Saturday was the 56th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. The name is synonymous with war crime, atrocity and the absolute worst of America’s actions during the Vietnam War.

On March 16, 1968, members of Charlie Company slaughtered more than 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians – largely women, children and old men. They raped women. They burned homes. The massacre happened because of a combination of bad leadership, bad intelligence, racism and dehumanization. Bad leadership: The military is a top-down institution, and the officers at My Lai not only failed to rein in their men but took part in the crimes. Bad intelligence: Charlie Company had been told that the village was going to be full of heavily armed Viet Cong soldiers; they went in expecting mortal danger around every corner. And racism: In interviews with soldiers from that time period, they rarely use the word “Vietnamese.” They refer to the people of Vietnam with slurs, which served to make them seem less human than the American GIs.

It’s important to learn about the killing and what led those soldiers to act like they did; it is vital in preventing such horrors from being repeated. I also think it’s important to look at how the massacre was stopped and what happened to the man who stopped it.

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr. was a helicopter pilot who had been assigned to provide air support to Charlie Company that day. While flying over My Lai, he witnessed the killing. He then landed between a group of soldiers and a group of fleeing civilians who he judged to be in imminent danger. He then told his gunner to fire on the Americans if they fired on the civilians or himself while he was evacuating them.

It’s hard to explain exactly how taboo that order was; pointing your weapon at another American is pretty much the worst thing you can do in the military. But Officer Thompson got those civilians to safety. His crew chief, who was killed in action three weeks later, spotted a living toddler in a ditch full of corpses and retrieved the child. The only American casualty at My Lai that day was a private who shot himself in the foot so he wouldn’t have to participate in the massacre.

It took a while for the facts to be made public because the Army tried to cover up the massacre. But when the news broke, almost nobody thought Thompson was a hero. After My Lai, he was deployed on several dangerous missions without standard backup, which gave him the impression that the Army was trying to get rid of him. At the hearings in which he testified, a congressman said Thompson was the only person at My Lai that day who should be punished.


I’ve been thinking about Hugh Thompson Jr. as I look at the news from Gaza, where thousands of Palestinian civilians have been killed by American-made bombs and weaponry, and where thousands more are at risk of dying of starvation and disease because of an imposed Israeli blockade of all basic aid supplies.

Roughly half the population of Gaza is under the age of 18. The justifications I see for the suffering inflicted on a largely civilian population mirror the excuses made back in 1968 in Vietnam. The excuse that Palestinians are Hamas sympathizers sounds quite a bit like the excuse that the Vietnamese were Viet Cong sympathizers. That didn’t make the murders in My Lai morally acceptable.

The suggestion that Gaza must be bombed because Hamas uses its civilian population as human shields rhymes with the suggestion of 50-odd years ago that the Viet Cong used children as human shields or would strap explosives to them. Thompson, in a speech to the U.S. Naval Academy years later, said, “I’ve heard people that didn’t know the facts, didn’t know what happened or refused to believe it say, ‘Well, don’t you know they’d take a hand grenade and strap it to a little kid and send it into a group of soldiers?’ Yeah, I’ve heard that. I haven’t seen it, but I don’t deny that it happened. But my answer to stop something like that from happening is not to kill every 3-year-old in the country.”

I know there are many terrible things happening around the world right now. What sticks in my craw about the horrors in Gaza is that they are being perpetrated by one of our most steadfast American allies, with American weapons and American support, and that the Palestinian civilians are trapped because Israel has routes in and out locked down.

The current actions of the Israeli government are not, I believe, going to help Israeli or American national security in the long run. Tim O’Brien, novelist and Vietnam veteran, once said: “A bullet can kill the enemy, but a bullet can also produce an enemy, depending on whom that bullet strikes.”

The injustice in Gaza is likely to create more radicalized potential terrorists than it kills. It’s not a popular position right now to stick up for the Palestinians or call for a cease-fire. Hugh Thompson’s actions weren’t popular at the time, either.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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