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The Soldier’s Dilemma

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain knew a thing or two about war and human nature. The university professor from Maine, turned self-taught soldier, became one of America’s great military heroes, receiving the Medal of Honor for his valiant defense of Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg. As a brevet major general he was accorded the honor of commanding the Union formation during General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.

When Chamberlain ordered his troops to present arms as Confederate soldiers passed by, the spontaneous gesture of respect jump-started the national journey down the long road to reconciliation.

Many years after the Civil War, Chamberlain said, “War is for the participants a test of character; it makes bad men worse and good men better.” There can be no better summary of what happened at My Lai 40 years ago, on March 16, 1968. In one of the blackest incidents in American military history, a number of good men stood up for the hard right over the easy wrong, while those around them either ran amok or stood paralyzed. Among them was Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, piloting an OH-23 light observation helicopter, along with his door gunner Lawrence Colburn and his crew chief Glenn Andreotta, who saved many Vietnamese civilians’ lives by threatening to open fire on their fellow Americans with their machine guns.

For many years, Thompson was ostracized by too many members of the institution he continued to serve loyally until he retired in 1983. Nonetheless, he was finally awarded the Soldier’s Medal in 1998. He has long been one of my personal heroes.

During the late 1990s, when I was a senior colonel, I had the privilege to serve as the president of direct commissioning boards. We screened seasoned NCOs for their suitability to receive a direct appointment to the officer ranks. As a direct commission officer myself, it was a duty I cherished.

I always opened the sessions with a few softball questions to relax the candidate. Then the questioning passed to the other members of the board. I then asked the last set of questions. I always asked the candidate if he or she had ever heard of Hugh Thompson. About half the time they had. In most cases, though, I had to recount the details of the story, especially the part about pointing his copter’s machine guns at his fellow Americans.

Quite often the candidate’s eyes got as big as saucers when I got to that part. My final question was always, “What do you think of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson?”

It was a tough question. Almost all of the candidates struggled with it. But the answer the candidate gave had more influence on the way I finally voted than any other factor. It told me if I wanted this person to be an officer in my Army.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.