting shoes courtesy of Wikipedia.org.
Front page image courtesy of Wikimedia.org.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||The Stockdale Center, and other military ethical initiatives, were created in part because of My Lai.|
|2.||↑||The US service academies are some of the most exclusive colleges in the world, accepting less than 10% of applicants.|