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Hugh Thompson Jr. - Wikipedia

On the 30th anniversary of the massacre, Thompson went back to My Lai and met some of the people whose lives he had saved. 

"One of the ladies that we had helped out that day came up to me and asked, ‘Why didn’t the people who committed these acts come back with you?’ And I was just devastated. And then she finished her sentence: she said, ‘So we could forgive them.’ I’m not man enough to do that. I’m sorry. I wish I was, but I won’t lie to anybody. I’m not that much of a man."


Hugh Thompson was a volunteer officer in the Vietnam War who turned his squad's weapons on American soldiers to stop them raping and murdering more women and children than the four or five hundred they already had. 

He models the standard idea of heroism: one day, one decision, clarity, evil men to defy, faces you can see. Then, a system to navigate, betrayal, self-sacrifice, being punished for virtue.

I'm writing about him because of how the story makes me feel.   It is a fault of my feeling that I feel like this about Thompson and not Borlaug.

One day

Thompson and his crew, who at first thought the artillery bombardment caused all the civilian deaths on the ground, became aware that Americans were murdering the villagers after a wounded civilian woman they requested medical evacuation for, Nguyễn Thị Tẩu, was murdered right in front of them by Captain Medina, the commanding officer of the operation... "It was a Nazi kind of thing."

Immediately realizing that the soldiers intended to murder the Vietnamese civilians, Thompson landed his helicopter between the advancing ground unit and the villagers.He turned to Colburn and Andreotta and ordered them to shoot the men in the 2nd Platoon if they attempted to kill any of the fleeing civilians... 

“Open up on ‘em. Blow ‘em away.”

While Colburn and Andreotta trained their guns on the 2nd Platoon, Thompson located as many civilians as he could, persuaded them to follow him to a safer location, and ensured their evacuation...

"Later that day, sometime in the afternoon, after they had gone through the village, we were back out there again. [The murderers] were just casually, nonchalantly sitting around around smoking and joking with their steel pots off just like nothing had happened. There were five or six hundred bodies less than a quarter of a mile from them. I just couldn't understand it."

...senior American Division officers cancelled similar planned operations by Task Force Barker against other villages... possibly preventing the additional massacre of further hundreds, if not thousands, of Vietnamese civilians.


in the Vietnamese province of Quang Ngai, where the Mỹ Lai massacre occurred, up to 70% of all villages were destroyed by the air strikes and artillery bombardments, including the use of napalm; 40 percent of the population were refugees, and the overall civilian casualties were close to 50,000 a year... 203 U.S. personnel were charged with crimes, 57 of them were court-martialed and 23 of them were convicted. The VWCWG also investigated over 500 additional alleged atrocities but it could not verify them.

[A draw: ] PFC Herbert L. Carter; shot himself in the foot while reloading his pistol and claimed that he shot himself in the foot in order to be MEDEVACed out of the village when the massacre started.


Thompson quickly received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions at Mỹ Lai. The citation for the award fabricated events, for example praising Thompson for taking to a hospital a Vietnamese child "...caught in intense crossfire". It also stated that his "...sound judgment had greatly enhanced Vietnamese–American relations in the operational area". Thompson threw away the citation.

Initial reports claimed "128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians" had been killed in the village during a "fierce fire fight". Westmoreland congratulated the unit on the "outstanding job".

Henderson interviewed several soldiers involved in the incident, then issued a written report in late-April claiming that some 20 civilians were inadvertently killed during the operation... casualties that occurred were accidental and mainly attributed to long-range artillery fire.

Colin Powell... was charged with investigating the letter... In his report, Powell wrote, "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal Division soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."

... on 9 September 1969, the Army quietly charged Calley with six specifications of premeditated murder for the deaths of 109 South Vietnamese civilians... Calley's court martial was not released to press and did not commence until over a year later. However, word of Calley's prosecution found its way to American investigative reporter and freelance journalist Seymour Hersh. My Lai was first revealed to the American public on November 13, 1969—almost two years after the incident.

[chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mendel] Rivers... urged the President to use nuclear weapons against the North Vietnamese and to invade and occupy Hanoi... Rivers criticized Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, Jr. for giving the order to his men to fire upon American soldiers at My Lai if they continued to shoot unarmed Vietnamese civilians, calling him a traitor and saying he should be prosecuted... He called every major witness to the event (including Thompson) before the subcommittee, and then refused to release the transcripts of the testimony. This meant that military prosecutors would be prohibited from calling those persons as witnesses at Calley's court martial.

Calley... was sentenced to life in prison on 29 March 1971, after being found guilty of premeditated murder of not fewer than 20 people. Two days later, President Richard Nixon made the controversial decision to have Calley released from armed custody at Fort Benning, Georgia, and put under house arrest... Calley's sentence was reduced by the convening authority from life to twenty years. Calley would eventually serve three and one-half years under house arrest

Medina denied giving the orders that led to the massacre, and was acquitted of all charges... Several months after his acquittal, however, Medina admitted he had suppressed evidence

Of the 26 men initially charged, Calley was the only one convicted

Secretary of the Army, was quoted in The New York Times in 1976 as stating that Calley's sentence was reduced because Calley honestly believed that what he did was a part of his orders—a rationale that contradicts the standards set at Nuremberg and Tokyo, where following orders was not a defense for committing war crimes

The next 38 years

Twenty-six officers and enlisted soldiers, including William Calley and Ernest Medina, were charged with criminal offenses, but all were either acquitted or pardoned. 

Thompson was condemned and ostracized by many individuals in the United States military and government, as well as the public, for his role in the investigations and trials concerning the Mỹ Lai massacre. As a direct result of what he experienced, Thompson experienced posttraumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, divorce, and severe nightmare disorder.


In early 1972, the camp at Mỹ Lai where the survivors of the massacre had been relocated was largely destroyed by Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) artillery and aerial bombardment, and remaining eyewitnesses were dispersed.


... exactly 30 years after the massacre, Thompson and the two other members of his crew, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, were awarded the Soldier's Medal (Andreotta posthumously), the United States Army's highest award for bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy... [Senator Max] Cleland said the three men were "true examples of American patriotism at its finest"

Amidst our anger, we can hope that the senator is correct, and that the sick patriotism of the middle of the century had genuinely turned into something worth honouring by the end.

What does this have to do with EA

Not much.

There is a species of consequentialist, above our paygrade, who sometimes decides war is the right thing to do. But war is even worse than it looks, even after you take into account the apparent risks and costs and horror. Because much more horror doesn't get reported.

Whenever you read about wars before about 1900, remember that pillaging the locals was the official and conventional way to feed and reward your soldiers. What we see at My Lai is the fairly ordinary course of past warfare.

More practically it's just to show you what the right thing looks like, what it costs, how society can react to it, how long it can take for the moral circle to catch up with you.


Quotes all from Wikipedia.





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I'm so happy to see this here! Hugh Thompson is one of my favorite heroes of history.

What I especially love about his story is that there's nothing remarkable in his public biography besides his actions on the one day he's known for. Everyone can aspire to Thompson's model of courage. We won't all achieve perfection or reinvent ourselves in the image of a Borlaug, but we should all try to cultivate moral discernment and bravery.

I love the thought of Hugh Thompson as exemplifying some cherished EA principles.

"Why did you decide to try to save those villagers, Hugh?"

"I employed the importance/neglectedness/tractability framework! The villagers' lives were important, nobody else was helping them, and I saw that I might be able to help myself."

EA doesn't place much emphasis on person-to-person opportunities for doing good, but I think that applying the concepts outside their typical contexts can help in remembering that it's not only in career choices or funding allocations that we confront decision points at which we can profoundly impact others' lives for the better.

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