Are you a Thompson or a Calley?

Next week, on 16 March, is the anniversary of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1968.

Lt. William Calley was in charge of one platoon of the American troops who killed either 112 (USA military figures) or 504 (Vietnamese figures) civilians. Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson and his crew refused to take part in the killing or condone it, landing his helicopter between American troops and Vietnamese villagers and evacuating the villagers.

After the event, Thompson was pilloried for threating to kill American soldiers while Calley was lauded as a strong leader who successfully neutralised a credible threat, to use the depersonalised military lingo. It took years for the truth to come out, and even then only Calley and a few others were court-martialled, even though all indications were that a long chain of command condoning the massacre had existed. Calley and others did what their commanders were careful not to directly order although they made their approbation clear: kill, kill, kill whether they are VietCong or not. Some men who took part later acknowledged that they knew it was wrong but “went along” through group loyalty and fear of the consequences of standing apart.

Thirty years after the massacre, Hugh Thompson was finally awarded the Soldier’s Medal, “for bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy”, the closest that the US Army has come to openly acknowledging that there was no military justification for the slaughter at My Lai.

Thompson rejects any imputation that his bravery was unique, taking pains to laud one of the soldiers on the ground, who when threatened with death by his platoon-mates if he didn’t take part in the slaughter, shot his own foot off rather than kill civilians in cold blood. Not having a helicopter, that man had fewer options and no ability to save others as Thompson could, so he mutilated himself for life as the only option he could see to save his own life while not taking other’s lives.

Few of us are in such literal life and death situations, where our choices affect not only our survival but also that of others, but circumstances where doing the easy thing and/or the approved thing is not the same as doing the right thing come up every day.

Flea writes an eloquent homage to Thompson in a letter to her sons for them to read when they are older, describing how they will be in situations where others are doing wrong, and that when that happens her hope is that they will take inspiration and courage from Hugh Thompson and do what is right.

We all could learn from the courage of Hugh Thompson and all those others who have stood up to immoral orders and group pressure and said “no more”. Examples such as Pastor Martin Niemöller’s anti-bigotry exhortations, Bertrand Russell’s pacifism, Annie Kenney’s suffragism, Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent disobedience, and many others who risked imprisonment and worse because they saw a need to stand up for what is right.

Do you have the courage to do the same?

In social situations, where an individual/gender/race/sexuality is being verbally degraded by others, do you let it slide by or do you confront it?

If you’re out on a girls’ night, and one of your friends is very drunk and a few men you know offer to take her home, do you just let it happen and hope that she will be OK? Or do you decide to sacrifice some of your fun night, and make sure you and your other girfriends get her home safely?

If you’re one of those men taking a drunk girl home, or at a party where a woman is sleeping upstairs and the other guys talk about having a “little fun” with her while she’s passed out, do you stand by? Join in? Or stop it?

When deciding how to cast your vote, when one candidate offers to make life a little easier for you by making life harder for others, does that candidate deserve your vote? Are you willing to get by with just a little less when it means others that are struggling can have just a little more?

Be a Thompson.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, history, violence

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2 replies

  1. That question is a neat way of putting the comparison. I know for sure I’m not a Calley, but Thompson was very very brave. – barista

  2. Absolutely, we can’t all expect to be heroes sung in history. It comes down to moments of choice to be more of a Thompson than a Calley, as far as we are able. Flea’s letter sparked a lot of discussion on various blogs and livejournal communities about the unfairness of placing the burden of heroism onto our children’s shoulders in our expectations, so I’d write the above a little differently now in light of that.Because the astonishing heroism of the day is not the example most of us will ever be called on to follow. The best measure of Thompson’s integrity, and we all can aim to follow this, is that after My Lai he didn’t back down and give up on laying complaints against Calley et al for their actions. He persevered despite immense pressure to let sleeping dogs lay.I’ve known a few whistleblowers around Sydney. They get treated worse than dogs for years before vindication (if it ever comes), but they do what they’ve got to do. Thompsons all.

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