Friday, January 06, 2006

rip, hugh thompson jr.

A hero passes.

What I find extraordinary about this man's story is that for thirty years, nobody saw him as a hero, but as a traitor to his country. As the article notes, he was spurned by his fellow soldiers, sent death threats, and castigated by a congressman--all for putting his helicopter between Vietnamese civilians and American soldiers. It took a professor's pressure for the massacre at My Lai to be reexamined, and Thompson's role in it to be brought to light and honored. It seems like just a few years ago that Thompson and two other members of his unit, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, were what we might call "rehabilitated" if we were talking about Russian history. And it was. Just 1998.

A few days ago Mom and I were talking about how often, in press accounts, the words "hero" or heroism" are paired with "daring". It's as if you can't be heroic without putting yourself at risk. But the kind of risk we recognize as heroic is so narrow--throwing yourself in the ocean after a drowning child, or commandeering a bus to drive a bunch of your neighbors out of New Orleans before it floods. And then of course there's "quiet heroism", a term we attach to people like homeless shelter volunteers, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and so on.

Not to put down physical risk or tireless effort. But there's another kind of heroism, the one Thompson displayed: the courage of his conviction in the face of possible shame, court-martial, even death under friendly fire. He looked down and saw that his countrymen were killing innocents, and he put his body in the way. How many people do you know who would do that? I'd like to think that I would, but you know, I probably wouldn't. For one thing, I don't think that quickly under pressure. For another, if I were already so indoctrinated into a way of thinking that they'd given me a helicopter of my own to forward that way of thinking, it would be hard for me to see outside of that particular box.

Thompson's rebellion is sort of related to the kind we see in all those cop movies with taglines like, "He lost his partner, then he lost his badge. But they couldn't take his honor." You know what I'm talking about. Dirty Harry stuff, one man against the odds, against the system, whatever. But where that model is based on vengeance, Thompson's act was based on other factors: decency, compassion, a sense of right and wrong that penetrated deeper than the politics of the day. He did not look at those civilians and see "enemy combatants" he could pretend were so many more targets in an elaborate video game, or playthings that he could hood and humiliate for the cameras.

He saw people.

Rest in peace, soldier. You did your country proud, even if we were too foolish to see that for too long.