"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 6 March 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Don't Tell, Don't Tell



A noncommissioned officer has a

duty to speak out when he sees

colleagues engaged in wrongdoing

- and, enjoyably enough, the US

Army had no shortage of

sergeants willing to do just

that when an official

publication did a terrible thing

last December. The army's glossy

house organ, Soldiers, had

commemorated the holiday season

with a cover image showing a

little girl asleep on a couch.

Behind her was a fireplace hung

with Christmas stockings. Making

the point clear enough for all

but the deeply comatose (and

maybe them too), the soldiers at

Soldiers posed the sleeping

child with a framed photograph

of a man in uniform tucked under

her arm — obviously meant to

be a picture of her absent



If the cover left a taste of

saccharine, though, the

magazine's uniformed readers

tasted something worse; a good

number of them rushed off to

their computers to (bad play on

military theme coming) lay down

suppressing fire. Representative

samples of their letters to the

editor appear in the February

issue of Soldiers; one letter

writer, after acknowledging that

"your December cover tells the

truth of today's service

member's relationship with the

family concerning deployments,"

goes on to huff that "your cover

did not send a holiday message."


But irate Sergeant 1st Class

Sonji Martin really gets to the

meat of the problem: "What

message are we trying to send

out to help recruiting and

retention?... Soldiers is

distributed to recruiting

stations as well as elsewhere in

the Army, and I don't want this

to be the first impression of

the Army for the young

generation we are trying to




You can't go around telling

people what this place is really

like — we'll never sucker

anyone into joining. It's kind

of refreshing to encounter

senior government employees who

aren't at all self-conscious to

be seen publicly demanding less

honesty from an official



Still, you can't really blame

someone who works in a kitchen

when he comes home smelling like

food — and it will come as

news to nobody that the habit of

narrowly choosing which

realities to acknowledge is

deeply ingrained in the military

mind. Consider this passage from

a long article on the

development of Army doctrine

that was written by a retired

brigadier general:


There's a huge disconnect
between the leaders and
the led of our Army about
what's real and what's not....
Hordes earn their livings by
applauding bandwagons as
they slowly creep by....
Until we live unyielding
integrity full-time, popular
or not, and quit penalizing
candor, we won't have this
essential readiness
component of American


While the article appeared in

the official Army magazine,

Armor, in November, it appeared

without the above passage. As

explained in the independent

newspaper Army Times, the essay

was ready to be printed when the

major general who oversees the

publication of Armor decided to

wade in and do a little

selective editing on some

inappropriate sections. In a

stunningly unsurprising

operation, the Army censored a

call for, yes, greater candor.


And it's not like any of this

represents a new dynamic, unless

Grandpa was making it all up.

The problem is that the Army's

institutional tendency to view

information as the real enemy

isn't at all confined to the

medium of amateurish print

propaganda; the metastasis,

whatever its origin, is

complete. Even in the perhaps

mildly important arena of combat

training, soldiers are fed on

the same kind of thin gruel that

they get in place of news, and

it's hard not to see the

potential for unfortunate

circumstances. A recent panel

discussion at the Army's School

of the Americas offered a

curious example.



The 11 February discussion was

the highlight of a week of

classes on the topic of human

rights, a subject the School of

the Americas finds the tiniest

bit sensitive. The audience

comprised perhaps 40 Latin

American military officers, a

handful of representatives from

human rights organizations —

including one much-arrested

anti–School of the Americas

protester who was invited by the

post commander and escorted back

and forth from the restroom by a

lieutenant colonel — and

another 40 or so field-grade US

officers. (And one visiting PFC,

who had finished sweeping the

motor pool a few hours early and

so had the rest of the afternoon

off.) There were six panelists,

but never mind: Two of them were

Hugh Thompson and Larry Colburn.


In March 1968, in case those

names don't ring a bell, a

company of US Army infantry

killed more than 500 unarmed

civilians at a group of

Vietnamese villages known as My

Lai; with draft-age men gone to

fight, the dead were women,

children, and the elderly. The

killing was systematic:

Villagers were marched in groups

to an irrigation ditch, lined

up, and shot with automatic

weapons. Hugh Thompson was a

helicopter pilot assigned to fly

in support of the mission, and

(although this is streamlining

the story) he stopped the

killing by the clever expedient

of landing his helicopter

between the soldiers and the

villagers and ordering his door

gunner — Larry Colburn —

to kill any soldier who wouldn't

stop. Colburn took aim as

Thompson talked to an infantry

lieutenant, and the argument was



At the School of the Americas,

the audience for the panel

discussion warmed up for the big

event by watching a videotape of

a 60 Minutes story on My Lai;

Thompson and Colburn waited

outside. And when they finally

did enter the room, causing

everyone in it to leap to their

feet, it became immediately

apparent that they were both

school-kid-nervous, as if they

were delivering their first oral

reports for grades. Most

endearingly, neither one of them

actually had much to say: They

just really didn't, uh, think

that it was right to, uh, go

around killing babies. So. Yeah.


But of course the point was

already made: Hugh Thompson

could have bent over and lit

farts with a Zippo, and he still

would have been the crazy-brave

motherfucker who stopped the

killing at My Lai. After the

discussion, Thompson and Colburn

were mobbed like rock stars by a

horde of groupie military

officers. Who — best part

— wanted their autographs.

"This'll be a real neat thing to

have when I discuss this story

with my children," one major

told Thompson, who was signing

his name on a sheaf of program



It was an enormously strange

thing to watch, and it almost

delivered the tiniest dose of

hope, except for a few odd

thoughts about all the things

that didn't happen: The US Army

brought Hugh Thompson and Larry

Colburn to Fort Benning

officially known as the US Army

Infantry Center, the "Home of

the Infantry," and the location

of nearly every significant

infantry training program the

Army has for officers and

enlisted alike — to lecture

to a group of Latin American

soldiers on the subject of human

rights. And then they thanked

them for their time and sent

them home; their presence on the

post where William Calley

attended Officer Candidate

School wasn't publicized until

after the event, and then only




And that wasn't at all an

accident. Someone asked, during

the discussion, if the US Army

uses the example of My Lai to

teach its new soldiers, the

successors of the infantrymen

who did the killing, and the

answer was — well, guess.

The Infantry Training Brigade,

where all of the Army's enlisted

infantry soldiers complete their

first several months of

training, turns out to

discourage discussion of My Lai

as a matter of policy. There was

some concern, the School of the

Americas commandant helpfully

explained, that it would

represent a bit of an unclear

lesson for a young soldier. Of

course, if you're really looking

for an unclear lesson to deliver

to young soldiers, you could

drop them into a prolonged

low-intensity struggle in an

urban environment crowded with

noncombatants to neutralize a

hodgepodge of separatist

militias whose

not-quite-soldiers look just

like the civilians that they're

supposed to be protecting. And

then, of course, you could order

them to respect everyone's human

rights without offering any

real-world examples of what that

means. My Lai is a good lesson

for foreign officers and a good

story to discuss with your

children — but you wouldn't

want to tell a bunch of infantry

riflemen about it. (Maybe as a

safety it could be incorporated

into the curriculum at

helicopter pilot's school.)


But, then, you can't really

expect an organization to deal

very well with its toughest

real-world dilemmas when it's

run by people who find honest

depictions of Christmas to be

highly objectionable. The small

daily lacunae in candor add up,

finally, to something more than

an unfortunate habit.

courtesy of theAmbrose Beers
picturesTerry Colon

Ambrose Beers