Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, U. S. Army Helicopter Pilot in South Vietnam
The news of the atrocity coming out of Afghanistan today serves to remind us that putting soldiers under constant stress in war can lead to horrible and criminal consequences. The circumstances surrounding the murder of 16 Afghan civilians, including 9 children are still unclear. It appears to be the work of a single U.S. Staff Sergeant who is now in U.S. Army custody. Presumably the reaction of Afghans to our continued presence is their country will be more virulent than during the recent riots and killings of coalition soldiers that followed the Koran burnings at Bagram Air Force Base.
This Thursday will be the 44th anniversary of the events that became known as the My Lai Massacre. On March 16, 1968 between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians were murdered in cold-blood by soldiers of "Charlie" Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division of the U.S. Army. Most of the victims were women, children (including babies), and elderly people. 26 US soldiers were charged with criminal offenses for their conduct at the hamlet of Mỹ Lai, but only Second Lieutenant William Calley, a platoon leader in Charlie Company, was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was tried by a military court martial and originally given a life sentence, but only served three and a half years under house arrest.
Seymour Hersch broke the story of My Lai in the national press after Calley had been arrested and charged. At the time of his reporting, public awareness of the massacre has been effectively suppressed by the army Here is an excerpt from Seymour Hersch's reporting from 1969 on the My Lai massacre:
Calley and his platoon were assigned the key role of entering the Pinkvi1le area first.
“When we came in we thought we were getting fired on,” Meadlo said, although the company suffered no casualties, apparently because the Viet Cong had fled from the area during the night.
“We came in from this open field, and somebody spotted this one gook out there. He was down in a shelter, scared and huddling. Someone said, ‘There’s a gook over here,’ and asked what to do with him. Mitchell said, ‘Shoot him,’ and he did. The gook was standing up and shaking and waving his arms when he got it.
“Then we came onto this hootch, and one door was hard to open.”
Meadlo said he crashed through the door and “found an old man in there shaking.
“I told them, ‘I got one,’ and it was Mitchell who told me to shoot him. That was the first man I shot. He was hiding in a dugout, shaking his head and waving his arms, trying to tell me not to shoot him.”
After the carnage, Meadlo said, “I heard that all we were supposed to do was kill the VC. Mitchell said we were just supposed to shoot the men.”
Women and children also were shot. Meadlo estimated that at least 310 persons were shot to death by the Americans that day.
“I know it was far more than 100 as the U.S. Army now says. I’m absolutely sure of that. There were bodies all around.”Hersch won the Puliitzer Prize for his reporting on My Lai.
There were American soldiers at My Lai that acted with moral clarity. Here is the official citation from the Soldier's Medal awarded to Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, the pilot of a helicopter over My Lai on March 16th:
For heroism above and beyond the call of duty on 16 March 1968, while saving the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of noncombatants by American forces at My Lai, Quang Ngai province, South Vietnam. Warrant Officer Thompson landed his helicopter in the line of fire between fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pursuing American ground troops to prevent their murder. He then personally confronted the leader of the American ground troops and was prepared to open fire on those American troops should they fire upon the civilians. Warrant Officer Thompson, at the risk of his own personal safety, went forward of the American lines and coaxed the Vietnamese civilians out of the bunker to enable their evacuation. Leaving the area after requesting and overseeing the civilians’ air evacuation, his crew spotted movement in a ditch filled with bodies south of My Lai Four. Warrant Officer Thompson again landed his helicopter and covered his crew as they retrieved a wounded child from the pile of bodies. He then flew the child to the safety of a hospital at Quang Ngai. Warrant Officer Thompson’s relayed radio reports of the massacre and subsequent report to his section leader and commander resulted in an order for the cease-fire at My Lai and an end to the killing of innocent civilians. Warrant Officer Thompson’s heroism exemplified the highest standards of personal courage and ethical conduct, reflecting distinct credit on him and the United States Army.