Nov 20, 2020 in Case Studies

Courage under Fire: Hough Thompson at My Lai

Courage under Fire: Hough Thompson at My Lai

Not everyone can be a good leader and still, people who are legally assigned to be the leaders can freely give bad orders for their subordinates to implement in real life. Such bad, although legitimate, orders make the followers who disobey them villains, whereas bad leaders are acquitted. A dilemma arises: A moral duty of disobeying unlawful or unethical orders vs. a military duty to obey orders from superiors. This dilemma keeps ruining lives of followers and other victims of bad decisions and bad orders.


1. Thompsons decision was a rare instance of moral scales outweighing military code scales. He and other crew members literally became a barrier between the moral injustice of the military orders and the victims of these orders, i.e. civilians who suffered from the justified violence. Thompson was a follower-by-military-status whose inner moral compass overpowered the authority assigned to his leader(s), a follower who made a decision of a true leader. Thompson and the crew were under the pressure of numerous ethical challenges of followership, and all those challenges stood in stark opposition to the only moral urge to make things right. The challenge of obligation reminded Thompson of the dues he had to pay to his leader(s) and the military institutions under whose patronage and command he was acting. Thompsons challenge of obedience was not simple corporate culture bond with some civilian firm. It was a more complex and radical military obedience which did not tolerate personal attitudes of the followers. Within the framework of the challenge of dissent, Thompson did not have either time or institution to address in order to doubt his leaders orders. Under all the pressure, Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta exemplified the courage to challenge the orders and chose to act in accordance with the Nuremberg principle instead of finding their excuse in the I was just following orders postulate of a good passive or conformist follower. In fact, the men adhered to the principles of courageous followership with only one major variation: they directed their courage to serve and courage to take responsibility to the people they protected instead of people they served under military bonds (Johnson, 2012).

2. Certainly, the case of My Lai is not unique both in terms of unethical orders and disobedient behaviors for the sake of saving innocent lives from the military terror. In regard to the latter, a recent resonant video footage comes to ones mind. The footage captured the event of an Apache helicopter shooting civilians in Iraq. This footage became publically available via WikiLeaks, a new tool for whistle-blowers (Johnson, 2012, p. 290). In this shameful for the U.S. army episode, Ethan McCord played the role of the whistle-blower as well as that of a soldier who risked if not his life, then, at least, his health. He was not in danger of getting shot when helping civilians; he was in danger of getting punished for not shooting and for helping civilians. By trying to save the wounded child, McCord disobeyed his platoon leaders order to stop worrying about these [...] kids and start worrying about pulling security (Lopez, 2010). The lecture of the commander that preceded the attack contained a direct order to shoot everyone on the street regardless of age or gender if any soldier was hit by the enemies IEDs. Thus, humaneness toward wounded children was considered wrong for it went against the orders.

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3. When comparing the My Lai massacre with, for example, military outrage in Abu Ghraib prison, one can easily notice a common feature. The military men either feel empowered (as leaders) to make amoral decisions targeting everyone whom they consider an enemy, or feel free from the guilt of implementing such decisions as both leaders and followers. The latter often take the I was just following orders position of Pfc. Lynndie England (McDevitt, n.d.).

10% word count difference
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270 words per page)
15%ff for a first-time order

4. Eighty participants, twenty-five on trial, and one convicted (the Company leader) is the logical, although morally unjust, outcome of the My Lai event. Following Pfc. Lynndie Englands example, many soldiers take the orders either for granted or as ultimatums and choose to obey. It may seem that a necessity to obey orders shifts the blame and responsibility for their actions from their shoulders and explains why they have not been punished, but, in fact, they have been the deadly weapons in the hands of amoral leaders. The followers have been the perpetrators. If the court accepted and proved that guilt had to be shared equally between all members, it would label all of them as conscious killers. The latter would harm the image of the U.S. army as a whole.

5. Organizations seldom admit their guilt, and there are several reasons for that. First of all, an organization is an authority per se, and if any organization admits its guilt for even a single misdeed, its authority can or will be undermined. People will not trust any of the organizations following operations, as well as its former operations will be scrutinized and doubted. Second of all, organizations are complex structures. On the one hand, an organization unites many individual actors and deprives them of personality and personal interests in favor of the organizations common good, common consciousness, and common goal. On the other hand, an organization cannot detach itself from misdeeds of its particular employees, which means that misdeeds of individual followers, as well as those of the leaders, are equaled to the whole organizations misdeeds. In any case, taking guilt would mean giving away authority.

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6. Unfortunately, seeing military organizations actively encouraging followers to act with moral courage is seeing a Utopia. Of course, moral behaviors of both leaders and followers are agitated in press, but in practice, asking followers to be morally courageous is nothing but a permission to doubt orders. The problem is that morality is a rather obscure concept, and the military do not like to operate ambiguous concepts. The latter can ruin the whole hierarchy of empowerment which degrades with degrading statuses, from the empowered, authoritative leaders down to nearly powerless followers. This hierarchy is quite reasonable. An army of any country would turn into chaos if followers had a full freedom of dwelling on any order from their leaders, and any military campaign would become a failure. This realization only complicates the promotion of moral courage among followers. The oath for the United States Military clearly says: I will obey the orders of ... the officers appointed over me (Powers, n.d.). Whether it is good or bad, this oath hardly leaves room for any manifestation of moral courage on behalf of followers if it means disobeying orders.

Sadly enough, when leaders do not hesitate to give immoral orders, their followers have to carry the double burden of classifying the order as either ethical or unethical and making a subsequent personal decision either to follow or disobey. It is said that followers have less power and status than leaders do (Johnson, 2012, p. 274). Considering the aforementioned, a reasonable question arises: is not there too much of decision-making for a simple follower?


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