April 15th, 2010 — 5:27pm
As Americans anguish about the graphic WikiLeaks video of civilian killings and the adrenalized cockpit chatter from the two pilots in the Apache helicopters as they open fire in that July 2007 attack, I am reminded of a different kind of helicopter pilot and a different cockpit conversation.
A little over 40 year ago, Hugh Thompson, at the time, a twenty-five year old reconnaissance pilot, was circling above a small hamlet in Vietnam called Tu Cung by the Vietnamese and My Lai by the Americans. The area was quiet during his early morning fly over, with no sign of enemy action. An hour later, when he flew back over, what he saw was a swath of devastation and a ditch piled high with bodies, all unarmed. Then he noticed a group of civilians held in a bunker at gunpoint by American GIs. Thompson had had enough. He blurted to his crew, Lawrence Coburn and Glenn Andreotta: “Dammit, it ain’t gonna happen. They ain’t gonna die.” He landed his aircraft, instructing his crew to fire on the GIs—“open up on’em and kill them”—if they shot at him as he tried to rescue the hostages. Some 350 persons were massacred that day, but Thompson’s interventions may have stopped the massacre of thousands more living in the My Lai area at the time.
In Thompson’s case, the cockpit offered neither moral distance nor emotional insulation. For the good soldier, holding onto one’s full humanity, not only in the moment of rescue but in “the kill” is the critical mission.
—Nancy Sherman, April 15, 2010
The writer is the author of “The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers.”
Comment » | military ethics, moral weight of war
April 14th, 2010 — 1:22pm
The following Time.com article on the Army’s battle against suicide highlights the dilemma of a smaller Army fighting long term wars. Our soldiers and their families who have served multiple deployments carry enormous emotional and moral stress. As a nation, we need to come to terms with this and figure out a way to reduce the number of back to back deployments we send our soldiers on.
Military Suicides Up Among Soldiers in Repeat Army Tours – TIME
Comment » | military ethics, moral weight of war, recommended reading
February 25th, 2010 — 4:03pm
My father, a WW II army medic, died this past December, still wearing his dogtags, a full 65 years after his war. He carried to the grave the moral weight of his war. And he never allowed his family to share the burden.
Our soldiers today, in Afghanistan and Iraq, fight inner moral wars that most of us never hear about. And they wage the battles even when they have done nothing wrong by war’s best standards– and even when they wear their most stoic faces.
My experience with my dad led me to interview 40 soldiers who opened their hearts to me about the moral weight of war they carry everyday on their shoulders. They talked about the terrible anguish they feel when innocent children are caught in the crosshairs of war, or about the awful sense of guilt in cheating death when their buddies were far less lucky.
As a public we desperately need to hear these stories in order help our soldiers carry the moral burdens that come with sending them to war. Their burdens shouldn’t be private. They are ours as well.
I wrote The Untold War to start a conversation in America about the wars that soldiers bring home with them and that can haunt for a lifetime. We know our soldiers come home with the trauma of war, both visible and invisible. What we haven’t yet recognized is how they wrestle with deep moral questions about what they did or didn’t do on their watch. These are questions that their families and friends, neighbors and coworkers may see glimpses of on their faces, but never really understand. These are troubling questions, hard for all of us to even ask and hard for soldiers to talk about. The Untold War starts the conversation that we must have and that soldiers desperately need.
Comment » | moral weight of war