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In conversations about US wars I often encounter puzzlement when raising the issue of the widespread lack of moral courage among US troops and their officers in failing to refuse to carry out, prevent, or punish some unethical action or failing to refuse, for example, to participate in an unjust, undeclared war initiated on false pretenses.

People seem to tend to equate courage in a military context with physical courage—the willingness to hazard life and limb in battle or some other dangerous situation. I've encountered this reaction among life-long civilians and veterans. When I was on active duty, I found it among other military personnel who seemed to think that contractual obligation, obedience, or—to put it generously—duty trumped the requirements of moral consideration.

I recently read something by Ulysses S. Grant invoking the concept. Grant is speaking, circa 1879, about "moral courage" in a military context decades before the formulation of, for example, the Nüremberg principles. Here is what he said:

I know the struggle with my conscience during the Mexican War. I have never altogether forgiven myself for going into that. I had very strong opinions on the subject. I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign. I had taken an oath to serve eight years, unless sooner discharged, and I considered my supreme duty was to my flag. I had a horror of the Mexican War, and I have always believed that it was on our part most unjust. The wickedness was ... in the conduct of our government in declaring war. ... We had no claim on Mexico. Texas had no claim beyond the Nueces River, and yet we pushed on to the Rio Grande and crossed it. I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.*
Grant served as a junior officer in the war and was twice promoted in recognition of his bravery in battle. He cites his oath of service and devotion to "duty" in explanation of his failure to resign rather than help wage an unjust war. Despite this, Grant clearly laments and faults himself for having insufficient "moral courage".

The Mexican American War, along with his opposition to slavery, inspired Henry David Thoreau to pen his famous essay  "Civil Disobedience". Grant and Thoreau both remind us that civil obedience is, perhaps, a greater threat to life and liberty than civil disobedience.

*Quoted in John Russell Young. Around the World with General Grant. Vol. II. (New York: American News Co., 1879) pp. 447-448.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Of Civil Disobedience. (7+ / 0-)

    and Henry David Thoreau...

    "A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it."
    "What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them. "
  •  It reminds me of Smedley Butler (7+ / 0-)

    In Marine bootcamp, I had to memorize who he was, because he was the recipient of two medals of honor. I learned of this speech a few years ago.

    I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
    I think this speaks to the theme of your diary. Thanks.

    "If you don't sin, then Jesus died for nothing!" (on a sign at a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans)

    by ranger995 on Sun Aug 18, 2013 at 08:50:48 PM PDT

  •  Groups; Individuals; Uncomfortable Thoughts (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest

    One explanation is suggested by the results of research indicating that we are much less individualistic, and more (tribal) group-driven, than we consciously realize.

    A further (non-expert) thought that occurs to me, is that

    physical courage—the willingness to hazard life and limb in battle or some other dangerous situation
    may be psychologically easier because it involves repressing uncomfortable thoughts about the risked pain, injury and death, while, in contrast,
    to refuse to carry out, prevent, or punish some unethical action or failing to refuse, for example, to participate in an unjust, undeclared war initiated on false pretenses.
    requires continual thinking about how to balance contradictory, and so all the more, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
    •  Humans yearn to associate with other humans, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      but the risk of being injured is high. Perhaps that's because, for some, association is an obsession that's only realized when it survives every effort to drive others away. (I'm thinking of the "breaking" of military recruits to determine that they are fit to be members of the troops).
      Perhaps setting the solitary individual up as an ideal is as much an effort to deny the exclusive impulse (othering being necessary to destroying), as making lemonade out of lemons. That is, some people posit the individual outsider to justify his exclusion/destruction, while the excluded console themselves with the thought independent is what they are meant to be.
      Why do some humans feel compelled to exploit and even exterminate their own kind? Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Cain blame the Creator for showing favor? Was it because Cain did not know himself? Is that why he was marked? So he could recognize himself? If so, it obviously didn't stick. There are still many humans who are not self-aware. They do not recognize themselves, so how can we expect them to recognize someone else. Never mind showing respect.

  •  His tomb (5+ / 0-)

    Help me to be the best Wavy Gravy I can muster

    by BOHICA on Sun Aug 18, 2013 at 09:34:48 PM PDT

  •  ...thanks for this...welcome... (0+ / 0-)
    Welcome from the DK Partners & Mentors Team. If you have any questions about how to participate here, you can learn more at the Knowledge Base or from the New Diarists Resources Diaries. Diaries labeled "Open Thread" are also great places to ask. We look forward to your contributions.

    Ignorance is bliss only for the ignorant. The rest of us must suffer the consequences. -7.38; -3.44

    by paradise50 on Sun Aug 18, 2013 at 10:19:41 PM PDT

  •  The all-volunteer military is a trap. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dream weaver, orson, RiveroftheWest

    It doesn't just disguise abuse with the veil of consent; it manages to shift responsibility for following both moral and immoral commands to the victim of a coercive system. It argues that, having consented to subordinate himself, the individual has surrendered the right to object to any orders that are given. The individual is bound by his own sense of honor, not unlike a spouse making a life-time commitment to "love, honor and obey, until death do us part." That's a predicate for an abusive relationship and that's what the culture of obedience is. Coercion that is agreed to.
    I'm not sure how an individual is supposed to get him or herself out of that. I think, like a domestic abuse situation, it requires an outside intervention. If we don't want a culture of obedience festering in our midst, we've got to remove it.

    Obedience is tricky. It is a virtue, unless and until it is coerced, but identifying the point at which that happens is hard. When does virtue turn into vice? Whenever it happens, that it does likely accounts for much of the PTSD we see in our returning troops.

    We can tell that the all-voluneer military is inherently abusive from the retort to the charge that veterans are being abused-- "but they volunteered." Sometimes on is tempted to conclude that the human race is made up of sadists and masochists.

    •  Volunteerism and consent. Consent must be ongoing. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      hannah, RiveroftheWest

      The whole notion of an "all volunteer" military is based on a lie.

      It is based on the lie that consent, once given, can never be revoked.

      The same lie that says that if a person consents to sex, it is not rape even if that person later changes her mind and says no.

      The same lie that denies the existence of marital rape.

      When people argue that we currently have an "all volunteer" military, they are arguing that consent, once given, can never be revoked.

      That consent can never be withdrawn.

      Basically, they are denying and failing to understand the meaning of the word "no".

      Stop the NRA and the NSA
      Repeal the Patriot Act and the 2nd Amendment

      by dream weaver on Mon Aug 19, 2013 at 06:08:43 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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