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Vietnam veteran and author John Harriman returns to Mudville with the second installment of his series Warrior to Warrior, letters from a Vietnam veteran to our soldiers in Iraq. See the intro to the series here).
I know Mudville readers well enough to say you're going to enjoy this. And I am really looking forward to more.
Courage, soldiers, courage By John Harriman
Dear Warrior . . .
Dan Rather signed off from his final broadcast as anchor of the CBS evening News the other with the word, courage. He said it to en-courage, if you will, families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, tsunami victims, the oppressed, journalists, you, the men and women in uniform in Iraq fighting terrorism, and who knows who else, maybe former draft dodgers still too scared to come home.
Sad to say, there's a whole other, darker side to his use of the word. Back in 1985 Rather took to signing off his news broadcasts with the mysterious "courage" for a week or so. Critics of Rather began to criticize him anew because it didn't seen to make much sense. It had no context.
Fast-forward to 2004 and the CBS 60 Minutes debacle over suspect documents used to discredit President Bush's National Guard service. After the documents were exposed as likely forgeries, Rather came under fire from his colleagues for continuing to defend the story. The gist of their commentary was that Rather should display courage and admit the broadcast was wrong. They mocked him with the word. Columnist William Safire actually wrote, "Courage, Dan."
So it's not inconceivable that Rather signed off his final broadcast using courage to get into the face of his critics to mock them back. In other words, "Now if you criticize my use of the word, courage, you criticize tsunami victims, 911 families, and our troops in Iraq. Go on, I dare you." Like that.
Which, to me, is a snide, petty shot that cheapens courage. It offends me personally because I met courage once.
During the Vietnam War, one of the shorthand terms used by antiwar activists, especially those in the press, was the name of a town: My Lai, pronounced ME-lie. In a most despicable criminal act, soldiers of the Americal Division under command of one Lt. William Calley herded civilians into ditches and began to shoot them down.
Anti-war activists, including those in the press, still cite the incident as proof that American soldiers were war criminals. Some say that all of us committed atrocities.
That false accusation is one of the reasons many Vietnam veterans rose up against John Kerry in the most recent presidential campaign. He was one of those who made such claims.
But what goes unreported in nearly every use of the shorthand term, My Lai, is an act of courage that goes beyond simple heroism to an act worthy of the Medal of Honor. By which I mean honor in its highest sense, even if not in the face of an enemy.
An army warrant Officer helicopter pilot by the name of Hugh "Buck" Thompson was flying overhead of the incident that day. He saw what was going on. He reported the incident over his radio. And then he did something that should force every man and woman in uniform into deep reflection.
Buck landed his helicopter. He got into the face of men who were killing innocent people in whatever frenzied state of mind possessed them. And he personally put a stop to the infamous My Lai massacre.
Of course, the deep reflection that I mentioned is this: "Would I have had the courage to do what Buck Thompson did?" He might well have died in the very ditches where the Vietnamese died, killed by their same bloodied killers.
"Could I ever muster that level of courage in myself?" It's a question for all soldiers, in all wars. That includes you. It's a question that defines the term, courage, at every level. It's a term that keeps new My Lais from happening.
I'm proud to say I knew Buck. He was a captain when I met him, and a long-time Army neighbor of mine in post housing at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Truth be told, he was a bit of a rake, a Gus McRae-type straight out of "Lonesome Dove." He was a heavy smoker, hard drinker, fabulous storyteller. You know the type--once he got going on a story you never knew whether it was a joke or the truth until he got to the punch line. Every tale was a journey.
But the one tale he never told was that of his own courage at My Lai. That news leaked out of his wife Joyce's mouth under the influence at one of the neighborhood blended Margarita sit-arounds.
I had heard about the pilot who stopped the killing at My Lai. From the moment I knew this was Buck's story, I was awestruck. From then on, the word, courage, to my mind, was defined by Buck Thompson's action that day. Compared to him, I don't know even the meaning of the word.
And, dang it, neither does Dan Rather.
Till next week . . .
God bless you and Godspeed.
John is a veteran of two combat tours in Vietnam and a member of the American Legion. These columns are excerpts from an upcoming book of the same title. His current book, Delta Force #1 : Operation Michael's Sword is a fictional account of the 9/11 attacks and the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom.
You refer to Buck in the past tense. Is he still around? In any case, a story that deserves wide distribution.Posted by Brian H at March 11, 2005 11:32 PM
Gawd...why can't he just write about Buck Thompson?...why does he have to use the heroism of Thompson to make a point about Rather? Instead of focusing on a soldier's heroism, now it's just a partisan attack...disappointing.Posted by Ed at March 12, 2005 12:30 AM
The Rather comment was an obvious lead in. Don't mistake personal dislike of a guy based on his character for partisanship. Military people generally dislike journalists simply because so many lack the fundamental strengths of character that are required of military folks - integrity and courage to name a couple. Some journalists break that mode, Rather wasn't one of them.Posted by Courage at March 12, 2005 12:53 AM
Sometime last year, 60 Minutes (no, I never watch it, but I accidentally caught the lead-in for this story) did a terrific report on Buck's story. They interviewed Buck and one of his 2 crew; the other man is deceased. It was an amazing account, and definitely should have had a tissue alert.Posted by Stace at March 12, 2005 01:05 AM
The Rather comment was an obvious lead in...as in predictable, lazy, overused...take your pick...I got nothing good to say about Rather, either, but all's I'm saying is if a guy's going to be afforded a weekly column, I'd like to think he could be more imaginative and less partisan.Posted by Ed at March 12, 2005 09:20 AM
Ed, the problem might be in your understanding of what the word 'partisan' means. I don't see evidence of partisanship in the post. There's a difference between personal opinions on a topic or person and partisanship.
Consider this: by labelling someone as 'partisan' you are also indicating that their opinion is not their own. A big problem with the Democrats is that they deny that anyone who disagrees with them is anything but partisan. but because their denial is about the very subject that is costing them any hope for anything but token participation in the American democracy it's likely that they are doomed as a viable political party.
The author has issues with Dan Rather, this doesn't make him a partisan. Look the word up.Posted by Andy at March 12, 2005 07:08 PM Hide Comments | Show/Add Comments in Popup Window(6) | (Note: You must refresh main page to view newly posted comments here)