August 2006


Situation ethics

By Don Watson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed on 7 June, US military officials first said that he was dead when they found him, which is no less than one would expect after two 500-pound bombs landed on the house he was in. Two days later, however, the same officials told journalists that the Iraqi police were the first to reach the site and that they found the terrorist alive: he “mumbled something … indistinguishable”, and “attempted to roll off the stretcher … and get away”. “Everybody re-secured him back onto the stretcher, but he died almost immediately thereafter.” The military spokesman told how soldiers washed the blood from al-Zarqawi’s corpse before taking photographs because, “Despite the fact that this person actually had no regard for human life, we were not going to treat him in the same manner.”

As the US military offered this revised account, an Iraqi witness told a different story. A man identified as Mohammed or Ahmed Mohammed told Associated Press reporters: “We put him in the ambulance, but when the Americans arrived they took him out of the ambulance, they beat him on his stomach and wrapped his head with his dishdasha [robe], then they stomped on his stomach and his chest until he died and blood came out of his nose.”

In view of al-Zarqawi’s atrocities and the part he played in what is at present called the “insurgency”, we might ask if it matters how he died. The man was a vicious thug. Spare a thought, perhaps, for the two women and the child who also died in the air strike, but Zarqawi killed many more than that and doubtless would have killed more still. It is just as fair to ask why we should believe an Iraqi witness – especially one who, it seems, lived near al-Zarqawi’s hideout – before we believe the American military.

The problem with the first of these two apparently reasonable points of view is that so many civilians have now been now killed and wounded – at least 50,000 have died since the invasion began – that the word ”atrocity” as aptly describes American conduct as al-Zarqawi’s; if not for us, then surely for those on whom the phosphorous bombs are being dropped. As for the second, such has been official American deceit about the war in Iraq that by now we might as well believe the most partisan bystander as their military – or their administration, or much of their press.

Or their president, who declares and believes himself a war president in a “war paradigm” – which is to say, in a situation where normal democratic standards, including standards of truth, may be suspended in order to deal with the (unending) emergency. And the press fall into line “in this very serious time” (the New York Times), and describe his lies as “the President just being the President” (CNN).

The alleged massacre by US Marines of 24 civilians at Haditha on 19 November 2005 is one more case in point. The dead included a 76-year-old in a wheelchair and four children aged under five. Within 24 hours of the shootings, the Marine Corps said a Marine and 15 civilians had been killed by a roadside bomb. Soon after, they said the civilians had been inadvertently killed in a battle with insurgents. The cover-up lasted until March this year, when Time magazine broke the story with compelling evidence from eyewitnesses; a cover piece followed in June. The military did not act alone in the cover-up: Aljazeera ran the story of Haditha on the day that it occurred and shared its information with the Western media, but the Western media ran the Marines’ story and went on running it for four months.

At least 14 US soldiers are now serving sentences for killing or abusing prisoners in Iraq. There are now investigations into a dozen or more incidents involving rape, murder and “voluntary manslaughter” of civilians. Four were announced in June, including one into the premeditated rape and murder of a woman and the murder of her family.

After the Haditha story broke, retired Air Force colonel Mike Turner, a former planner at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered this interpretation: “What we’re seeing more of now, and these incidents will increase monthly, is the end result of fuzzy, imprecise national direction combined with situational ethics at the highest levels of this government.”

“Situation ethics” seems not to have reached Australia yet. Not officially. We’re a practical people and never did like doctrine. If you’ve not heard of it, it’s a theory first proposed in the mid-1960s by Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal minister, in his book Situation Ethics. The argument, in essence, is that the ethics of any course of action depend much less upon an external code than the state of things at the time. Just ask yourself whether you should bear false witness when the truth will cost your life or a loved one’s, and you have the gist of it.

Proponents of situation ethics insist that it is nothing like moral relativism. Moral relativism is a notorious nonsense of liberals who recognise no moral truth at all. Nor are they to be compared to folk who justify foul acts by reference to revolutionary, as opposed to reactionary, truth; or to any other species of fanatic or Machiavel, including Richard Nixon, who ever found in doctrine a convenient justification for committing crimes. There is nothing wrong with situation ethics per se: the problem began, as Colonel Turner seems to have decided, when, rather like Marxism, it fell into the wrong hands.

It was inevitable that Haditha should arouse memories of the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968. Twenty times more were killed at My Lai; it was a village, not just three houses, and rape, torture and mutilation accompanied the killing. Regular soldiers did the business, not the venerated Marines. But then, as now, the affair was covered up by the army – the “investigation” was led by (then) Major Colin Powell – and the administration and the press joined in the whitewash. Then, as now, patriotic Americans (and many like-minded Australians) tended to see the men responsible as the real victims: victims of a war in which very often the enemy could not be distinguished from the civilian population; men under extreme stress; men for whom normal standards of judgement and behaviour had, with good reason, broken down.

At Haditha it was “purely shooting people”, the Democratic congressman and Vietnam veteran John Murtha said, after being briefed “at the highest level” by the Marines. “Marines over-reacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood,” he said; and thus, in a single sentence, both condemned and – as if ordinary ethical considerations did not apply in their situation – excused them.

This is no redneck’s view, and it wasn’t when My Lai was in the news. Then, as now, the men responsible were either a few bad apples, or good men made momentarily bad by bad situations; and if they were guilty, so were the men who sent them. Sympathy for the soldiers went far and wide, and to the top. William Calley, the only man convicted of murder at My Lai, served just three years – not in jail, but under house arrest. During his trial, banners demanding clemency hung in streets all over the country. Calley claimed he was just doing what he was told to do: “Nobody in the military system ever described them as anything other than Communism. They didn’t give it a race, they didn’t give it a sex, they didn’t give it an age. They never let me believe it was just a philosophy in a man’s mind.” The public thought this a reasonable defence. Richard Nixon said the telegrams were 500 to one in Calley’s favour, and so he pardoned him. You’d swear they had all been reading Situation Ethics.

More people would have been killed at My Lai had not a US helicopter pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, risked his life and career to forcibly bring it to halt. For this most soldierly action Thompson was persecuted by the army, vilified in the media and before Congress, and shunned and threatened in his home state of Georgia, where Governor Jimmy Carter urged citizens to drive with their headlights on to show their support for Calley.

Thompson was shot down five times in Vietnam, the last time breaking his back. When he died, aged 62, in January this year, the media replayed a distressing interview he had given a year-and-a-half before. He wept as he told the interviewer about what he saw at My Lai, and his subsequent treatment by his army and his country. But the most telling thing he said was this: ”I wish I was a big enough man to say I forgive them, but I swear to God I can’t.” For Thompson, the situation did not change the ethics: soldiers do not murder, he said. Simple as that – and the same as the old generals Grant and Sherman said. Situation ethicists might say that love led him and his crew to stop the massacre, but it seems much more likely that it was an external code, a belief in something unshakeably true.

The idea of situation ethics had not long been born when Calley’s ethics were judged to be situational and Hugh Thompson unethical in his reading of the situation. But something (the situation or the ethics?) must have changed, because in 1998 the men who had stopped the slaughter at My Lai were given medals for valour. The military changed its rules and made it unlawful for a soldier not to intervene if he came upon unlawful acts. Thompson spent the last years of his life giving talks to young soldiers on “doing the right thing”. Before he died, he said he felt ethics were now “all but tattooed on their foreheads”.

And then there was Abu Ghraib. Thompson, by now a hero of sorts, said that by their obvious unconcern the soldiers in the photographs revealed that they were acting with the sanction of their superiors. The situation was not of the soldiers’ making. And we know that to be true: the situation was the making of people higher up, as high as the US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who said, “the new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners,” and abandoned any attachment to an external code. As high as Donald Rumsfeld. As high as the president.

Now, in contrast to My Lai, the US military is sending offending soldiers to jail. It is insisting on the application of a code. In recent weeks there has been talk of the death penalty.

Maybe it’s not the same thing, but situation ethics doesn’t seem to work very differently from – or much better than – moral relativism. This might be because it’s the president and the military and the cabal around them, and the press embedded with the cabal, with the “war paradigm” and the lies it sanctions, who decide what the situation is and what it’s not. After that, stuff happens.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

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