Hugh Thompson, who died
on Jan. 6 at the age of 62 from cancer, was such a hero. In one of the
darkest moments of modern American history – on March 16, 1968, in the
Vietnamese village of My Lai – Thompson landed his helicopter between
rampaging U.S. soldiers and a group of terrified Vietnamese villagers to
save their lives.
Circling over the
village, Thompson was at first uncertain what he was witnessing. A
bloodied unit of the Americal Division, furious over its own casualties,
had stormed into a hamlet known as My Lai 4.
soldiers rousted Vietnamese civilians – mostly old men, women and
children – from their thatched huts and herded them into the village's
As the round-up
continued, some Americans raped the girls. Then, under orders from
junior officers on the ground, soldiers began emptying their M-16s into
the terrified peasants. Some parents used their bodies futilely to
shield their children from the bullets. Soldiers stepped among the
corpses to finish off the wounded.
But there also were
American heroes that day in My Lai, including helicopter pilot Hugh
Clowers Thompson Jr. from Stone Mountain, Georgia. After concluding that
he was witnessing a massacre, he landed his helicopter between one group
of fleeing civilians and American soldiers in pursuit.
Thompson ordered his
helicopter door gunner, Lawrence Colburn, to shoot the Americans if they tried to harm the
Vietnamese. After a tense confrontation, the soldiers backed off.
Later, two of Thompson’s
men climbed into one ditch filled with corpses and pulled out a
three-year-old boy who was still alive. Thompson, then a warrant
officer, called in other U.S. helicopters to assist the Vietnamese. All
told, they airlifted at least nine Vietnamese civilians to safety.
When he returned to
headquarters, a furious Thompson reported what he had witnessed, leading
to orders that the My Lai killings be stopped. By then, however, the
slaughter had raged for four hours, claiming the lives of 347
Vietnamese, including babies.
“They said I was screaming quite
loud,” Thompson told U.S. News & World
Report in 2004. “I threatened never to
fly again. I didn't want to be a part of that. It wasn't war.”
For siding with
Vietnamese civilians over his American comrades, Thompson was treated
like a pariah. He was shunned by fellow soldiers, received death threats
for reporting the war crime, and later was denounced by one congressman
as the only American who should be punished for My Lai.
Thompson responded by
saying that he had done what he thought was right, even if that meant
aiming guns at Americans to save Vietnamese. “There was no way I could
turn my back on them,” he later explained.
But the appellation
“hero” often lands on the wrong shoulders, giving credit not to people
like Thompson who risk everything to do what is right, but rather
elevating people who win acclaim by doing what is popular or expedient.
That flip side of the
Thompson lesson was learned by another American soldier serving in the
same region in Vietnam, whose life in a sense intersected with
Thompson’s as they traveled in opposite directions, Thompson toward
obscurity and the other toward fame.
Several months after the
My Lai massacre – but before the slaughter became a public scandal –
Army Major Colin Powell was assigned to Americal headquarters in Chu
Lai. As a senior staff officer, Powell was given the task of
investigating allegations of Americal abuse of Vietnamese civilians.
A letter had been written
by a young specialist fourth class named Tom Glen, who had served in an
Americal mortar platoon and was nearing the end of his Army tour. In the
letter to Gen. Creighton Abrams, the commander of all U.S. forces in
Vietnam, Glen accused the Americal Division of routine brutality against
“The average GI’s
attitude toward and treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is
a complete denial of all our country is attempting to accomplish in the
realm of human relations,” Glen wrote.
“Far beyond merely
dismissing the Vietnamese as ‘slopes’ or ‘gooks,’ in both deed and
thought, too many American soldiers seem to discount their very
humanity; and with this attitude inflict upon the Vietnamese citizenry
humiliations, both psychological and physical, that can have only a
debilitating effect upon efforts to unify the people in loyalty to the
Saigon government, particularly when such acts are carried out at unit
levels and thereby acquire the aspect of sanctioned policy.”
Glen’s letter contended
that many Vietnamese were fleeing from Americans who “for mere pleasure,
fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or
justification shoot at the people themselves.” Gratuitous cruelty was
also being inflicted on Viet Cong suspects, Glen reported.
“Fired with an
emotionalism that belies unconscionable hatred, and armed with a
vocabulary consisting of ‘You VC,’ soldiers commonly ‘interrogate’ by
means of torture that has been presented as the particular habit of the
enemy. Severe beatings and torture at knife point are usual means of
questioning captives or of convincing a suspect that he is, indeed, a
Viet Cong. ...
“What has been outlined
here I have seen not only in my own unit, but also in others we have
worked with, and I fear it is universal.”
A Cursory Probe
The letter’s troubling
allegations were not well received at Americal headquarters, where
Glen’s report ended up on Major Powell’s desk. It was Powell’s
politically sensitive job to investigate the charges of the division’s
mistreatment of Vietnamese.
Powell undertook the
assignment, but did so without questioning Glen or assigning anyone else
to talk with him. Powell simply accepted a claim from Glen’s superior
officer that Glen was not close enough to the front lines to know what
he was writing about, an assertion that Glen has since denied.
After a cursory review,
Powell drafted a response on Dec. 13, 1968. He admitted to no pattern of
wrongdoing by the Americal Division toward Vietnamese civilians.
Powell claimed that U.S.
soldiers were taught to treat Vietnamese courteously and respectfully.
The Americal troops also had gone through an hour-long course on how to
treat prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, Powell noted.
“There may be isolated
cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs,” Powell wrote. But “this by
no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division. …
“In direct refutation of
this [Glen’s] portrayal,” Powell concluded, “is the fact that relations
between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
Powell’s findings, of
course, were largely false, though they were exactly what his superiors
wanted to hear. Powell’s see-no-evil approach to controversies soon
opened his way to a meteoric career as the most acclaimed political
soldier of his era.
After finishing his
Vietnam tour, Powell earned plum assignments, such as a stint at the
White House where he gained powerful mentors, such as future Defense
secretaries Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci.
In the 1980s, Powell
pivotal role in arranging the Iranian arms sales at the heart of the
Iran-Contra Affair. He later employed his considerable personal charms
to convince official Washington that the scandal was overblown and
damaging to U.S. national security.
Later, under President
George H.W. Bush, Powell became the nation’s first African-American
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and oversaw the military
operations against Panama in 1989 and Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War
Awash in public acclaim
after those lopsided military victories, Powell entered the pantheon of
modern American heroes. Indeed, it seemed that no profile of Powell was
complete without a reference to him as a “genuine American hero.”
In Campaign 2000,
Powell’s status played an important role in securing the White House for
George W. Bush because many journalists and many voters assumed that
Powell would restore a sense of maturity and wisdom to the federal
government and to U.S. foreign policy.
Instead Powell helped
Bush lead the nation into the disastrous war in
Iraq. In February 2003, Powell
exploited his glittering reputation to go before the United Nations and
sell the administration’s false assertions that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein
was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
Later, millions of
Americans were shocked to learn that Powell had let himself be used to
peddle dubious WMD claims, which have since led to the deaths of more
than 2,200 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis. After
resigning as Secretary of State -- but not before Bush gained a second term
Powell conceded that his U.N. testimony was a
on his reputation.
But Americans might have
been less surprised if they had understood Powell’s real history. [See,
for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s series “Behind
Colin Powell’s Legend.”]
In modern America, it
hero-worship has become the equivalent of worshipping false idols in
ancient times, though arguably believing in false heroes has proved more
Much of the mistake in
trusting Colin Powell could be traced back to his blithe repudiation of
Tom Glen’s heartfelt warnings. Indeed, if Powell had done any serious
examination of Glen’s charges, Powell might well have learned about
Thompson’s first-hand account of the My Lai massacre just months
My Lai Scandal
It would take another
hero from the Americal Division, an infantryman named Ron Ridenhour, to
piece together the truth about My Lai. After returning to the United
States, Ridenhour interviewed Americal comrades who had participated in
On his own, Ridenhour
compiled this shocking information into a report and forwarded it to the
Army inspector general. The IG’s office conducted an aggressive official
investigation, in marked contrast to Powell’s slipshod review.
report, the Army finally faced the horrible truth. Courts martial were
held against officers and enlisted men who were implicated in the murder
of the My Lai civilians.
Lt. William Calley, the
platoon commander at My Lai, was sentenced to life in prison, but
President Richard Nixon later commuted the sentence to three years’
Thompson’s brave defense
of those Vietnamese civilians, however, was lost in the mist of history,
until he was interviewed for a documentary in the 1980s. That prompted a
public campaign to honor Thompson and his crew as examples of true
Eventually, Thompson and
two of his comrades, Colburn and Glenn Andreotta (who was
killed in Vietnam three weeks after the My Lai massacre), were awarded
the Soldier’s Medal, the highest U.S. military honor for bravery when
not facing an enemy.
An emotional Thompson,
who worked as a veterans counselor in Louisiana after leaving the
accepted the award in 1998 “for all the men who served their country
with honor on the battlefields of Southeast Asia.”
On March 16, 1998, Thompson and Colburn returned to Vietnam to attend
a service at My Lai marking the 30th anniversary of the massacre.
“I cannot explain why it happened,”
Thompson said, according to CNN. “I
just wish our crew that day could have helped more people than we did.”
Referring to the ostracism he faced and the long delay in getting
recognition for what he did at My Lai in 1968, Thompson told the
Associated Press in 2004: “Don't do
the right thing looking for a reward, because it might not come.”
According to the
AP, Colburn was at Thompson’s side when the American hero
of My Lai died in Alexandria, Louisiana, after a long battle with cancer.