Opinion » Bill Cope

One Free Man

The loneliest of liberties


On a March morning in 1968, Hugh Thompson Jr., a 24-year-old Army helicopter pilot, was thrust into the heart of the darkest hour in our nation's dark history with Vietnam. From over the village of My Lai, he witnessed American troops slaughtering civilians--the young, the old, the women. Whatever passed between Thompson and his crew--Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta--before they landed will likely never be known. But land they did, directly in the line of fire between U.S. soldiers, caught up in a frenzy of indiscriminate killing, and villagers who were trying to escape the carnage. While Colburn and Andreotta held the murderers at bay with the threat of the copter's guns, Thompson gathered as many villagers as he could and got them the hell out of there. He returned and flew a wounded kid to a hospital. It took 30 years for Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta to get the recognition they so valiantly earned, while William Calley, the only man ever prosecuted for the massacre, was pardoned by Richard Nixon after serving three years of house arrest.

I wish I knew what passed between Thompson and his crew before they landed. I really wish I knew. Whatever was said, if anything, should be carved into stone and placed in every schoolyard and courthouse in America as testament to our most fundamental freedom. The freedom only I can grant myself or you, yourself. The only freedom that ultimately matters. It doesn't have a name that I know of, but it takes more courage than all the others because you can only exercise it by yourself.

It all depends on how you define freedom, of course, when it comes to who you thank for being free. If your only answer is straight from the Constitution--freedom of speech, religion, assembly, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom to bear arms (as though you've memorized the "Cliff Notes to the Bill of Rights" and recite them back like a talking bird)--then with equal predictability you will no doubt thank all those brave souls who over the past 230 years have fought and died in our military.

And that's part of it, for sure. In spite of the fact that most of our nation's wars had no direct relationship to the freedom of our nation's citizens, we must never forget those veterans who believed their sacrifice was made to keep the basic, Bill of Rights litany of liberties intact. Nor must we forget that had the outcome been different in a couple of those wars, all further open discussion of freedom would be academic, if not down-right dangerous.

But as those who are not white, not male and not affluent have known from the start, the Bill of Rights took a pretty generic approach to freedom--a road map, sort of, that indicated direction but left out the specific cities, bridges and landmarks. For two centuries, American individuals not necessarily in uniform have fought (many died) to add themselves and their peers to the roster of free humans. If you're a black citizen, for instance, I would imagine you are grateful for Martin Luther King, Malcomb X, Medgar Evers ... any number of African-American freedom fighters who accomplished what the Bill of Rights and several dozen wars couldn't. If you're a modern woman, you owe a moment of silence to Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinam ... the front line in the struggle for equal rights. And if sexual freedom is your particular field of interest, you should bow your head at the graves of Margaret Sanger, Alfred Kinsey, even Hugh Hefner ... should he ever die.

Then comes the more personal question of whether we, as individuals, are up to the task of being free. What use is the freedom to worship as we choose, for example, if we allow our choices to be stripped from us by those who lead us in worship? What use is the freedom of assembly if we allow ourselves to be swept along with a thoughtless and pointless mob? What use is our freedom from unreasonable search and seizure if we adopt the attitude, "If you aren't doing anything wrong, you should have nothing to hide?" And what possible good could come from our freedom of speech, if all we do with it is to sing obediently along with the prevailing choir?

It all began to come to me at a stop light, probably, as I read the bumper stickers on the vehicle ahead: "Freedom Isn't Free!" (And for those who gripe about the scream of jet fighters overhead, there's the Air Force's favorite, "Sonic Booms--The Sound of Freedom.") The message, of course, is that our military should be thanked for our liberty.

All fine and good, I suppose. But there have been too many free men and women throughout history--from weak nations whose military was overrun by stronger forces, or from strong nations where the military, itself, was the enemy of freedom--who proved that true freedom comes not from the barrel of a gun, not from a document, not from God, and certainly not from popular opinion.

No, true freedom--that blessing which distinguishes one from the herd and allows the blessed to live out their years content with themselves if not with the world around them--has nothing to do with armies and navies, Founding Fathers, faiths, tyrants or conventional wisdom. It is simply the decision to be free, whether in thought or in action, and the deciding factor is if one is brave enough to accept the consequences. The sound of freedom is not the roar of a mighty military or marketing machine, but a quiet murmur from inside of you, me, Hugh Thompson Jr. and Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, that must say, more often than "yes," "no."

I think Thomas Paine would back me up on this--as would Nelson Mandela, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Ghandi, untold numbers of people who made that perilous choice, often from within a prison and often with the penalty of death: If you live freely, think freely and act freely, you have only yourself to thank.

This slightly narcissistic attitude is not meant to detract from the military. In fact, it's the death last week of this one military hero, Hugh Thompson, that prompted me to write it. What he did humbles me and I couldn't let his passing go unnoted. Yet, for his moment of profound freedom--his "no" there on that March morning over My Lai--he suffered years of disdain, threats, shunning, nameless cowards slandering him with the usual mob-spawned slanders. But I'm certain he knew when he did it what consequences it would bring. And I'm certain he died content with himself. How many of us will be able to say that?