a society where "support the troops" is little more than a euphemism for
"support the policy," the concept of setting aside a day to celebrate
military veterans has always been touchy for the Left. But here's an idea:
what if we instead honored veterans of the anti-war movement? I mean those
-- from Eugene Debs and Helen Keller to the Berrigans, right up to Cindy
Sheehan -- who put their ass on the line to stop war...not wage it. To add
a twist, how about military veterans who have since become veterans of the
anti-war movement, e.g. Howard Zinn, Stan Goff, Ward Churchill, and
Even better, if you
truly want to acknowledge bravery in the line of fire, why not find more
heroes like Hugh Clowers Thompson, Jr.?
Thompson arrived in Vietnam on December 27, 1967 and quickly earned a
reputation as "an exceptional (helicopter) pilot who took danger in his
stride." In their book,
Four Hours at My Lai, Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim also describe
Thompson as a "very moral man. He was absolutely strict about opening fire
only on clearly defined targets." On the morning of March 16, 1968,
Thompson's sense of virtue would be put to the test.
Flying in his H-23 observation chopper, the 25-year-old Thompson used
green smoke to mark wounded people on the ground in and around My Lai.
Upon returning a short while later after refueling, he found that the
wounded he saw earlier were now dead. Thompson's gunner, Lawrence Colburn,
averted his gaze from the gruesome sight.
After bringing the chopper down to a standstill hover, Thompson and his
crew came upon a young woman they had previously marked with smoke. As
they watched, a U.S. soldier, wearing captain's bars, "prodded her with
his foot, and then killed her."
Unbeknownst to Thompson at that point, more than 560 Vietnamese had
already been slaughtered by Lt. William Calley's Charlie Company. All
Thompson knew for sure was that the U.S. troops he then saw pursuing
civilians had to be stopped.
Bravely, landing his helicopter between the charging GIs and the fleeing
villagers, Thompson ordered Colburn to turn his machine gun on the
American soldiers if they tried to shoot the unarmed men, women, and
children. Thompson then stepped out of the chopper into the combat zone
and coaxed the frightened civilians from the bunker they were hiding in.
With tears streaming down his face, he evacuated them to safety.
Officially termed an "incident" (as a opposed to a "massacre") My Lai has
been widely accepted as an aberration. While the record of U.S. war crimes
in Southeast Asia is far too lengthy to detail here, it's clear that was
not the case. In fact, on the very same day that Lt. Calley entered into
infamy (he later explained: "We weren't there to kill human beings,
really. We were there to kill ideology"), another company entered My Khe,
a sister sub-hamlet of My Lai. That visit was described as such: "In this
'other massacre,' members of this separate company piled up a body count
of perhaps a hundred peasants -- My Khe was smaller than My Lai --
'flattened the village' by dynamite and fire, and then threw handfuls of
straw on corpses. The next morning, this company moved on down the
Batangan Peninsula by the South China Sea, burning every hamlet they came
to, killing water buffalo, pigs, chickens, ducks, and destroying crops. As
one of the My Khe veterans said later, 'what we were doing was being done
all over.' Said another: 'We were out there having a good time. It was
sort of like being in a shooting gallery.'"
Colonel Oran Henderson, charged with covering-up the My Lai killings, put
it succinctly in 1971. "Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden
someplace." But not every unit had a Hugh Thompson.
This Veteran's Day, let's hear it for those brave souls who do the
fighting...to end the fighting.
Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at:
www.mickeyz.net. This essay is excerpted in part from his new book,
50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American
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