Wednesday, October 29, 2003
This poses an interesting dilemma.
Back in the halcyon days of my mispent youth, I took a summer philosophy class dealing with Ethics. We covered a wide range of topics, including the suitability of homosexuals as teachers (one student stated he would pull his sons out of school rather than have then taught by a homosexual), ethical obligations to report crimes, and other related issues.
We also watched an old PBS program (see Lesson 8) dealing with this issue. In the program, a panel of pundits, including retired General William Westmoreland (yes, THAT Westmoreland), various reporters, and a moderator.
In the program, the panel members were presented with this situation: the United States has invaded a South or Central American country -- let's call it ThirdWorldistan -- to free it from a Marxist revolt. During the course of the occupation, a local military commander learns that the Marxist rebels are planning a surprise attack on American forces. Fortunately, the American commander has a prisoner who knows all the details of the attack, but won't reveal them. To what lengths can the commander go to get the information?
The question is interesting because it really asks to what extent we are willing to commit an evil act to achieve a good end. Some military members of the panel indicated they would use torture if they felt it necessary to save the lives of their troops. Other panelists (primarily those outside the media) objected. Memorably, a journalist on the panel stated that, were the rebels to give him information as to the time and place of the attack (so that he could have camera crews ready to record the carnage), he would not inform the Americans or otherwise warn his fellow citizen out of a sense of "journalistic ethics".
Obviously, the current case doesn't involve actual physical torture. Instead, Colonel West fired two rounds away from the suspect in order to coerce a confession. The suspect, who was involved in a plot to kill Colonel West and some of his men, confessed, thus averting the attack.
Now Colonel West is being charged with aggravated assault under the UCMJ, and faces loss of his pension (his a career officer), loss of rank, humiliation, and utter destruction. All for taking the steps he felt necessary to safeguard himself and his men.
Frankly, I think prosecuting Colonel West sends a very bad message to our troops and our enemies. It reminds one of the restrictions placed on American forces in Vietnam that prevented us from going after known enemy concentrations just on the other side of the border.
Part of the problem lies squarely with George Bush: when he declared major hostilities were over, many people took that to mean the fighting was finished. While that was true in the sense that organized Iraqi military units had stopped fighting, it did not mean we would be free from the type of low-intensity guerilla fighting we have seen over the past five months. Unfortunately, the belief the fighting was over has allowed the military's peacetime bureaucracy mindset to take over in Iraq.
Would anyone have questioned a similar action by a United States officer in World War II? I doubt it. Prosecution would almost certainly have been out of the question. Which leads me to wonder whether we are now more civilized, or just more naive?
I fear it is the latter.