Third Prize Winner in the 2005 Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
If combat leaders have their moral compasses set before the fighting starts, they can prevent tragedies such as the My Lai Massacre in the Vietnam War and the atrocious behavior by guards at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Today more than ever military professionals need a firm understanding of and commitment to their morals and beliefs. In this age of fourth-generation warfare, the military is no longer fighting a nation state, but rather a group of individuals bound by common principles and goals. The way orders filter to the ranks of the junior officer has shifted as well.
No longer do we need a cumbersome, sluggish chain of command that requires specific, detailed control of orders. Now, with an increased number of small task forces, composed of a handful of soldiers, sailors, or Marines, junior officers are required to lead by issuing explicit orders stemming from more general mission-oriented directives passed from their superiors. For this to be effective, a great deal of trust and confidence must be placed in the junior officer to make correct decisions in a timely manner, even in a stressful environment. Because of this, strong moral and ethical standards are now even more imperative.
If a soldier, sailor, or Marine enters combat without taking time to consider where they stand morally and ethically, it is already too late. In the midst of a high-stress situation, no time is available for deciphering how one feels morally about an issue at hand. Almost always when removed from the comfort zone, one reverts to the most basic fundamental values, not allowing for interpretation or change. This can be disastrous, depending on the situation. Because of this, the need to spend time studying ethics is a very important exercise for all military personnel.
Two Sides of the My Lai Massacre
The incident at My Lai in March 1968 during the Vietnam War is a good illustration of the importance of having a solid moral compass to guide your decision-making. The My Lai Massacre involved a company of U.S. soldiers who entered a Vietnamese village expecting to find enemy combatants. Instead, they found only civilians and proceeded to shoot and kill old men, women, and children. It is a tragedy that such an event had to occur, but the more important issues are why it happened and what can be done to make sure nothing of this nature happens again.
Two officers played central roles in the incident-lieutenant William Galley, who led the unit into the village, and Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who tried to stop the massacre and rescue as many Vietnamese civilians as possible.
Based on retellings of the event by soldiers who were there, Lieutenant Galley was issued an order to "leave nothing living behind and to take no prisoners," referring to My Lai, a suspected Vietcong-friendly village. Once he had observed for himself that the village was occupied only by civilians who posed no threat, Lieutenant Galley should have removed his unit from the area.
Unfortunately, however, given his desire to carry out orders and the baggage he carried of recent attacks on his unit by guerillas-thought to be hiding at My Lai-he gave the order to open fire on the civilians. He reissued the order multiple times until those who did not want to fire on unarmed noncombatants ended up doing so. Lieutenant Galley later tried to hide behind the order given to him.
One of the biggest contradictions in military discipline cun arise from this and similar situations. On one hand, the subordinate is subject to the military discipline consistent with obedience of orders given by a superior. On the other hand is a moral obligation to defy illegal orders.
In 1851, Chief Justice Roger Taney stated in the Supreme Court Case Mitchell v. Harmony that "a military officer could not plead in defense of an unlawful act even if he did it under the order of a superior."1 This allows for a subordinate to disobey an order based on the fact that it is illegal. Because of the blatant unlawfulness of the order given to Lieutenant Galley, he was found guilty (later acquitted) of multiple murder charges.
The foil to Lieutenant Galley in this incident was Warrant Officer Thompson, who saw from his helicopter unarmed civilians being thrown into ditches and shot. By his own initiative, he landed between the U.S. soldiers and the Vietnamese civilians and ordered his men to aim their M60 machine guns at the soldiers and to open fire if they continued to shoot the civilians. Despite the moral courage he mustered to stand up for what he felt was right, his actions were not looked on highly by his superiors. Hence, Thompson did not receive formal recognition for the good he had done until 30 years later.
How "Just War" Should Be Fought
One would be hard-pressed to find two more opposite standards of morals and ethics in a single event. Two approaches have been advanced as ways of looking closer at the ethical nature of war in general and this incident in particular: jus ad helium and jus in hello.
Jus ad bellum addresses "whether a particular war is just or unjust. It provides for the moral principles that justify waging war by independent states against one another."2 This deals more with the overall grand strategy of how a war is conducted, and it is too broad for application to a specific incident such as My Lai.
Jus in bello, however, "deals with whether a war has been fought justly."3 The theory deals with how to analyze the morality of military leaders in the conduct of war. Hugh Thompson was able to remove himself mentally from the situation at hand and allow himself to view the events taking place on the ground as what they really were-murders. He must have prepared himself earlier and had strong beliefs concerning what was right and wrong, because he was able to act quickly and effectively.
Anyone in the military who suggests there is no right or wrong because "it's all relative" poses a threat to sound ethical judgments. When that individual is put in an extremely stressful situation in which many competing factors are influencing the decisions that need to be made, it is possible the individual will end up in a similar situation to Lieutenant Calley's, in which one "understands" why drastic actions have to be taken and is convinced these are the right things to do.
One of the most important things a junior officer must remember is that there is an ethical true north toward which the officer can align a moral compass; "right is right," no matter who says otherwise. Junior officers need to educate themselves on ethical issues as a crucial step in solidifying moral values. A wide range of ethical knowledge makes it much easier to do what Hugh Thompson did.
As time passes, it is becoming evident that the Vietnam War and the current fighting in Iraq share several similarities. For example, smaller groups of soldiers are involved in clearing cities of insurgents who are living side by side with civilians. In addition, a clash of cultures presents many added difficulties for running an effective war and keeping true to moral standards. While many problems can arise for junior officers conducting operations, it is necessary for the leadership to remain focused and not deviate from ethical decisions when an easier route appears to present itself.
Lessons from Abu Ghraib
A recent example of failure to exercise moral judgment in the decision-making process occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. With the photos they staged and posed for, the soldiers there did more damage to how the U.S. military is perceived around the world than any military action ever could. Those images alone will contribute hundreds if not thousands of new recruits to fight against the Coalition in Southwest Asia. Sadly, all of that could have been avoided if the leadership had instituted strong moral and ethical standards for treatment of the prisoners. These unfortunate mistakes will continue to happen if all military leaders are not educated in ethical decision making and encouraged to stand up and defend their moral foundations.
In his essay published in 1989, General James Glover states: "a man of character is a man of courage in war. As Aristotle taught, character is a habit, the daily choice of right and wrong .... The conflict between morality and necessity is eternal. But at the end of the day the soldier's moral dilemma is resolved only if he remains true to himself."4 By not standing up for what you believe, you are only weakening your own moral foundation, making it easier to break down again and again and eventually leaving yourself with no moral compass at all.
1 G. F. G. Stanley, "Obedience to Whom? To What?" in Edgar Demon III, ed., Limits of Loyalty, (Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1980), 5-6.
2 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust War-A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 2d ed. (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1992), 21, cited by Maj. Lee Heok Chye in "Leadership and Moral Responsibility in Just War," October-December 2000, Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces,
3 Walzer, Just and Unjust War, 21, cited by Maj. Chye in "Leadership and Moral Responsibility in Just War."
4 James Glover, "A Soldier and His Conscience," Lloyd J. Matthews and Dale E. Brown, eds., The Parameters of Military Ethics (Dulles, VA: Pergamon-Brassey's International Defense Publishers, Inc., 1999), 150, cited by Maj. Chye, "Leadership and Moral Responsibility in Just War."
George R. Lucas, and W. "Rick" Rubel, The Moral Foundations of Leadership (Pearson, 2004)
Lucas and Rubel, case Studies in Military Ethics (Pearson, 2004)
Ensign Hall is a graduate of Northeastern University and a product of its NROTC program.