“Hero” is one of the most abused words in the English language, often applied to people who simply face some danger or who do well in sports or business. But the word really should be reserved for someone who – in the face of danger – does the right thing.
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.
Revenge-seeking American soldiers rousted Vietnamese civilians – mostly old men, women and children – from their thatched huts and herded them into the village’s irrigation ditches.
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 American 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 civilians.
“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 played a 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 in 1990-91.
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 “blot” 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 seems false hero-worship has become the equivalent of worshipping false idols in ancient times, though arguably believing in false heroes has proved more dangerous.
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 earlier.
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 the massacre.
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.
Confirming Ridenhour’s 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’ house arrest.
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 American heroes.
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 military, 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.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It’s also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth.’