Friday, June 21, 2013

Of Heroes and Villains

First Platoon, Co A, 1/46 Infantry

A few years ago the American Film Institute came up with a list of heroes and villains from the movies. At the top of the hero list was the character, Atticus Finch, from the film To Kill A Mockingbird. And leading the villain list was Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs.

This topic of heroes and villains is of interest to me because of my combat experience. I’ve often wondered, given the right set of circumstances, if it would have been possible for me to have played either role. In my position as a combat platoon leader, I saw heroism demonstrated by the young men under my command. However, I never witnessed any of the villainous acts attributed to some soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Apparently such despicable acts did take place, and some American fighting men allegedly did horrific things, but I wasn’t an eyewitness to any of this.

It’s my contention that every person is capable of great heroism, and may also be capable of despicable, even villainous behavior.

Take, for example, Lieutenant William Calley, who was convicted of ordering the slaughter of the entire village of My Lai. As a young, inexperienced junior officer, Calley was caught in an ambiguous situation in an area that had been declared a “free fire” zone. Some have argued that Calley was unprepared for the command he was given. Prior to his commission as an officer Calley had been an unemployed college dropout who had managed to graduate from Officer's Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1967. ( However, other young men, also lacking in education and without the advantage of several years of officer training, were recognized for great heroism. A recent visit to the Infantry Museum at Fort Benning underscores this. An entire section is dedicated to the OCS hall of fame, a tribute to OCS grads who performed acts of heroism in combat.

So what makes the difference in whether a person is a hero or a villain? It has always been a troubling question in my mind, especially given the fact that I came from a similar background as Calley. I flunked out of college and was drafted as a young husband and father, despite my protestations and attempts to obtain some other kind of deferment. While in basic training I tested and applied for both officer candidate school and flight school, and, to my surprise, was accepted into both.

I graduated from OCS on October 16, 1969, just a few weeks before the My Lai massacre came to national attention. However, instead of being sent to Vietnam, I was given orders to an infantry unit in Germany. But after eighteen months the Army sent me to Vietnam. By this time much had changed in our rules of engagement, and there were no longer any free fire zones. Also, by this time our mission had changed to providing security for a gradual withdrawal. As a result, I never had to deal with the ambiguous circumstances faced by Calley and his platoon, even though my unit was a part of the same Americal Division.

There was nothing particularly heroic in my service as a combat commander. But there was also nothing villainous about my conduct or that of my men. We did our job the best we could and served with honor, then came home, took off our uniforms, and tried to return to a normal life.

I am proud of the men that I had the privilege of leading, and I’m thankful that we never had to discover how we would react under such ambiguity as that faced by Calley and his men.

By the way, the photo is of some of the men I commanded in combat. At this time I had been reassigned to the firebase to command the battalion mortar platoon, and, to my delight, my rifle platoon pulled a week of firebase security, giving me an opportunity to see all of them again. I only regret not being able to remember all of them, 42 years later.