Humanity in the face of evil
In March, more than 50 years ago, one of the worst atrocities of the Vietnam War took place in the hamlet of My Lai in central Vietnam. In a search and destroy operation similar to that executed by US forces in Samar during the Philippine American War of 1899, troops of the 23rd Americal Division massacred over 500 Vietnamese civilians. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “A Bright Shining Lie,” author Neil Sheehan describes what happened.
“On the morning of March 16, 1968, a massacre occurred in the village of Son My on the South China Sea, about seven miles north of Quang Ngai town. The largest killing took place at a hamlet called My Lai, and was directed by a second lieutenant named William Calley Jr., a platoon leader of the division. The criminal investigation division of the military police subsequently concluded that 347 people perished at My Lai. The reports indicated that about another 90 unarmed Vietnamese were killed at a second hamlet by soldiers from a separate company that same morning.
“Some of the troops refused to participate in the massacre. Their refusal did not restrain their fellows. The American soldiers and junior officers shot old men, women, boys, girls, and babies. One soldier missed a baby lying on the ground twice with a .45-caliber pistol as his comrades laughed at his marksmanship. The soldiers beat women with rifle butts and raped some and sodomized others before shooting them. They shot the water buffaloes, the pigs and the chickens. They threw the dead animals into the wells to poison the water. They tossed satchel charges into the bomb shelters under the houses. All of the houses were put to the torch.”
Two years later, an Army court martial convicted Lieutenant Calley of premeditated murder of some 22 Vietnamese civilians, and sentenced him to life imprisonment with hard labor. His sentence was later reduced to 10 years but after three years under house arrest in Fort Benning, President Richard Nixon granted him parole. The trial of Lieutenant Calley was the focus of intense media coverage in the United States and the pictures of murdered civilians lying in a ditch at My Lai provided the antiwar movement with added fuel for the growing nationwide protests.
In 1998, 30 years after the event, the US Army honored as heroes, two former soldiers who placed themselves between the rampaging American troops and the civilians, even aiming their weapons at fellow Americans to rescue Vietnamese inhabitants of the hamlet. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., a helicopter pilot, along with his door gunner, Sgt. Lawrence Colburn, were awarded the prestigious Soldier’s Medal for “heroism above and beyond the call of duty while saving the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the massacre of noncombatants by American forces in My Lai.” A third crewman, Glenn Andreotta, was also later honored. Colburn and Andreotta provided cover for Thompson as he tried to stop the killings, ordering them to open fire on Americans if the atrocities continued.
In ceremonies held at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Thompson accepted the award “for all the men who served their country with honor on the battlefields of Southeast Asia.” Colburn added, “The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and the unarmed.”
While watching the TV coverage of the event, I was struck by the courage of these men who were willing to go against their own people in order to save noncombatants caught in a hostile situation. While others may have refused to participate in the carnage, Thompson and his crew went a step further by threatening to shoot anyone who persisted in the killings. It was Thompson’s report to senior officers that triggered the investigation into the massacre. Of him, Douglas Brinkley, a noted historian and author, would say, “He was the guy who by his heroic actions gave a morality and dignity to the American military effort.”
It speaks well of the American people, of their sense of rectitude, to honor these men who refused to play blind, or to go along with the evil that was taking place in an isolated community. Every war — Samar, Bataan, Vietnam — brings out the worst in man. The saving grace is that in the end people are held responsible for their abuses. A few are honored for their courage and humanity in the face of evil.
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