on 16th March, 1968, there was a massacre at My Lai, where US soldiers under the command of Lt. William Calley slaughtered the inhabitants of a small Vietnamese village without regard to their noncombatant status.
A helicopter gunship crew commanded by Hugh Thompson Jr. heroically put themselves in danger’s way to save threatened villagers, and also accepted the risk of court-martial when, following Thompson’s commands, they threatened to shoot their fellow US servicemen unless they stopped the slaughter. They then went on to report and testify against their murderous fellow soldiers.
Chief My Lai prosecutor William Eckhardt described how Thompson responded to what he found when he put his helicopter down: “[Thompson] put his guns on Americans, said he would shoot them if they shot another Vietnamese, had his people wade in the ditch in gore to their knees, to their hips, took out children, took them to the hospital…flew back [to headquarters], standing in front of people, tears rolling down his cheeks, pounding on the table saying, ‘Notice, notice, notice’…then had the courage to testify time after time after time.”
As I wrote in 2006:
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 rejected 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.
Let’s just emphasis one line there: 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.
At My Lai, the soldiers under Calley’s command who didn’t gleefully acquiesce (as some did) can be justified in considering that they were in danger of injury and even death if they did not go along with the slaughter. Naturally, wanting to live rather than die, men who would not otherwise have slaughtered killed with a heavy heart. Now, bear with me while I wrench away from blood and death to everyday blokes and “banter”, but what justifies the common voluntary male subjection to the homosocial phenomenon whereby men who don’t “go along” with “the blokes” are ostracised? Why is that ostracism such a strong tool in so many male relationships, especially amongst groups of men who are not close friends, or who may not even know each others’ names?
Watching Ricky Gervais’ Extras: Sir Ian McKellen episode a few nights ago, I was struck by Andy Millman’s absolute terror that men whom he hadn’t seen since school, whom he hadn’t cared for even then, and whom he had no intention of seeing again if he could possibly help it, might judge him as less than fully masculine. Andy was willing to deny his entire career path and professional reputation within that career in order that those old schoolmates would not think he was homosexual, or even tolerant of homosexuals. That’s homosociality in a nutshell.
In the context of that episode, the problem was “going along” with homophobia. But in society we often see “going along” with vandalism, “going along” with violence, “going along” with rape, etc etc. How is it that the implicit homosocial threat of ostracism so very very effective? Obviously the fear of ostracism for unmanliness is deeply ingrained at an early age. How is that done? How can parents who don’t want to perpetuate the worst aspects of blind homosocial bonding guard against it?
One of the benefits of having a son on the autistic spectrum is that he simply doesn’t perceive these emotional undercurrents in the fellowship of his peers. Or should I say he never used to. Because he’s high-functioning and now in his teens is learning to compensate well for his autistic disadvantages, he’s starting to dimly perceive that these weird expectations are swirling around.
I’d certainly rather him be a Thompson than a Calley, and in our household the events of My Lai are marked annually. (I hasten to say I make it clear that I don’t expect my children to feel they should emulate the extraordinary heroism of Thompson at My Lai itself, but certainly I expect them to follow the example of Thompson’s unswerving integrity during the years that followed as he continued to pursue justice for the perpetration of the atrocity.)
What can people generally be doing to raise young men (and women too) to be Thompsons instead of Calleys? To at least not be Andy Millmans? To be willing to take a stand against injustice in favour of integrity? Where do we start?