Professionalism/Hugh Thompson, William Calley, and the My Lai Massacre

The My Lai Massacre occurred on March 16, 1968 when US troops killed approximately 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War [1]. Members of Charlie Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division committed the acts under the command of Captain Ernest Medina. Lieutenant William Calley, the main perpetrator of the attacks, was later charged with killing unarmed civilians.[2] The massacre ended when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr. intervened, ordering his men to fire on fellow US soldiers if they continued killing the civilians.[1]


The Vietnam WarEdit

The United states started deploying troops into Vietnam in 1965. In January 1968, a large attack by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese on the American troops known as the Tet Offensive caused a severe blow to the morale of US soldiers over the next few months. The attack also led to decreased support for the war from Americans back home.[3]

Charlie CompanyEdit

Charlie Company arrived in Vietnam in December, 1967. They established an 11th Brigade fire base in the southern Quang Ngai Province, a Vietcong stronghold at the time.[4] Charlie Company was comprised of three platoons, and together with Alpha and Bravo Company made up Task Force Barker, designated after Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker, Jr. On February 25, 1968, the 1st and 2nd platoons of Charlie Company encountered a minefield, killing three soldiers and wounding several more. On March 14th, 1968, a small squad from Charlie Company stumbled across a booby trap, killing popular Sergeant George Cox and blinding a GI. Several others were injured to various degrees.[2] Over the course of three months, Charlie Company had suffered 28 casualties, including 5 dead.[1] The following day some commanding officers, including Colonel Oran Henderson, informed frustrated and angry members of Charlie Company that they would soon meet the enemy head on, and encouraged them to be more aggressive.[5] That evening, at Sergeant Cox's memorial service, Captain Medina suggested "revenge" for the casualties was not inappropriate.[2] Soldiers were told that they would engage the 48th Vietcong Battalion the next morning in the village of My Lai. There, women and children would already be cleared out of the village and all they could expect to encounter was the enemy.[6]

My Lai MassacreEdit

My Lai was located along the seacoast of Quang Ngai Province in the northernmost part of South Vietnam. 700 residents lived in either red-brick homes or thatch-covered huts in the small village. [6] On the morning of March 16, 1968, two days after a booby trap killed Sergeant Cox and wounded several other members of Charlie Company, Task Force Beta entered the area surrounding My Lai. Charlie Company was to invade the village and engage the enemy, while the remaining two companies, Alpha and Bravo, were stationed along potential escape routes.[2] There was great confusion as to whether the 48th Vietcong Battalion was in My Lai at the time, and the intelligence which suggested the enemy was in the target area later proved faulty.[4] When they failed to encounter enemy resistance, Captain Medina ordered the first platoon, led by William Calley, to enter the village and "secure it."[2] The men began their standard search-and-destroy practices, pulling people from homes, interrogating them and searching for Vietcong. Suddenly, a soldier stabbed an unarmed villager in the back with a bayonet. Another soldier tossed a middle-aged man into a well, and lobbed a grenade in after him. A group of 15 to 20 women, huddled around a temple in prayer, were each shot in the back of the head. Disappointed after finding a group of civilians alive in the village plaza, his men standing by, Calley ordered them to "waste" the villagers as they were heard crying "No VC! No VC!" Bodies were piled into irrigation ditches, dead or alive, while soldiers shot at them from just yards away. [7] Roughly 500 villagers were murdered in My Lai, the majority of whom were women, children, and the elderly. Many who survived were found hiding in the piles of corpses.[3]

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr.Edit

Hugh Clowers Thompson, Jr. was born April 15th, 1943, in Atlanta, Georgia. [8] Before serving in Vietnam, Thompson served the US Navy in 1961 as a Seabee construction worker. [9] After returning home in 1964 and becoming a funeral director, Hugh Thompson joined the US Army in 1966 [10], where he trained to become a helicopter pilot at Forts Wolters and Rucker. Thompson arrived in Vietnam in December 1967, joining the 123rd Aviation Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Division. Serving with Thompson aboard his helicopter were his door gunner and crew chief, Specialist Glenn Andreotta, and a second door gunner, Specialist Lawrence Colburn. [10]

Thompson InterventionEdit

At the time of the massacre, Hugh Thompson was a 24-year-old chief warrant officer. His mission was to fly a small reconnaissance helicopter over the fields of My Lai and draw fire from the Vietcong in order to help the ground troops, including Charlie Company. On that morning, nobody shot at him. Instead, Thompson only saw unarmed villagers, mostly women, children, and the elderly, in My Lai. When Thompson circled back, almost all of them were dying or dead.[11] Thompson, seeing these dead bodies across the village, reported the killings to brigade headquarters.[6] Specialist Larry Colburn recalls that nobody aboard knew what could have happened to the villagers and began marking the wounded with smoke. As Thompson flew lower to My Lai, he witnessed an American soldier nudge a young wounded woman and proceed to shoot and kill her. That soldier was Captain Ernest Medina. [11]

Thompson landed the helicopter to confront Charlie Company when he saw soldiers throwing woman and children into an irrigation ditch. Thompson said to a soldier, “These are civilians, we need to get them out,” to which the soldier responded he would “help them out of their misery.”[11] After pleading with the soldier, Thompson proceeded to return to his helicopter and prepare for takeoff. When he looked back, the soldiers were firing into the ditch, murdering the civilians.

As Thompson contemplated his next step, he saw elderly adults and children running to hide in a bunker. Thompson, now in his helicopter, landed the plane between the bunker and the incoming soldiers. [11] Thompson tried to explain to the lieutenant in command, William Calley, that the people appeared to be civilians and that he had not encountered any combatants in the area. Calley commanded Thompson to “mind his own business and get out of the way”. [11] At that point, Thompson recalls, he "knew who the real enemy was." [12] He told his helicopter crew mates to fire on Charlie Company if any of Calley’s men interfered while he rescued the civilians. Fortunately, the soldiers simply stood by and watched as Thompson saved the remaining civilians. Thompson called for nearby airships to help bring the people out of the town and to safety.

Military ProfessionalismEdit

Jus In BelloEdit

Soldiers are arguably held to a higher standard of professionalism than most occupations, since the consequences of their actions are more severe. Just war theory is a set of guidelines that dictates how nations and their militaries should decide when to go to war and how to conduct themselves in war.[13] One of the major tenants of just war theory is jus in bello, or just conduct in war. Soldiers must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, and the amount of harm they cause must not be excessive in relation to the military objectives they are trying to accomplish.[14] Many civilians were intentionally killed in the Vietnam War, and US soldiers did not discriminate as much as they should have. [15]

William Calley clearly violated jus in bello. He did not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, and the amount of harm he caused was excessive to the military objective he sought to accomplish.[2] He violated the Geneva Convention, under which his actions are considered war crimes.[16] The killings at My Lai were also seen by many in the US as another reason to stop the war in Vietnam, which ran counter to the American war effort that Calley was fighting for.

Conflicting LoyaltiesEdit

A military member's personal ethics might not align with their professional obligation. In the US, the military services have measures in place to defuse issues that arise between a soldier or sailor's loyalties. When conflicts arise, service members must follow a hierarchy of loyalties in order to decide what they should do. Soldiers and sailors must put the "nation above service, service above their comrades in arms, and comrades above self." [17]

When a service member's personal morals conflict with a mission, they can use the Constitutional Paradigm.[18] This paradigm is a set of four principles that are sequentially used to deconstruct where a person's loyalties lie. They are:

  1. Resolve ethical conflicts through the hierarchy of loyalties
  2. Resolve the situation so loyalties no longer conflict
  3. Remove yourself from the situation
  4. If the issue at hand is too extreme to ignore, you can choose to disobey

Hugh Thompson had conflicting loyalties when he landed in My Lai. His mission was to clear the area of enemy combatants, but it was unclear at the time if there were any enemy combatants in the area. His personal loyalties urged him to protect non-combatants, but he also had loyalties to his fellow soldiers. He could not obey the first part of the Constitutional Paradigm, since his mission was to draw fire and said nothing about protecting civilians.[18] His loyalty was technically to his comrades. Since he couldn't resolve his conflicts through the hierarchy, he had to move to the second part of the paradigm. He was able to resolve the conflict, and therefore his loyalties were no longer at odds. By threatening the American soldiers, he was actually helping by preventing them from committing more atrocities.

Hugh Thompson's decisions were much harder to make than they may first appear. Service members are taught cohesion, and that working as a team is the best way to victory.[19] This creates a sort of brotherhood, encouraging them look out for each other even in morally ambiguous situations. When Thompson chose to protect the villagers in My Lai, he risked being ostracized by his fellow soldiers, disrupting the cohesion built within his company and jeopardizing their effectiveness.


After the massacre ended and Thompson returned to base, he told his Commanding Officer what had happened, expecting Calley to be court-martialed, but nothing came of it. Not until 1969, a year later, did rumors of this massacre bring a full investigation on the matter. [20] The captain of Charlie company, Captain Medina was charged with murder as the commanding officer of the unit in question and dereliction of duty in suppressing the investigation. [20] However, Medina was eventually found not guilty. Calley was formally indicted, court-martialed, and convicted of premeditated murder with a life sentence. [21] After many appeals and public sentiment that Calley was a scapegoat, President Nixon reduced his sentence to 15 years and Calley was paroled in 1974 after only serving 4 years in prison.[22] In 1998, 30 years later, Hugh Thompson received the Soldier’s medal,[23] the highest medal awarded in non-combat situations.


  1. a b c Digital History (2016) My Lai Massacre.
  2. a b c d e f Lucas, G. (2015) Chief Warrant Officer Hugh W. Thompson at My Lai. Case Studies in Ethics for Military Leaders, p. 101-104.
  3. a b History Channel (2009) Vietnam War History.
  4. a b PBS (2013) Timeline: Charlie Company and the Massacre at My Lai.
  5. Linder, Doug (1999) Oran Henderson
  6. a b c Linder, Doug (1999) An Introduction to the My Lai Courts-Martial
  7. Koven, S. (2008) Responsible Governance: A Case Study Approach. p. 140-152
  8. Notable Names Database, Hugh Thompson
  9. Bilton, Michael (2006) Hugh Thompson
  10. a b Warrant Officer History, The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story
  11. a b c d e Colburn, Lawrence (2011) Interview – Larry Colburn: Why My Lai, Hugh Thompson Matter
  12. Thompson, Hugh (1989) Four Hours in My Lai Documentary
  13. BBC (2014) Just War - Introduction.
  14. Lucas, G. (2015) The Moral Code of the Warrior. Ethics and the Military Profession, p. 295-296
  15. Goldstein, C. (2012) Just War Theory and Democratization by Force: Two Incompatible Agendas.
  16. Red Cross (2016) Rule 89. Violence to Life.
  17. Campell, M. (2006) The Armed Forces Officer.
  18. a b Lucas, G. (2015) Constitutional Ethics. Ethics and the Military Profession.
  19. MacCoun, R. (2010) Unit Cohesion and Military Performance.
  20. a b Staff (2009) My Lai Massacre
  21. Herring, George (2001)The Vietnam War and the My Lai Massacre
  22. Schroth, Raymond (2012) William Calley Lives
  23. Norris, Michele (2006) My Lai Pilot Hugh Thompson