It’s Personal

What My Lai and Abu Ghraib Teach Us About Ethics:

When things go wrong not everything goes wrong. In fact sometimes when things go wrong we often see examples of moral courage that we wouldn’t see if the challenges weren’t so great.

Abu Ghraib and My Lai are two examples of this in history.

My Lai

A forgotten hero stopped the My Lai massacre 50 years ago today
W01 Thompson

On 16 March 1968, WO1 Hugh C. Thompson, Jr. and his two-man helicopter crew were on a reconnaissance mission over the village of My Lai, Republic of Vietnam. WO1 Thompson watched in horror as he saw an American Soldier shoot an injured Vietnamese child. Minutes later, he observed more Soldiers advancing on a number of civilians in a ditch. Suspecting possible reprisal shootings, WO1 Thompson landed his helicopter and questioned a young officer about what was happening. Told that the ground combat action was none of his business, WO1 Thompson took off and continued to circle the embattled area.

When it became apparent to Thompson that the American troops had now begun firing on more unarmed civilians, he landed his helicopter between the Soldiers and a group of ten villagers headed towards a homemade bomb shelter. Thompson ordered his gunner to train his weapon on the approaching Soldiers and to fire if necessary. Then he personally coaxed the civilians out of the shelter and airlifted them to safety.

WO1 Thompson’s immediate radio reports about what was happening triggered a cease-fire order that ultimately saved the lives of many more villagers. Thompson’s willingness to place himself in physical danger to do the ethically and morally right thing was a sterling example of personal and moral courage

FM 6-22, Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2006

The right thing wasn’t what the group was doing. It was what an individual chose to do.

Abu Ghraib

Another example of moral triumph in the face of adversity occurred during the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.  The popular narrative of the abuse focuses on the lewdness of a few Soldiers and their abandonment of their Army values. This is certainly one narrative.

Image result for abu ghraib photos
Prisoner Abuse

There is also a separate narrative exists where morals and values shine.  The story is that of Joe Darby, a SGT with a reserve unit responsible for operations at the now infamous prison. Two years after the incident Darby gave an interview with Army Times:

In January 2004, Darby asked Spec. Charles Graner for copies of some photos as mementos, and Graner gave him a CD. While sorting through photos on his computer, Darby hit one that stopped him.

“It was the pyramid of Iraqis, but I didn’t realize it was Iraqis,” he said. “Soldiers do some pretty messed-up things for entertainment, so I thought it was the MPs. I laughed at it and moved on the next picture. That’s when I realized they were prisoners.”

Darby said he stewed over the decision for three weeks, but in the end, he knew what he had to do.

“Everybody gets ethics training in the Army,” Darby said. “We know the proper way was to go through the chain of command, but I had to go outside my chain.”

And, he said, he feared for his life.

“I was afraid of Graner and the rest of his unit,” Darby said. “I knew when I turned them in that they were going to prison.”

Darby copied the disc, wrote an anonymous letter, stuck both in a manila folder and slipped the package to the Criminal Investigation Division.

Within half an hour, CID investigators had him in their office. Darby identified the seven soldiers in the photos for investigators. But while he was there, another investigator brought in three of the soldiers he had just turned in. The investigators shielded Darby’s identity, then they wrapped him in rugs and blankets and sneaked him out of the office.

For the next three weeks, he said, he hid in his closet when he slept because the soldiers he had turned in continued their duties at Abu Ghraib. He said he breathed a sigh of relief when the soldiers he had identified were finally arrested.

Then, during a TV interview broadcast while Darby was eating in a dining hall with 400 other soldiers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld named him as the whistleblower.

“I didn’t know it was going to be this big and hurt the Army,” he said, “but it had to be done.”  

Kennedy, 2006 (reprinted with Permission

The popular narrative sees Abu Ghraib as only the worst moralistic challenge of the Army in Iraq.  The less popular story shows it as a triumph of an individual conscience. Despite knowing it would send his fellow Soldiers to prison, despite having to sleep in his wall locker for three weeks, despite having to move his family and never return to his home town, Joe Darby stands by what he did.  And what he did was a nothing if not an expression of conscience.

It’s Personal

Ethics are always personal. These two examples are more extreme cases but they are still representative of the larger movement. In the trolly situation no government rule will tell the driver which course of action to choose. The person making the choice isn’t some bureaucrat in an office somewhere. It’s the driver. He might be informed by something someone else said, but it’s his choice.

As long as we remain in the driver’s seat in our lives we are exercising personalistic ethics. Personalistic ethics aren’t the exception. They’re the norm. Saying otherwise reduces someone’s liberty and liberty is one of the great denominators.

Photo by Leo Cardelli on

An Observation on Political Correctness

I recently spent time with family where instead of forwarding me an email chain family members were able to directly read from the website something they found interesting on the internet.  We all do it!  This particular version was a list of Christmas songs as viewed from the lens of political correctness.  I’ll share the list from New Jersey 101.5 below:

1. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus: subjecting minors to softcore porn
2. The Christmas Song: Open fire? Pollution. Folks dressed up like Eskimos? Cultural appropriation
3. Holly Jolly Christmas: Kiss her once for me? Unwanted advances
4. White Christmas? Racist
5. Santa Claus is Coming to Town: Sees you when you’re sleeping? Knows when you’re awake? Peeping Tom stalker
6. Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Everyone telling you be of good cheer? Forced to hide depression
7. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: Bullying
8. It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: Forced gender-specific gifts: dolls for Janice and Jen and boots and pistols (GUNS!) for Barney and Ben
9. Santa Baby: Gold digger, blackmail
10. Frosty the Snowman: Sexist; not a snow woman
11. Do You Hear What I Hear: blatant disregard for the hearing impaired
12. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: Make the yuletide GAY? Wow, just wow
13. Jingle Bell Rock: Giddy up jingle horse, pick up your feet: animal abuse
14. Mistletoe and Holly: Overeating, folks stealing a kiss or two? How did this song ever see the light of day?
15. Winter Wonderland: Parson Brown demanding they get married…forced partnership

It’s reasonably funny and I was glad the family member shared it.  As I thought about it though I started to see the mantle of political correctness as nothing more than an attempt to censor speech.

icra iflas piled book

I’m not a fan of censorship.  It generally goes against my principles.

As I was thinking about this list from the perspective of censorship I started to notice something else.  Among my friends those who complain about political correctness are often the same to participate in a different type of censorship.  Members of that same group are generally ones that are offended with the use of profanity in music and on television.  I found this thought intriguing.  If both are censorship how is one superior to the other?  How does one decide which censorship to participate in and which to be offended by?

I think the right type of censorship isn’t about placing your rules on others.  I think it’s about placing rules on yourself for what you’re willing to consume.  Self censorship seems to be the best choice for society a healthy society.  Let people group together where they find common ground of what is acceptable.  I don’t have the freedom to force others to do things the way I want to, but I do have the freedom to abstain from those things that don’t add value.

Our selective censorship and wanting to force our rules on others is part of the condition we find ourselves in being human.  It’s normal for us to want society to follow our rules, but the best long-term solution is simply to reject the parts of society that we don’t appreciate.  Rejecting doesn’t need to be a passionate criticism of other’s choices.  It can be a pleasant invitation for them to follow your example.

Act Utilitarianism

This type of ethical base is best summed up as “End-Result” ethics.  It is commonly thought of as having the ends justifying the means.   This ethical model has a rich heritage engaging ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.  The classical summation for this ethic is “that the right action is the one which produces the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure for the greatest number of beings.”  In a simplistic sense, people who care about results employ this ethic.  

Within the Army we formally apply end-result ethics on both the NCO and officer evaluations.  In order to warrant “excellence” one must do something that is unique, quantifiable, and contributes to the success or “good” of the unit.  This formal reinforcement indicates that our organization expects results, and applies end-results ethics.  It is the responsibility of leaders to make determinations on what is the best “good” for the most people.  In some measure this is what commanders do when they sign risk assessments.  They determine which areas they are willing to assume risk, and which controls to implement.  In this aspect they make direct decisions on what is the “greatest good” for those who will be participating in the training, balancing consequences with results.

    Because this has been formally reinforced, most members of the Army may not see these goal-oriented items as having any ethical consequences.  Just because it appears to not be potentially unethical doesn’t mean that the area of decision exists without ethics playing some role.  The term unethical implies a decision must have negative consequences.  The potentially negative consequences for failing in one’s responsibility with regard to risk assessments, or considering the good of the unit when making decisions, will have negative consequences with ripple effects throughout the unit.  In civilian businesses, management will employ a cost-benefit analysis that may also appear to not have ethical dimensions.  These perspectives depend upon how one “punctuates” the situation.  The stockholders will feel a negative consequence if their stock decreases in value, because a competitor took advantage of a market opportunity deemed too risky by their business.  

The goal-oriented expectations of our organization encourage end-result ethics to be applied at the individual or local level.  In our individualized American philosophical heritage, it is assumed that only the individual can properly calculate out what is best for him.  As one applies this ethic across the board to a broader audience, the ability to determine what is good for all becomes difficult, because the population’s diversity leads to different goals.  Hayek understood this in his economic works when he stated, “The principle that the end justifies the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals. In collectivist ethics it becomes necessarily the supreme rule.”  When a Soldier applies this ethic in combat environments integrated with civilians, he assumes that he knows the greatest good for all of those individuals, and in making the decision for them, assumes a level of authority that may or may not be inherent in his mission.

To counter this enticing application of power, there exists a negative connotation of end-results ethics in American society.  This sort of ethical application is often associated with America’s enemies and not with America itself.  This ethic is often seen as the justifying force behind historical and modern enemies such as, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, Hitler & Goebbels, Stalin, Fidel Castro & Ché Guevara, Mussolini, North Korea, The Taliban based government in Afghanistan, the oppressive dictatorship of Saddam in Iraq, S.T.O.R.M., The Invisible Committee, and the 9/11 terrorists.  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s response to the charges brought against him are a good example of this ethic being employed by an enemy.  These documents are narrated with repugnance for the general American public, because he reduces America’s moralistic platform by employing a simplistic narration, selecting facts that would only compliment his cause.

During WWII the association of this ethic with America’s enemies emerged in various forms of propaganda created during the time period.  In Frank Capra’s WWII era documentary, “Why We Fight,” the case for defeating the tyrannical governments in Europe and Japan was based upon a conflicting ideology that destroyed freedom.  Yet even while Hollywood was working to get the nation behind preserving freedoms through war the FBI was trying to prosecute Larry Fly for protecting those freedoms specifically guarded by the constitution.

It seems those outside of government were being taught  the maxim that “a nation unwilling to fight an ideological war, will be unable to win the physical one,” but as is often the case those in power were singing a different tune.  

The promoted concept of the films were that if the governments of Germany, Italy, and Japan, were oppressive to their own people, they would in turn be oppressive to every people.  In the United States the citizenry is understood to be the sovereign of the nation, and to oppress those who are seen as the sovereign violates the national cultural and legal foundation to our governance.  Well did our founders promote the ethical ideas of Cicero, enshrining in our government a unique perspective of authority.  Cicero writes, “the administration of the government, like a guardianship, ought to be directed to the good of those who confer, and not of those who receive the trust.”

The iconic image of those who participate in this form of end-results ethics views the actors as societal deviants and not the norm.  Though this ethic is ascribed to our enemies and societal deviants, there is a cultural acknowledgement that certain circumstances warrant purely end-result ethics regardless of application level, but these are presented as rare and very dramatic cases.  Examples of cultural acceptance of end-result ethics include scenarios where the hero must ignore common social norms and sometimes the law.  Usually it is the immediate benefit of the preservation of lives that is used in these examples.  Our physical laws follow this cultural trend.  Trespassing laws in most states do not apply to law enforcement in pursuit of their duty to preserve life.  If someone’s life is threatened on private land, the threat to his or her life is considered justification for entering private property.  The fictional characters of James Bond, Jack Bauer, and, Jason Bourne are known for demonstrating a result-based ethic.  We have a cultural acceptance of individual-focused end-result ethics.  

The members of our military emerge from, and consume these cultural materials and are aware of end-result ethics.  Their station in the military places them in a position of great power, and end-result ethics require power to function.  What they may not be aware of is the slippery slope caused by applying this ethical premise.  If the ends justify the means, then to which ends does one place as a goal?  Does an excessive use of force to disperse a hostile crowd, justify the potential injury or death of innocent civilians?  How much collateral damage is acceptable when engaging a target?  What level of target justifies collateral damage?  Does the R.O.E. need a codified collateral damage to high priority target ratio?  

End-results ethics isn’t just a free-for-all of do what you think is good.  It’s a calculated decision making process that uses positive consequences as its basis for operations.  It is the ethical format of “meaning to do well” which may or may not turn out to be the case.

This ethic is no better enshrined within the Army than in the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) from FM 5-0.

The military decision making process is an iterative planning methodology that integrates the activities of the commander, staff, subordinate headquarters, and other partners to understand the situation and mission; develop and compare courses of action; decide on a course of action that best accomplishes the mission; and produce an operation plan or order for execution.

In order to evaluate these courses of action, the commander and staff will develop a matrix and evaluative criteria.  This criterion comes from a “relative importance to the commander’s guidance.”  This mission oriented cost analysis clearly allows the Commander to weigh the costs of each potential consequence of his plan.  He employs this planning model as a way to carefully evaluate key factors.  Here the “greatest good” is as the NCO creed states, “the accomplishment of [the] mission, and the welfare of [each] Soldier.”  Each commander who employs this planning mechanism is engaging in a process that allows and requires him to weigh the positive and negative consequences of each operation.  FM 5-0 specifically cites that “Commanders adjust criterion selection and weighting according to their own experience and vision. The staff member responsible for a functional area scores each COA using those criteria.”  This scoring mechanism is symptomatic of the application of end-result ethics.  MDMP is one of the clearest ways in which the Army applies end-result ethics.  

End-result ethics are part of the culture our military members consume and are drawn from.  It is the act of calculating the value of the results against the consequences.  Even though our formal evaluation systems encourage results, this ethic is normally associated with our enemies.  It is used at times culturally and historically in circumstances of great distress.  It is canonized in the Military Decision Making Process.  It is not inappropriate to suggest that application and misapplication of this ethic is a statistical reality in the Army.