One of the heroes of My Lai died a few days ago, dislodging the old horrors and a fleeting national debate the world is begging us to reopen.

Are we the good guys? Is God on our side?

"We kept flying back and forth, reconning in front and in the rear, and it didn't take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we'd look, we'd see bodies. These were infants, 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever."

This story only gets worse. It took almost two years before a full-scale investigation got underway and the American public slowly became aware of what helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson happened upon on March 16, 1968: a wanton slaughter of Vietnamese civilians, being carried out by American troops.

"I think a count has been anywhere from two to four hundred, five hundred bodies. . . . I think that's a small count," Thompson, who died of cancer on Jan. 6, related during a My Lai symposium at Tulane University in 1994. He and his two-man crew stood in for the American conscience on that day.

"We saw another lady that was wounded. We got on the radio and called for some help and marked her with smoke. A few minutes later up walks a captain, steps up to her, nudges her with his foot, steps back and blows her away.

"We came across a ditch that had, I don't know, a lot of bodies in it, a lot of movement in it. I landed, asked a sergeant there if he could help them out, these wounded people down there. He said he'd help them out, help them out of their misery. . . . I thought he was joking. . . . We took off and broke away from them and my gunner said, 'My God, he's firing into the ditch.'"

Thompson landed his helicopter between the ground troops and nine Vietnamese civilians - four elderly adults and five children - who were fleeing to a shelter, preventing the officer in charge, Lt. William Calley, from "taking them out with a hand grenade." Thompson radioed a gunship, which eventually removed the civilians. Until it arrived, Thompson and his men kept the American troops at bay at gunpoint.

"A short while later we went back to the ditch. There was still some movement in there. We got out of the aircraft and (Glenn) Andreotta, my crew chief, walked down into the ditch. A few minutes later he came back up carrying a little kid. . . . He was covered with blood, and the thought was going through my mind and my crew's mind, 'How did these people get in that ditch?'

". . . Then something just sunk into me that these people were marched into that ditch and murdered. That was the only explanation that I could come up with."

Thompson's realization was, you might say, the birth of "Vietnam Syndrome" - the widespread public revulsion at U.S. militarism. My Lai was not some horrifying aberration from the basic myth of America's innocence and good intentions - the berserk actions of serial killers - but rather the logical consequences of the war itself, in which civilians were the enemy, or sort of the enemy.

"I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy," Calley later testified at his trial. "That was my job on that day. . . . I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children. They were all classified the same, and that was the classification that we dealt with, just as enemy soldiers."

Calley, the most prominent My Lai participant, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but he was freed by Richard Nixon after three years of house arrest.

The dirty little secret that came out in the congressional investigation - which would not have happened but for the persistence of another low-ranking hero, Ron Ridenhour, who learned of the massacre from some of the participants and eventually wrote a letter to 30 congressmen detailing what happened - is that apple-cheeked American boys are capable of unspeakable barbarism. As the desperate official denial and cover-up of My Lai attested, this was sometimes what was expected of them.

The news sparked a temporary breakthrough in public awareness about the real nature of modern warfare - a big problem for the military-industrial-media complex, which is calibrated to a war economy. Vietnam Syndrome has been in its crosshairs for three decades. The result is the war on terror, a public-relations success but a strategic and moral disaster that has increased worldwide terrorism and turned Uncle Sam into the world's most high-profile torturer.

The only way to salute Hugh Thompson's memory is to stand in his example of conscience and courage and to look with unblinking eyes at what we're doing right now, in Iraq, and say no, not again.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.