- Created on Saturday, 17 December 2016 10:31
What are good and evil but the choices made by sentient beings?
It is the obituary of an American hero, Larry Colburn, in today’s New York Times that makes me reflect on this. It is only fitting if Colburn’s name is unfamiliar to you. His is the story an ordinary guy, thrown into horrible circumstances, performing an extraordinary act.
Colburn grew up in Grand Coulee Dam, Washington. He attended Catholic elementary and middle schools and then a public high school. His father died when he was fifteen. Maybe it was the grief and anger over that misfortune that led Colburn into a contretemps with an assistant principal, causing him to be suspended from high school for two weeks. Instead of returning to school, Colburn enlisted in the Army. He was seventeen years old.
This was 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. A year or so later, Colburn found himself manning an M-60 machine gun in a helicopter. He and the other two crew members were hovering over My Lai, a Vietnamese hamlet, in which a battle between American and Vietcong soldiers was believed to be in progress. Their mission was to identify Vietcong positions by drawing enemy fire.
Seeing dead and wounded Vietnamese villagers scattered throughout the village, the helicopter crew dropped flares near the wounded so that American soldiers on the ground could find and aid them. What they saw instead was American soldiers finding and murdering the wounded civilians.
Led by the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, the crew landed the helicopter and implored the American company commander, Lieutenant William L. Calley, to stop the massacre. Calley told Thompson to butt out.
Thompson positioned his helicopter between Calley’s platoon and surviving villagers. “Y’all cover me,” Thompson shouted to his crew. “If these bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them.”
“You got it boss. Consider it done,” responded Colburn.
Thus did three ordinary Americans – the other member of the helicopter crew was Glenn Andreotta – confront a bloodthirsty company of fellow American soldiers who had already killed about five hundred villagers, sometimes after raping them.
Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta coaxed survivors out of hiding. They found an eight-year-old boy clinging to his mother’s corpse in an irrigation ditch. He wouldn’t let go. They grabbed him by the back of his shirt, and together with other Huey gunships that they summoned, flew him and other villagers out of My Lai.
Two months later, journalist Seymour M. Hersh exposed the massacres committed at My Lai and another Vietnamese village. More than a dozen American soldiers were court-martialed. Only one, Calley, was convicted. Although he was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering twenty-two civilians, President Nixon intervened, and Calley served only three years under house arrest. Thompson and Colburn received hate mail.
Colburn’s obituary includes a photo, taken forty years later, of Colburn with a Vietnamese man named Do Ba, who had been that eight-year-old boy Colburn and his comrades saved.
Here is Colburn’s obituary.
Here is a letter sent by Captain Aubrey M. Daniel, who prosecuted Calley, to President Nixon.