Hugh Thompson’s moral courage in protecting civilians from Task Force Barker in the My Lai Massacre changed the practice of warfare, and our view of war.
The My Lai Massacre & Task Force Barker
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. His parents were a couple of no-nonsense, God-fearing southerners in rural Alabama. Thompson 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 Thompson was 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 showed the moral courage to land his chopper 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, led by Lt. Calley, he evacuated some of the civilians, and went back to headquarters and expressed his outrage.
It is not clear what impact Thompson’s actions had on the My Lai Massacre, but Task Force Barker was quickly stopped after he complained. 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 partly in response to the My Lai Massacre. 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 Hugh Thompson lived to tell his story is remarkable in itself. For his moral courage in defiance of Task Force Barker and in the protection of foreign citizens in the My Lai Massacre, there were Congressmen who wanted him court-martialed and executed, or at least sentenced to life in Ft. Leavenworth.2)Chief among them was Louisiana Congressman F. Edward Hébert. The Army did its best to carry out such a sentence, although in an extra-judicial manner: the brass repeatedly sent Thompson on highly dangerous, potentially suicidal, helicopter missions.
The US military appears as the villain in all of this, but the problem is complicated, and nuanced. And although some in Congress and the Army tried to punish Thompson, and were partly successful, the fact that they did not accomplish worse says much about U.S. tradition and 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 Veterans Administration in Lafayette.
Hugh Thompson’s moral courage changed the course of human history. With time, his actions during the My Lai Massacre have come to be studied in militaries around the world. As a result, 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.”3)I have tried to discover exactly when that change occurred. I thought I remembered that from around my time in the Navy, but I found discussions that the Nuremberg Trials influenced this. If anyone knows, please weigh in.
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.
This is another example of how we need to avoid partisan concepts of liberal and conservative. We may not think of Thompson as a liberal, but what he did during the My Lai Massacre 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’s moral courage ‘liberal’, it was a completely radical and original voice in the history of humanity.
Why Hugh Thompson?
The second thing that fascinates me about Hugh Thompson is, Why him? Many college-educated officers planned and executed Task Force Barker, some of them West Pointers.4)The US service academies are some of the most exclusive colleges in the world, accepting less than 10% of applicants. So how is it that a rural southerner, a licensed funeral director with no more than a high school degree, was the lone voice of moral courage in the My Lai 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. It doubtless applied to many soldiers in the command structure for My Lai, including 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 doubtless witnessed first-hand his mother’s mistreatment, 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. His father drove them to church, and then returned afterward to take them home. That was a highly unusual and courageous thing to do at that time and in that place. 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.
People over Dogma
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.
Pictures of young Hugh Thompson and soldier fitting shoes courtesy of Wikipedia.org.
|↑ 1.||The Stockdale Center, and other military ethical initiatives, were created partly in response to the My Lai Massacre.|
|↑ 2.||Chief among them was Louisiana Congressman F. Edward Hébert.|
|↑ 3.||I have tried to discover exactly when that change occurred. I thought I remembered that from around my time in the Navy, but I found discussions that the Nuremberg Trials influenced this. If anyone knows, please weigh in.|
|↑ 4.||The US service academies are some of the most exclusive colleges in the world, accepting less than 10% of applicants.|