Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson of the U.S. Army’s 123rd Aviation Battalion was on a routine reconnaissance mission in the skies of Vietnam on March 16, 1968, when he and his crew came upon the horrific scenes in the village of My Lai.
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It took many long minutes before Thompson comprehended that American soldiers were massacring scores of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in front of his very eyes. He landed his helicopter, ran to a nearby bunker and shielded a group of terrified civilians, after ordering his crew members to open fire on their fellow soldiers if they refused to hold their fire. After his intervention, the massacre ceased – but not before some 500 Vietnamese men, women and children had been murdered.
Thompson immediately reported the incident to his superior officers, but they preferred to look the other way. They even gave Thompson a medal for bogus acts of bravery.
A year later, another soldier named Ronald Ridenhour, who had heard about the massacre, petitioned the military, Congress and the White House to launch an investigation. When nothing happened, he went to the media. In the wake of the ensuing storm, Thompson was called to testify before the House Armed Services Committee. There, however, he was vilified as a traitor by the segregationist Democratic congressman from South Carolina, Mendel Rivers, who said American soldiers are incapable of carrying out such a horrid massacre. Thompson, he added, was the only soldier who should be put on trial.
A quarter of a century later, it emerged that then-President Richard Nixon had ordered his aides to carry out a smear campaign against one of the My Lai whistleblowers, apparently Thompson.
Many Americans viewed Thompson as a traitor and threats were made against his life. He was only recognized for his bravery at My Lai in 1998, 30 years after the fact. Like many of those who broke the silence over the massacre, he died at a relatively young age, 62.
But this does not mean the lessons of My Lai and similar events that have taken place since time immemorial can be ignored. In an ongoing occupation, even the “most moral army in the world,” as its defenders portray the Israeli army, isn’t immune from overreactions, indiscriminate fire and even outright crimes.
Israeli army commanders, like their counterparts throughout the world, will always prefer the testimonies of their subordinates over conflicting accounts of renegade soldiers, never mind members of the enemy population. And the Israeli public also prefers to stick to a naive belief in the purity of its soldiers and the humanity of its occupation, and to automatically reject those who want to disturb their peace of mind and to label them as informers and turncoats instead.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is exploiting this situation and exacerbating it 10 times over. He is waging open war against organizations such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, in order to blame them and absolve himself of responsibility for international condemnation of the occupation, and in order to incite against leftists – as is his wont.
Netanyahu is purposely magnifying and inflating the influence and resonance of these groups, giving them invaluable public relations, allowing them to raise more funds abroad and to grow stronger, an outcome that serves the purposes of both sides.
For many outside observers, the overwrought and overblown campaign waged by Netanyahu and his ministers against Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem and similar groups, which yielded this week’s efforts to subvert their meetings with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, is a telltale indication that Israel and the IDF have much to hide.
The bottom line is that, far more than the nongovernmental organizations he attacks or the reports about IDF misconduct that he condemns, it is Netanyahu himself who is sullying the name of the army, testifying about the evils of the occupation and corroborating the worst claims of the international boycott movement.