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.”