Monday, April 16, 2012

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
Dante Alighieri, Inferno
One of the marvellous and exciting things about the English language is its malleability, the way that words are minted, used, stretched and changed to allow us to communicate ideas. Unfortunately, this means that some words are stretched to the point of unrecognizability. “Hero” is one of those words. It is a word that is used to describe people who are merely victims or who show courage in the face of adversity. It can be used to describe those who merely do what they should be doing, however admirable or brave it might be. Like a sweater that fit well thirty pounds ago, stretching a word to cover everything that wasn’t there before results in the original design being lost.

It is time to remember that true heroes have walked among us. April 15th was the birthday of Hugh Thompson Jr., a true hero.

As a Warrant Officer flying in Vietnam on March 16, 1968, Hugh Thompson and the two crew members of his helicopter, Specialist Glenn Andreotta and Specialist Lawrence Colburn, intervened in what is now called the My Lai Massacre, to save the lives of civilians. A U.S. Army unit was killing indiscriminately during its operation that day and Thompson, who was flying reconnaissance, seeing dead children, women, and old men and no weapons, voiced his concern. At one point, he landed his helicopter to stop troops from attacking a group of civilians, ordering his crew to fire on the U.S. troops if the troops attacked the villagers. After rescuing the civilians, he filed an official report. He participated in Pentagon inquiries when the scandal broke and also testified for the House Armed Services Committee. As he became known to the public, he received hate mail and death threats.

Dr. Philip Zambardo, a psychologist who studies the nature of heroic action, has identified what constitutes heroism:

Simply put, then, the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need—a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward.

Thompson exhibited true heroism on that day, recognizing that, even in war, there is a line that should not be crossed, actions that are impossible to justify. He had nothing to gain from his action and much to lose. He did what needed to be done because it was right and he was there. He would not stand by. He was haunted by what happened until he died in 2006, but how much worse could things have been had he not intervened?

Thank goodness there are heroes among us. Thank goodness the word still has meaning.

Further information:

Hugh Thompson talks about My Lai

Photo: Public Domain

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