KING HENRY V [disguised as a fellow soldier]
I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here alone, howsoever you
speak this to feel other men's minds: methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king's company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.
That's more than we know.
Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we
are the king's subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.
V by William Shakespeare, Act IV, Scene I)
Many people on both sides of the Iraq war
debate claim that they "support our troops." Few people specify what
they mean by that. There's an obvious sense in which we all support our troops
– we are taxed quite heavily to pay, house, clothe, feed, and arm them. But
that's not what most people mean. What do they mean?
The pro-war side seems to mean that they applaud our troops as long as
the troops are doing what President Bush wants them to do. Many of the anti-war
side seem to mean that they support our troops by wanting them to come home
safely. And there's something to the anti-war side's meaning. Wanting someone
to live instead of being killed surely counts as support, doesn't it?
While I also want our troops to come home safely, "Support our Troops"
is too vague and too much of a blank check. I think it can be honed, and here's
my suggested edit: Judge our troops, and support them, or not, on the basis
of your judgment.
In any large group, some people will do good things and some will do bad
things. Even within the group doing bad things, some will do it with relish
and others will do it reluctantly. Wal-Mart workers make up a large group, but
no one says, "Support Our Wal-Mart Workers." Most of them probably
are good, while some are bad and some are in between. But any reasonable person,
if asked to support Wal-Mart workers, would choose to judge their actions as
individuals and would not buy into supporting the entire group without reservation.
Similarly, the military is a large group of people. It has many good people,
some evil people, and a fair number in between. How can it make sense to support
them all? I remember when I first showed up to teach at the Naval Postgraduate
School (NPS) in August 1984. I had a mildly anti-military bias and I wondered
how I would get along. I soon figured out that the military is a lot like any
other organization. I learned quickly that there were many people in the military
whom I liked intensely – some of them I came to love and still love. There were
a few to whom I was indifferent and a very few whom I disliked.
So the idea of opposing a whole group of people just based on the publicized
bad actions of a few, which I had been doing implicitly before arriving at NPS,
made no sense to me. But the opposite idea – judging a whole group well because
some people in the group have outstanding moral character – makes no sense either.
We need to judge people individually. My main criterion for judging someone
is that person's degree of integrity. Does he take responsibility for his actions?
Does he lie, cheat, or steal?
Thus the above quote from William Shakespeare's Henry V. After Williams
says that he doesn't know enough to judge whether Henry V's cause is just or
his quarrel is honorable, Bates says that Williams, Bates, and other soldiers
don't need to know. Bates argues that simply obeying the king is good
enough; even if his cause is unjust and his quarrel is dishonorable, believes
Bates, the fact of the soldiers' obedience to the king makes them blameless.
In other words, Bates thinks he is not accountable for his actions. But
I disagree. He and other soldiers are accountable. There may be situations
in which they feel the need to follow what they regard as immoral orders. Even
there, that does not absolve them of responsibility. There are degrees here:
there are many conceivable situations where I could disapprove of the action
but think relatively well of the soldier because he does something wrong due
to extreme pressure – such as a threat of a court-martial.
But there are also clear-cut situations where the soldier or sailor can
speak up against an immoral act or order without risking a court-martial, where
the main risk is that of not being promoted. In such a case, I would judge him
negatively if he didn't speak out. One of the lines you often hear from people
is, "You've got to pick your battles." This is true. But, as one of
my more-outspoken military students once put it, "The problem with some
people who say you must pick your battles is that they are unwilling to pick
Which brings me to a military man who did pick his battle and, because
of his heroism in picking it, deserves our support. That man is Morris Davis,
who retired as a Colonel in the Air Force in October 2007 over the use of torture
to extract information to be used at trial. Davis was the chief prosecutor at
the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In an impassioned
op-ed in the New York Times (February 17), former Colonel Davis wrote:
"My policy as the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at
Guantánamo was that evidence derived through waterboarding was off-limits.
That should still be our policy. To do otherwise is not only an affront to American
justice, it will potentially put prosecutors at risk for using illegally obtained
"Unfortunately, I was overruled on the question, and I resigned my
position to call attention to the issue – efforts that were hampered by my being
placed under a gag rule and ordered not to testify at a Senate hearing. While
some high-level military and civilian officials have rightly expressed indignation
on the issue, the current state can be described generally as indifference and
Former Colonel Davis has said that he will testify as a defense witness in
the trial of Osama bin Laden's driver, who has been detained at Guantánamo
since 2002. Davis
alleges that Pentagon general counsel William Haynes said in August 2005
that any acquittals of terrorism suspects at Guantánamo would make the
U.S. look bad by making the proceedings look unfair. And what was Haynes's response?
According to Davis, Haynes said, "We can't have acquittals, we've got to
Colonel Davis is not alone in his campaign against injustice. In 2006, three
high-level officers from Guantánamo Bay came to the Naval Postgraduate
School to give a talk on the need for Guantánamo. I went there
prepared to ask some tough questions. I didn't need to. U.S. military officers
did the job quite nicely. They were respectful and polite, as they are trained
to be. But they challenged the legitimacy of Gitmo all the same. Their concerns
were about the legal legitimacy of having prisoners of war who were not treated
as prisoners of war. Had they known then about the waterboarding going on at
Gitmo, they would probably have been even more outspoken. Officers like that
deserve our support on those issues also. So judge the troops and, on that basis,
support those who deserve our support.
Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to
reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.