This is the tale of two military Warrant Officersboth of
whom have been mentioned at some length in our newspapers this
monthand the differing ways they interpreted their duties to their
country. That's us. The two were acting on our behalf.
Your duty is to decide which of the two Warrant Officers, if
either, made the right decision and which, if either, made the wrong one.
The younger of the two is Lewis Welshofer and in a case that's
been argued most of this month at Fort Carson, Colo., he was charged
with murdering a POW in Iraq two years ago.
The victim had been a general in the Iraqi army and had turned
himself in to U.S. forces on Nov. 10, 2003. His name was Abed Mowhoush,
he weighed 270 pounds, and he died 16 days after he surrendered. His
death came after Welshofer tried to convince him to give information
about the Iraqi military.
Here's what the Denver Post reported Welshofer did to try to
convince the general: "He put a dirty sleeping bag over the general's
head, tied it to him with electrical cord, then sat on his chest and
covered his mouth, according to testimony." The technical name for that
was putting the general in a "stress position"especially stressful if
he was claustrophobic.
Why did Welshofer do that?
The Post reported that he got an e-mail on Aug. 30, 2003, from
a staffer for a U.S. general, and the mail said it was time to "take the
gloves off." So Welshofer took the gloves off. He said he "interpreted
that to mean that stress positions were allowed."
So he put Gen. Mowhoush in the sleeping bag, sat on him, and
asked him questions. When the general gasped and went silent, Welshofer
testified that he was afraid he might have killed him, but Mowhoush
began breathing again, so the questioning resumed for two or three more
minutes until the general went silent again, this time because he was in
fact dead. That wasn't Welshofer's intent, but that's what happened.
When the case went to trial this month, Welshofer was found
guilty of "negligent homicide." His punishment was to be reprimanded,
to forfeit $6,000 of his pay over the next four months, and "to limit
his activity to his place of duty, place of worship, and the barracks
for 60 days
So much for the first Warrant Officer. The second, Hugh
Thompson, died of cancer earlier this month. He was 62 years old.
He was the American helicopter pilot who purposely got in the
way of the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam. We didn't know much about
the My Lai massacre until some time after it happened. And even then
most of us knew about it only through a musical refrain that we heard
often repeated: "I lie, you lie, we lie, My Lai."
The Truth, Mainly
Seymour Hersh won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for his expose of
It happened on the morning of March 16, 1968. Here's part of
what Thompson said at a conference on My Lai at Tulane University in
"That particular morning we were to provide reconnaissance for
a ground operation that was going on in My Lai
.I flew a Scout
helicopter covered by two gunships that flew cover for me, and my job
was to recon out in front of the friendly forces and draw fire, tell
them where the enemy was, and let them take care of it."
But instead of the enemy forces, "we started noticing the
larger number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we'd look, we'd see
bodies. There were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year olds, women,
very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever."
And no weapons. Just bodies, "anywhere from two to four
hundred, five hundred bodies
The Jan. 7 A.P. story on Thompson's death said that he and his
crew "landed the helicopter in the line of fire between American troops
and fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pointed their guns at U.S.
That stopped the slaughter. Hersh said that Thompson was "one
of the good guys. You can't imagine what courage it took to do what he
Not everyone was as favorably impressed by Thompson's
actions. He remembered an unnamed congressman who said that "Thompson
was the only service man who should be punished because of My Lai."
The A.P. story reminds us that it wasn't Thompson, but a
platoon leader named Lt. William L. Calley, who was convicted and did
time in prison for his actions at My Lai.
So what do you think? Which of the two Warrant Officers,
Welshofer or Thompson, made the better decision?
And what did we learn about the risks of disobeying orders?
What did we learn about the risks of obeying them?
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail