Tuesday, 27 November 2007

American Hero

I've just finished reading In the Lake of the Woods, a novel by Tim O'Brien, better known for his Pulitzer-nominated The Things They Carried. It's a great book, by the way - a definite recommend. But incidental to that, I did some research into the My Lai Massacre, an event we studied in GCSE History when I was 15, and which plays an important role in the book. As part of that research I came across the figure of Hugh Thompson Jr., a man I'd never heard of before, but who for one day, in the face of mankind at its most brutal and grotesque, stood out for the qualities of honour, integrity and compassion, and who I think can honestly be labelled a true hero.

Thompson was a helicopter pilot who arrived at My Lai when the massacre was almost over. (For those who don't know about it in detail, the event took place on March 16, 1968, when men of a US Army company collectively murdered somewhere between 300 and 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children.) He immediately began doing what he could to help the victims. From Wikipedia:

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., a 24-year-old helicopter pilot from an aero-scout team, witnessed a large number of dead and dying civilians as he began flying over the village - all of them infants, children, women and old men, with no signs of draft-age men or weapons anywhere. He and his crew witnessed an unarmed passive woman kicked and shot at point-blank range by Captain Medina (Medina later claimed that he thought she had a grenade.) The crew made several attempts to radio for help for the wounded. They landed their helicopter by a ditch, which they noted was full of bodies and in which there was movement. Thompson asked a Sergeant he encountered there if the Sergeant could help get the people out of the ditch, and the Sergeant replied that he would "help them out of their misery". Thompson was shocked and confused but took it as some kind of a joke. The helicopter took off - then one of the crew said "My God, he's firing into the ditch".

Thompson then saw a group of civilians (again consisting of children, women and old men) at a bunker being approached by ground personnel. He landed and told his crew that if the U.S. soldiers shot at the Vietnamese while he was trying to get them out of the bunker that they were to open fire at these soldiers. Thompson later testified that he spoke with a Lieutenant and told him there were women and children in the bunker, and asked if the Lieutenant would help get them out. According to Thompson, "he [the Lieutenant] said the only way to get them out was with a hand grenade". Thompson testified he then told [the man] to "just hold your men right where they are, and I'll get the kids out". He found 12-16 people in the bunker, coaxed them out and led them to the helicopter, standing with them while they were flown out in two groups.

Returning to My Lai, he and other air crew noticed several large groups of bodies. Spotting some survivors in the ditch he landed again and one of the crew entered the ditch and returned with a bloodied but apparently unharmed child who was flown to safety. The child was thought to be a boy, but later investigation found that it was a 4 year old girl. Thompson then reported what he had seen to his company commander, Major Watke, using terms such as "murder" and "needless and unnecessary killings". His reports were confirmed by other pilots and air crew.

One of his crew, Lawrence Colburn, later recalled the dialogue between Thompson and the Lieutenant (sometimes identified as a Mr. Calley, at other times a Mr. Brooks) as follows:

Thompson: Let's get these people out of this bunker and get 'em out of here.

Brooks: We'll get 'em out with hand grenades.

Thompson: I can do better than that. Keep your people in place. My guns are on you.

How perfect a reply - one is tempted to call it noble even: I can do better than that. The measure of the man, you might say. Willing to risk his own life, and to risk being responsible for the killing of men on his own side, in order to save those who were innocent - in order to do better than all the other soldiers around him.

The truly apalling thing, of course, is that it fell to this 24-year-old junior officer (inferior in rank to the Army Lieutenants who were responsible for the massacre) to do anything decent at all that day. We'd all probably like to assume that, put in his position or one similar, we would be brave, sensible and good enough to do the same thing. However, given that he was the only one out of over a hundred perpetrators and witnesses to do anything significant to stop the massacre, the horrible truth is that the chances are not high that any given one of us would.

I know quite a bit about humanitarian law - that is, the laws regulating armed conflict - certainly enough to have an awareness of how rare and heroic people like Thompson are. Men who find themselves caught up in such events most commonly either blindly obey orders or, at best, remain passive bystanders. The annals of war criminal case law are testimony to it. I can do better than that is a motto that I think ought to be more widely followed; the unfortunate fact is that more often people are content with I can't do anything about this or, worse, Best to just go with the flow.

It's a corny way to finish this entry, perhaps, but I'll say it anyway: think about the implications of Thompson's story, and examine how you usually behave when you see something happening that shouldn't be. I certainly have today, while reading about him, and will continue to.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Thats not a corny finish. It is something that we should all think about. Not just when we're reminded of it by reading posts like yours but everyday.