Saturday, March 26, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Ron Ridenhour (1946-1998)

Ron Ridenhour's press card

While serving in Vietnam, as an infantryman and helicopter gunner, 22-year-old SP5 Ron Ridenhour heard of the 1968 My Lai massacre from friends. While still on active duty, he gathered eyewitness and participant accounts from other soldiers. On his return to the United States, Ridenhour sent letters to 30 members of Congress and to Pentagon officials. The Pentagon didn't respond until Ridenhour's own Congressman, Mo Udall (D-Arizona), asked the House Armed Services Committee to call on the Pentagon to conduct an investigation. The Pentagon did so, but later denied that they did so at the urging of Congress, instead claiming that they acted independently and honorably. They didn't. Had it not been for Ron Ridenhour you would never have heard of My Lai. That Pentagon probe led to several indictments against those involved in the massacre, and to the conviction of Second Lieutenant William Calley. 

Ron Rindenhour's account of learning about the massacre can be found in the article, "Jesus Was a Gook", published in Nobody Gets Off the Bus: The Viet Nam Generation Big Book. You can read that online here

What did Ron Ridenhour do that was so courageous? He refused to accept murder as "one of those things" (words used by his good devout Christian friend who was a participant in the massacre). He refused to describe murdered children as "unfortunate collateral damage." He refused to let his government determine right and wrong for him. All morality – his morality; my morality; yours – is individual; it isn't determined by the State or by the Church. 

Ron Ridenhour stood on his own principles, and he refused to compromise them. Does that take courage? I'm here to tell you that it does. But not exceptional courage; not at all. Just the type of courage we all should display in our day-to-day lives, just commonplace courage ... the type of courage that is rarely seen in our society, almost never rewarded, and often punished. Why is one of America's most divisive (and moral) issues, torture, really about the concealment of the truth? No one wants to debate the question of torture; they want to protect those who would hide the truth about that torture from the world. Like there were those who thought Ron Ridenhour was a traitor for revealing the truth about the My Lai Massacre. Is that what we're about as a people? Hiding the truth and hiding from the truth? Is the truth about ourselves that bad, really? If it is, shouldn't we change what we're doing? 

Ron Ridenhour displayed a type of courage that every one of us can exhibit, and every day. 

Ridenhour, a 1972 graduate of Claremont Men's College, went on to become an investigative journalist, winning a George Polk Award in 1987 for his expose of a tax scandal in New Orleans, based on a year-long investigation. 

Ron Ridenhour died of a heart attack while playing handball in 1998, aged 52, in Metairie, Louisiana. 

Ridenhour was the inspiration for the Ron Ridenhour Prizes which "foster the spirit of courage and truth" in journalism. 

Jane Mayer, herself a 2009 Ron Ridenhour Prize winner, of the New Yorker magazine (who won the Ridenhour for her book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals) said of Ridenhour: "one of his contentions was always that there was authorized slaughter there. It was not just Lt. William Calley who was going on a berserk spree on his own. And so I think that it's kind of fitting that the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] report comes out which shows, again, the point that I was trying to make in The Dark Side, which is: This was not just an isolated episode of bad behavior, it was not just the people at the bottom of the barrel, as Donald Rumsfeld called them." 

Some people – most, it seems – will, under some circumstances, do anything someone in authority tells them to ... Government institutions, like most humans, have a reflexive reaction to the exposure of internal corruption and wrongdoing: No matter how transparent the effort, their first response is to lie, conceal and cover up. Also like human beings, once an institution has embraced a particular lie in support of a particular coverup, it will forever proclaim its innocence.

– Ron Ridenhour, Los Angeles Times, March 16, 1993