Hugh Thompson and the Heroes (?) of Haditha

As we learn more about what happened in Haditha (and probably about events elsewhere, even as soldiers at Ishaqi are cleared, even as we consider Abu Ghraib), we need to remember that only a very few American soldiers are deserving of our contempt (the chain of command? Well, that’s another thing). Many more act heroically and compassionately—and we should never forget them.

I don’t know where Time got its initial information about Haditha, from an American or an Iraqi, but I am sure there were those within the military who were as horrified by the incident as the public is now—and who were disgusted by the attempt to cover it up.

Much is being made of the memory of that greater massacre at My Lai in March of 1968 in the discussions of Haditha. Little mention is being made, unfortunately, of the heroic actions of Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson who, with his crew, tried to stop the massacre and even threatened to shoot American soldiers if they didn’t cease the slaughter. He had previously reported back to brigade headquarters telling what was going on but, seeing the destruction just continue, decided (with his crew) to take matters into his own hands:

Thompson, by now almost frantic, saw bodies in the ditch, including a few people who were still alive. He landed his helicopter and told Calley to hold his men there while he evacuated the civilians. Thompson told his helicopter crew chief to “open up on the Americans” if they fired at the civilians. He put himself between Calley’s men and the Vietnamese. When a rescue helicopter landed, Thompson had the nine civilians, including five children, flown to the nearest army hospital. Later, Thompson was to land again and rescue a baby still clinging to her dead mother.

Here are some of Thompson’s own words:

We came across a ditch that had, I don’t know, a lot of bodies in it, a lot of movement in it. I landed, asked a sergeant there if he could help them out, these wounded people down there. He said he’d help them out, help them out of their misery, I believe. I was . . . shocked, I guess, I don’t know. I thought he was joking; I took it as a joke, I guess. We took off and broke away from them and my gunner, I guess it was, said, “My God, he’s firing into the ditch.” We’d asked for help twice, both times— well actually, three times by then, I guess— every time that people had been killed. We’d “help these people out” by asking for help.

Sometime later, we saw some people huddle in a bunker and the only thing I could see at that particular time was a woman, an old man, and a couple of kids standing next to it. We look over here and see them and look over there and see the friendly forces, so I landed the helicopter again. I didn’t want there to be any confusion or something; I really don’t know what was going on in my mind then.

I walked over to the ground units and said, “Hey, there’s some civilians over here in this bunker. Can you get them out?” They said, “Well, we’re gonna get them out with a hand grenade.” I said, “Just hold your people right here please, I think I can do better.” So I went over to the bunker and motioned for them to come out, everything was OK. At that time I didn’t know what I was going to do, because there was more than three or four there, more like nine or ten or something like that. So I walked back over to the aircraft and kind of kept them around me and called the pilot that was flying the low gunship and said, “Hey, I got these people here down on the ground, and you all land and get them out of here.” So he agreed to do that, which I think was the first time a gunship’s ever been used for that. There’s enough of them there that he had to make two trips and he picked them up and took them about ten miles or so behind the lines and dropped them off.

A short while later we went back to the ditch. There was still some movement in there. We got out of the aircraft and Androtta, my crew chief, walked down into the ditch. A few minutes later he came back up carrying a little kid. We didn’t know what we were gonna do with this one either, but we all get back in the aircraft and figure we’d get him back to the orphanage or hospital back over at Quang Ngai. In examining him in the aircraft that day, the kid wasn’t even wounded, or we didn’t see any wounds, I’ll put it that way. He was covered with blood, and the thought was going through my mind and my crew’s mind, “How did these people get in that ditch?”…

It was probably one of the saddest days of my life. I just could not believe that people could totally lose control and I’ve heard people say this happened all the time. I don’t believe it. I’m not naive to understand that innocent civilians did get killed in Vietnam. I truly pray to God that My Lai was not an everyday occurrence. I don’t know if anybody could keep their sanity if something like that happens all the time. I can see where four or five people get killed, something like that. But that was nothing like that, it was no accident whatsoever. Pure premeditated murder. And we’re trained better than that and it’s just not something you’d like to do.

As Seth Lipsky wrote about Thompson in a review of a 1999 book about him, he “saved the honor of his country.”

Thompson died in January of this year, fortunately leaving us before revelation of this smaller, though certainly tragic, event at Haditha. In its obituary of Thompson, The New York Times pointed out some what happened to Thompson after the fact:

Mr. Thompson remained in combat, then returned to the United States to train helicopter pilots. When the revelations about My Lai surfaced, he testified before Congress, a military inquiry and the court-martial of Lt. William L. Calley Jr., the platoon leader at My Lai, who was the only soldier to be convicted in the massacre.

When Mr. Thompson returned home, it seemed to him that he was viewed as the guilty party.

“I’d received death threats over the phone,” he told the CBS News program “60 Minutes” in 2004. “Dead animals on your porch, mutilated animals on your porch some mornings when you get up. So I was not a good guy.”

The hero of My Lai was treated as a villain.

Which is probably one of the reasons we will never know who had the guts to tell this new story—though we should.

And we should honor them, just as much as we should revile any soldier who deliberately kills a civilian.

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