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Rationally Speaking
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N. 50, June 2004: Soldiers' Morality

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Have the words "personal responsibility" lost all meaning?

It has been an awful month in Iraq, dominated by the news of prisoners’ abuse in detention facilities run by the US and its allies, by the decapitation of an American, broadcast on the Internet, and of course by the usual list of bomb explosions and casualties all over the Middle East. Plenty of commentators have remarked on all these events, but I have made a list of what I think are interesting phrases related to the prisoners’ abuse scandal, and that I’d like to submit to the readers’ attention. What I think is relevant in the following quotes is what they reveal about the common sense of morality that appears to be shared by a lot of us. As we shall see, it makes for a disturbing picture of our ethical standards.

One of the first excuses adduced by the accused soldiers and their friends and families is a classic: “I (he/she) was following orders.” Well, all right, what that means is that responsibility needs to be ascertained throughout the chain of command, but in what sense is this an excuse for the soldiers’ behavior? It didn’t help the Nazis at Nuremberg whenever they tried the same approach, and for good reasons: when an adult individual does something, even at the prompting of somebody else, that individual is primarily responsible for what he has done. In the United States, it is common to try children as adults for all sorts of crimes, and one often hears calls for the death penalty in some such cases. But when it comes to our own “boys” (and “girls”) doing awful things, all we have to do is to point the finger to whoever gave the order? What happened to one of the cornerstones of the American ethos, personal responsibility?

A second common refrain heard during the past few weeks has been that “they were not properly trained.” As if a mature adult actually needs special training to figure out that it is not moral to torture prisoners of war, that it is not ethical to humiliate people that are in one’s custody, for example by forcing them to engage in acts that their culture or religion considers demeaning. On a much minor scale, of course, a similar attitude is behind the idea that if someone at the office sexually harasses one of his employees, the problem will be fixed with “sensitivity training,” as if any reasonable man wouldn’t know that touching, or even talking to, a woman in a certain manner without permission is simply not an acceptable thing to do.

Many of the friends and family of the accused soldiers have been understandably shocked and surprised at the news of the abuses. But, rather than accepting the reality of photos and testimonies, a common reaction has been along the lines of “he is such a nice boy, I simply can’t believe he could do that sort of thing.” This, of course, is the same simplistic attitude that explains why the majority of crimes are committed by people who know the victim, the latter being simply unable to think that her nice uncle, neighbor, or friend could possibly do what they in fact went on to do. In several of the televised interviews with friends and family of the accused soldiers, the attitude was palpably not just one of disbelief at the reality of the events, but rather one insinuating the possibility that somebody, somewhere, was simply making all of this up.

To continue with our brief analysis, consider Donald Rumsfeld, the (too) briefly embattled Secretary of Defense: he immediately went on television to “take full responsibility” for the abuses, and then gingerly (even contemptuously) ignored calls for his resignation. What exactly does it mean to “take responsibility,” then? I thought, naïvely as it turns out, that it would mean that someone at the top of the chain of command (say, Rumsfeld) would resign because he had not been able to correct a problem of which he had been aware for months before the scandal erupted. But I guess Mr. Rumsfeld’s dictionary includes some other, hitherto unknown, definition of “taking responsibility.”

We then come to President Bush, who has been quoted as saying, after viewing the photos of the prisoners’ maltreatment, “this does not reflect the America I know.” Well, the problem is that — contrary to what Mr. Bush and his cronies have been saying for years — there is no such thing as “the” America they know. The United States of America is, like many other places in the world, sometimes a wonderful and sometimes an awful place to live, depending on the circumstances. Americans, like any other people in the world, don’t have a monopoly on goodness (or on evil, for that matter), but are simply a bunch of human beings, with all the great potential and faults that human beings typically have. That is why it is equally silly to say that one is “proud to be an American” (how can one be proud of a birth accident?), as that one “hates America” (how can one meaningfully hate an abstract entity?). Rather, one should say that one is proud, ashamed of, or even hate, particular Americans, especially individual leaders and the policies they implement.

The Bush administration also tried to get some mileage out of the alleged fact that the U.S. is “dealing” with the matter openly and swiftly, as opposed to some dictatorship that American blood has helped eliminating. Right, except of course that that dictatorship had actually been helped into place by the same American interests that later removed it, not to mention the maddening fact that the Bush administration tried to keep the news of the abuses out of the public eye for months, while at the same time doing absolutely nothing to stop the practice. Only when the news finally became public did Rumsfeld “take responsibility” (see above).

Lastly, one of the most disturbing comments I’ve heard in the news about this whole horrible affair began appearing after the decapitation of Nick Berg was broadcast on the Internet: “well, see, at least we are not as barbaric as they are.” Yes, there is no question that the decapitation of a human being is a barbaric act (although, let us remember that the US is the only Western country that still applies the death penalty — being killed by raw decapitation is surely worse than being fried on the electric chair, but at some point this becomes an academic matter for the person involved). And surely decapitating one prisoner outdoes abusing several by a long shot (then again, at least one prisoner did die under torture in American hands). But even to make the comparison, it seems to me, dramatically lowers our own moral standards. So now the US is no longer a knight in shining armor, interested only in bringing democracy and economic prosperity to the rest of the world. We are reduced to a picture of the U.S. Army doing awful things, yes, but at least not as awful as those of the other side. Have we completely lost our moral compass? Did we ever had it to begin with?

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Massimo’s other ramblings can be found at his Skeptic Web.

Massimo’s books:

Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science

Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science

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