Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

You never know when the defining moral decision of your life will loom up

One of the things that has struck me repeatedly in reading accounts of minor figures in the My Lai case is how the moral question that will define a person’s life can come upon us at any time. You’re an aviation company commander minding your own business on your base in Vietnam one warm morning ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

One of the things that has struck me repeatedly in reading accounts of minor figures in the My Lai case is how the moral question that will define a person's life can come upon us at any time.

You're an aviation company commander minding your own business on your base in Vietnam one warm morning in March 1968, and one of your helicopter pilots, Hugh Thompson, lands his aircraft clearly upset, and comes over to tell you that an American infantry unit a few miles away is killing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Vietnamese civilians. What do you do, major?

So when I particularly impressed by these comments about the massacre made decades later by William Eckhardt, the Army lawyer who was lead prosecutor:

One of the things that has struck me repeatedly in reading accounts of minor figures in the My Lai case is how the moral question that will define a person’s life can come upon us at any time.

You’re an aviation company commander minding your own business on your base in Vietnam one warm morning in March 1968, and one of your helicopter pilots, Hugh Thompson, lands his aircraft clearly upset, and comes over to tell you that an American infantry unit a few miles away is killing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Vietnamese civilians. What do you do, major?

So when I particularly impressed by these comments about the massacre made decades later by William Eckhardt, the Army lawyer who was lead prosecutor:

Evil doesn’t come like Darth Vader dressed in black, hissing. Evil comes as a little bird whispering in your ear: ‘Think about your career. I’m not sure what’s going on. We’ll muddle through for the next couple of hours. We’ll get over the hill, and we’ll go on. I mean, after all, I can’t call people in and admit that I can’t control, I can’t do some other thing.’ In my judgment, the evil comes from that point of view.

(From p. 43, David Anderson, ed. Facing My Lai: Moving Beyond the Massacre)

My bedtime reading as of last night is Tim O’Brien‘s In the Lake of the Woods, which touches on this theme. Little known fact: O’Brien served in the Americal Division about a year after one of its battalions committed the My Lai massacre. Probably the only guy in history to go directly from the Americal to the Washington Post.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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