Facing Threat With Integrity

Larry Colburn, who just died, helped stop the My Lai massacre in 1968. We can learn two lessons from him.

What is integrity in a war situation? Larry Colburn and his colleagues showed us.

The My Lai massacre involved a platoon of American soldiers (Charlie Company), led by Lieutenant William L. Calley. The platoon raped and massacred around 500 unarmed civilians (mostly women, children and elderly). The helicopter crew who came upon the scene, included Larry Colburn and was led by Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr.. They tried to intervene. They marked with flares the civilians who were wounded but still alive but then noticed that on their return they had been murdered by the American soldiers. The crew confronted Lt. Calley, who refused to stop the slaughter. Positioning the helicopter between the troops and surviving villagers, they collected a few remaining survivors and had them flown to safety.

Winner of the William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association in 2015

Although the killings of civilians were a war crime by international standards, the consequences were minimal and many participants received military honors. It took decades for the helicopter crew to be recognized as heroes.

When the helicopter crew members were awarded the Soldier’s Medal at a ceremony 30 years later in 1998, Mr. Colburn justified their intervention with a quote from General Douglas MacArthur: “The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and the unarmed. It is his very existence for being.”

The quote marks a basic sense of connection to other humans, whatever side they are on. A sense of connection that acknowledges relational responsibility for human welfare generally. A similar attitude of connection to humanity generally is apparent in the Christmas truce actions of enemy soldiers in 1914. They put down their arms and celebrated Christmas together.

Relational responsibility is undermined by rhetoric that describes others as objects (in the Vietnam war, calling Vietcong “gooks”). Such rhetoric, used by superior military officers, works to inflame soldiers to kill identified enemies. Making others into threats downshifts one’s morality to self-protectionism–“get them before they get us!”

All of us are born with primitive survival systems (fight, flight, freeze, faint) and basic mammalian emotions (anger, fear, panic/grief, lust, seeking) that can be tuned up by early trauma (or undercare–lack of the evolved nest). But these can also be triggered by immersion in rhetoric of danger and threat, as occurs in military situations.

When you feel threatened, physiologically, blood flow shifts to mobilize you for self protection. So, compassion can go out the window. This likely occurred for troops in the Charlie Company platoon who carried out the massacre at My Lai. They likely were suffering from PTSD, as they had lost 40 members of their platoon since their arrival in Vietnam three months prior, including a popular sergeant a few days prior to the incident. American soldiers at the time were also typically young whose executive functions (self-control mechanisms) were still under development (till around age 30).

We all have the capacity to downshift to self-protective mechanisms and get into a “flow” of power over others. This was evident in Rwanda’s massacre of 500,000 Tutsis (and reluctant Hutus) by Hutus (Dallaire, 2004). It was also apparent in the Columbine School massacre where Dylan and Kleibold got into the flow of killing (Bailey, 2002).

Although the actors can feel good and right about their actions in that flow of primate, prehuman energy, outsiders see it as immoral or at least questionable.

Do we ourselves have to worry about downshifting? Yes, downshifting to feeling powerful over others and pushing them away contemptuously is always a danger. It is easy to harm others when you feel superior to them.

So there are two lessons we can learn from Larry Colburn. One is, attend to your relational responsibilities as a human being. Humans are in this together. We are all vulnerable. There is really no “us against them” except briefly when war games make it necessary.

The other lesson is to stand up against authority when it is wrong—when it harms the human fabric.

What does it mean to stand up to authority with integrity?

Generally, it means to follow your heartsense about what is right, with compassion intact. (Of course you can stand up to authority without compassion or sense of the human fabric, but this is not integrity.)

Moral exemplars—those who habitually take action to help others in difficult situations—are those who feel responsible for the welfare of the other (like Colburn) and who feel confident in taking action. The latter usually means the person has had some practice in helping others, which makes it easier to see possible actions (affordances).

It is good to remember how anyone can become insensitive and cruel and they need others to wake them up. Perhaps we too will need to confront a situation where self-protectionism has gotten the better of our peers. By keeping in mind our sense of connection to all of humanity and practicing a variety of helping skills, we may follow in the courageous footsteps of Larry Colburn.

For more information, see my book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality (W.W. Norton).


Bailey, K. (2002). Upshifting and downshifting the triune brain: Roles in individual and social pathology. Published in G.A. Cory, Jr., & R. Gardner, Jr. (Eds.), The evolutionary neuroethology of Paul MacLean: Convergences and frontiers (pp. 318-343). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Dallaire, R. (2003). Shake hands with the devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda. New York: Carroll & Graf.

Note: This post was written under the auspices of the Self, Motivation and Virtue Project, generously funded by the Templeton Religion Trust.

Featured photo Shutterstock/Choate Photography

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