That’s the “Soldier’s Medal” to the right, authorized by an act of Congress in 1926 to honor “any person of the Armed Forces of the United States or of a friendly foreign nation who, while serving in any capacity with the Army of the United States, distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.” When ranked among other US military honors for gallantry, it is the highest given for non-combat heroism. Had the actions taken place in combat, they would merit at least the Distinguished Service Cross.
On March 16, 1968, three members of the United States Army earned this award, though it was not given to them until 1998. Even then, it was grudgingly given.
At noon of March 6, 1998, on the greensward adjacent to the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Government of the United States broke an official silence that had lasted twenty-four years. While a small crowd of veterans, friends, politicians, and journalists had gathered, no President or Vice-President, none of the leaders of government, civil or military, was there to take part in the deliberately modest ceremony about to begin. In fact, few in the national political and military establishments had wished it well, and some had worked against it. This reluctance needed no explanation, for it was simply understood in 1998, perhaps as even today, that public mention of the Vietnam War was unseemly.
Especially unwelcome, moreover, was any reference to the long-ago murder by American forces of 504 inhabitants of a South Vietnamese village known as My Lai.
Hugh Thompson, Jr., Glenn Andreotta, and Lawrence Colburn were the three soldiers honored that day. Andreotta had been killed in action later in 1968, but Thompson and Colburn were there in 1998 to receive their long-overdue honors.
Here’s the citation for Thompson’s award:
For heroism above and beyond the call of duty on 16 March 1968, while saving the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of noncombatants by American forces at My Lai, Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam. Warrant Officer Thompson landed his helicopter in the line of fire between fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pursuing American ground troops to prevent their murder. He then personally confronted the leader of the American ground troops and was prepared to open fire on those American troops should they fire upon the civilians. Warrant Officer Thompson, at the risk of his own personal safety, went forward of the American lines and coaxed the Vietnamese civilians out of the bunker to enable their evacuation. Leaving the area after requesting and overseeing the civilians’ air evacuation, his crew spotted movement in a ditch filled with bodies south of My Lai Four. Warrant Officer Thompson again landed his helicopter and covered his crew as they retrieved a wounded child from the pile of bodies. He then flew the child to the safety of a hospital at Quang Ngai. Warrant Officer Thompson’s relayed radio reports of the massacre and subsequent report to his section leader and commander resulted in an order for the cease fire at My Lai and an end to the killing of innocent civilians. Warrant Officer Thompson’s Heroism exemplifies the highest standards of personal courage and ethical conduct, reflecting distinct credit on him, and the United States Army.
That’s the short version of the story. For the longer version, go read a transcript of a lecture (and Q&A session) that Thompson gave at the US Naval Academy. [pdf] The lecture is introduced by a clip from a Mike Wallace story on Thompson for 60 Minutes, which is also transcribed, and the video of the clip is below.
Watch. The. Video.
Go. Read. The. Lecture.
Thompson’s story is not just about what happened in 1968, but also about what happened afterwards and what will happen down the road. It’s about leadership and the failures thereof. It’s about peer pressure, both negative and positive. It’s about what happens when revenge becomes the motive for military action. “You can’t start an operation or a daily task with those three negatives: bad leadership, negative peer pressure, and revenge.”
Speaking at Annapolis that day, Thompson made it plain that he’s not talking about an out-of-the-ordinary event, but about attitudes that play into the daily life of those in the military, of those in civilian leadership, and of all of us.
Prejudice was another thing I think played a part in it, because our training had dehumanized the enemy. They weren’t our equals. They were, you know, a lower class than us, so that’s not good. Everybody is equal. Nobody is better than you. Nobody is worse than you. We’re all human beings. You might outrank somebody, but that doesn’t make you any better than him, and I’ll tell you when you all graduate from here, every enlisted man and NCO in the military is required to salute you. None of them are required to respect you, and if you don’t have the respect of somebody, you’re not going to make it long in my military, and all services are my military, I’ll tell you.
So those are the things I think to watch for in everyday life. They’re all bad things, and they will take you down. Be on the guard for them. You’re our future leaders. We have to have the highest standards of leadership. You tell somebody something or tell them to do something, you have to be right. If any good things could come out of what happened that day, it’s teaching now and learning and instilling in your minds, your character, to do the right thing. That could be a silver lining to this. I certainly hope so.
I do too.
But I worry when I read Marcy Wheeler’s reporting on John Brennan or drones or Gitmo and indefinite detention or more drones or bmaz on Jose Rodriguez and the destruction of torture tapes and think about the civilian and military leadership in Washington DC. Reading posts like those, I see failures of leadership, negative peer pressure, a lust for revenge, and prejudice driving US actions.
Larry Colburn, writing in the Dover-Sherborn Press last March, addressed the latest episode of US military violence against civilians, this time in Afghanistan. While there are differences between that and My Lai, said Colburn, the larger issues are powerfully similar:
[W]hile my heart goes out to those who will surely be victims of the Taliban when America withdraws, I have my doubts about whether keeping our soldiers in Afghanistan even one more day is actually helping any of those we claim to be trying to help, as this tragic mass murder brings into high relief. Having served in combat in a war that was aptly described by the phrase, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it,” the parallels are growing ever more clear.
But while the generals and the pundits and the politicians weigh in, about “strategic objectives” and “protecting American interests” and all the usual justifications for the organized, planned murder of fellow human beings, I plead with you as my fellow Americans never to forget what war really is. Every military organization on earth trains young people, in the bloom of youth when they should be filled with hope and idealism and the joy of living, to dehumanize other human beings — to demonize them — so that the psychological ground is cultivated for them to do things they would only otherwise do if they were under mortal attack — that is to say to kill people.
And as long as we can rationalize that the people being killed “deserve it” — because they are “the enemy” — we have opened Pandora’s box, which as we know is damned hard to close once the lid is lifted.
In re-reading the criteria for the Soldier’s Medal, I think perhaps there was a mistake made in awarding this medal to Thompson, Andreotta, and Colburn. It is given for “heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.” Their heroism involved actual combat with an enemy. The enemy that day, however, was wearing the same uniform. In the words of Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
For their courage under fire and their persistence in doing what was right in the face of armed compatriots and superior officers who opposed them, instead of the Soldier’s Medal, they deserve the Medal of Honor.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I give thanks for these three, and for other servicemembers who knew when to say “no” — and who did just that.
Hugh Thompson died in 2006, and Larry Colburn set up the Hugh Thompson Foundation to honor the memory of his friend in two particular ways.
Of [Thompson's] concerns, the welfare of veterans comes uppermost. The Foundation notes the particular difficulties endured by our youngest veterans. And, it will support the efforts of organizations working most effectively on their behalf.
The Foundation also will recognize those who have refused illegal orders or, like Hugh Thompson, made the tough but right decisions only to be harassed and punished.
If you are looking to honor the service of people like Hugh Thompson, donating to this foundation would be a fine way to do so.