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Reflections on Ethics & Values in Policy 19 November 2000

"Animosity Ended" Ethics and the Vietnam Veteran: Can a Vietnam Veteran Really be an Ethicist?

Dwarfed by the U.S. presidential election, the news of President Bill Clinton's visit to the People's Republic of Vietnam concluded with his announcement that the animosities between the United States and Vietnam were at an end.

For many of us, his visit was a reminder of times when the animosity felt most intensely was domestic and internal. For many of us, some degree of tension remains.

Some months ago, I made a presentation to the American Museum Association, and received an inquiry, the tenor of which I have gotten a number of times over the last decade or so. The inquiry on this occasion was gentle and well-meant. And though I was spared the grief many received from the American public when they returned home from their tour in Vietnam, on at least one occasion a few years ago, the questioning I received was public, intense and derogatory.

I include here the initial inquiry and the dialogue that followed in the nature of a Socratic reflection:

Question: I do find your program interesting, and believe very much that ethical issues are critical ones in our society, much eroded in many areas. A question that dogs me, however, in terms of your own work and history -- as a military man, do you (or did you) find yourself wrestling with the very basic, larger, underlying ethical issues of the Vietnam War itself -- not the individual ethical issues such as your web site describes (the Lieutenant on the Ho Chi Minh trail), but the much larger issues of our nation embroiled there for so many long and divisive years, for no good reason beyond the pressure of the military-industrial complex? The loss of 50,000+ American lives and many times that in Vietnamese lives seems the height of unethical practice. Likewise, the situation in the Gulf -- essentially launching a war to safeguard petroleum supplies and in the process killing thousands of people, and leaving the dictator intact just as when we went in? Even the "liberation of Kuwait" draws a lot of questions, in my mind and in many others. These wars seem so much more about preserving the corporate status quo than about any grand notion of "good versus evil." I do not mean to be dismissive of the great sacrifice and devotion of the military, but it just seems to me that these deep and moral issues need to be aired in the military more than anywhere else, and I simply don't see that happening. Was just wondering if, in your work, you deal on that level? Were you able to bring a true and honest ethical appraisal to those highest levels of the military, including an honest look at how corporations are indelibly tied to the military's goals, it would be a great service indeed!

Answer: Regarding the macro ethical issue that you seem to be raising, I have labored over it to a large degree over the years. There is not a short answer, as you can imagine.

We in the United States have a strong tradition of civilian control of the military, which I think is quite appropriate. In my view, when one chooses military service (or is forced into military service via the draft), one has an overriding duty to the country and to one's service. I can't begin to explain the strong sense of duty all Marine Officers I know feel to the other Marines they trained with to be there if the civilian leadership declares it to be so. I loved the Marine Corps and the willingness of young men to entrust their lives to the good faith and competence of their leadership, both civilian and military. As a result, once one commits to military service, there has to be a strong presumption that the civilian leadership and populace will make the right decision and not commit our lives to an improper course. The last things civilians should tolerate is the military itself choosing when and where it will serve. Hence civilian control.

There is a point, of course, where one, from a matter of conscience, must not act. From an ethical perspective, however, if the country is fighting an absolutely unethical war, it makes little difference whether one is in the thick of things or paying taxes and otherwise supporting it. I have always found it strange that people who lived comfortably at home in the states could continue to support a war through paying taxes and not speaking up and not feel the hypocrisy of questioning those who served. Correspondingly, I have admired those who were principled enough to speak up and protest a la Henry David Thoreau. Those I have the most respect for were those who left the country and did not return because nothing had fundamentally changed in this country.

I believe you were going to refer to the Gulf War before your message froze. I would not have committed US troops to the Gulf. I would not have troops there now. I would have let oil prices soar to the point where alternatives make sense. But, I had been very highly trained when the president committed troops to the Gulf, and I occupied the key billet of logistics planner for I MEF. I could not, in all conscience, not do my part. As in virtually all circumstances, the Gulf War was not only about oil or even sovereign boundaries. Moreover, I have serious doubts about the wisdom of being involved in the Balkans and the way we bombed Kosovo, but I would not have wanted the military deciding whether they were willing to serve under Bill Clinton or follow his orders.

In sum, the last thing this society would want is a military that decided for itself what commander in chief it was going to follow or when it was proper to follow the civilian leadership. Since I chose to serve in the Marines, my duty was to fulfill my pledge and serve with those who expected me to be there. If the entire war were unethical, then the more interesting question is what can the people who lived comfortably at home point to that they did to avoid or limit the war or see that it didn't happen again?

For me to have not participated in our country's wars as I have would have required me to do three things: not join the UMSC, leave the country at 21 years of age during the Vietnam War, and not return to the United States because opposition to the war is not properly aimed at those who participated but at those who had choice and did nothing, which was the bulk of the country. I chose to stay, and it is precisely because of my belief that I have a better shot at achieving a more ethical world here in the United States and helping organizations to care about and for their stakeholders that I am in the field of organizational ethics.

I probably should refine this letter better, (or decline the opportunity, assuming I answered your question at all) but I think it deserves an answer and there is still some weekend left I intend to enjoy it. Let me know what thoughts you have or if I can be of any service. Regards.......ken

Response: Thank you, Ken, I really appreciate your long and thoughtful answer. I did not mean to be rude in asking it, just that it is an issue that I think about a lot, and it is interesting to me that someone with so much military background and connections is also so devoted to the subject of ethics. I'm probably close in age to you (was born in 1950), and thus Vietnam remains a searing part of my memory, for the boys I knew who went (and lived or died), those who didn't, those who were here protesting, and so on. It was a defining period in our history, for certain. (And I agree the Gulf war or whatever it was called - "conflict?" - was terribly misguided; in my opinion, even immoral in many ways...) The commitment to military life is a very powerful one, and you describe it beautifully. I know these issues are so complex, and in ways, they are not ethical questions I ask but more moral ones, with layers of history, politics, economic networks, and power all woven together. Anyhow, many thanks for your message, I'll give it a lot of thought. And I do applaud you for your sense of duty and sacrifice. I can't tell you how glad I am that someone who actually thinks about these things is being consulted by the military!

Hope you had a nice weekend!

Conclusion: I should have made it clear that I treated your inquiry as a legitimate and genuinely interested question. More than anything else, I hope my work inspires dialogue throughout our society. Where we can routinely address important issues as a community of inquiry, I am convinced our democracy will be safe. Regards.......ken

Kenneth W. Johnson

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