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The Truth, Mainly - 01/30/2006

Tale of Two Warrant Officers

This is the tale of two military Warrant Officers—both of whom have been mentioned at some length in our newspapers this month—and 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."

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Seymour Hersh won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for his expose of the massacre.

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 1994:

"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. soldiers."

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 did."

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 address is: leonsatterfield@earthlink.net.


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