It's Personal

What My Lai and Abu Ghraib Teach Us About Ethics:

When things go wrong not everything goes wrong. In fact sometimes when things go wrong we often see examples of moral courage that we wouldn’t see if the challenges weren’t so great.

Abu Ghraib and My Lai are two examples of this in history.

My Lai

A forgotten hero stopped the My Lai massacre 50 years ago today
W01 Thompson

On 16 March 1968, WO1 Hugh C. Thompson, Jr. and his two-man helicopter crew were on a reconnaissance mission over the village of My Lai, Republic of Vietnam. WO1 Thompson watched in horror as he saw an American Soldier shoot an injured Vietnamese child. Minutes later, he observed more Soldiers advancing on a number of civilians in a ditch. Suspecting possible reprisal shootings, WO1 Thompson landed his helicopter and questioned a young officer about what was happening. Told that the ground combat action was none of his business, WO1 Thompson took off and continued to circle the embattled area.

When it became apparent to Thompson that the American troops had now begun firing on more unarmed civilians, he landed his helicopter between the Soldiers and a group of ten villagers headed towards a homemade bomb shelter. Thompson ordered his gunner to train his weapon on the approaching Soldiers and to fire if necessary. Then he personally coaxed the civilians out of the shelter and airlifted them to safety.

WO1 Thompson’s immediate radio reports about what was happening triggered a cease-fire order that ultimately saved the lives of many more villagers. Thompson’s willingness to place himself in physical danger to do the ethically and morally right thing was a sterling example of personal and moral courage

FM 6-22, Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2006

The right thing wasn’t what the group was doing. It was what an individual chose to do.

Abu Ghraib

Another example of moral triumph in the face of adversity occurred during the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.  The popular narrative of the abuse focuses on the lewdness of a few Soldiers and their abandonment of their Army values. This is certainly one narrative.

Image result for abu ghraib photos
Prisoner Abuse

There is also a separate narrative exists where morals and values shine.  The story is that of Joe Darby, a SGT with a reserve unit responsible for operations at the now infamous prison. Two years after the incident Darby gave an interview with Army Times:

In January 2004, Darby asked Spec. Charles Graner for copies of some photos as mementos, and Graner gave him a CD. While sorting through photos on his computer, Darby hit one that stopped him.

“It was the pyramid of Iraqis, but I didn’t realize it was Iraqis,” he said. “Soldiers do some pretty messed-up things for entertainment, so I thought it was the MPs. I laughed at it and moved on the next picture. That’s when I realized they were prisoners.”

Darby said he stewed over the decision for three weeks, but in the end, he knew what he had to do.

“Everybody gets ethics training in the Army,” Darby said. “We know the proper way was to go through the chain of command, but I had to go outside my chain.”

And, he said, he feared for his life.

“I was afraid of Graner and the rest of his unit,” Darby said. “I knew when I turned them in that they were going to prison.”

Darby copied the disc, wrote an anonymous letter, stuck both in a manila folder and slipped the package to the Criminal Investigation Division.

Within half an hour, CID investigators had him in their office. Darby identified the seven soldiers in the photos for investigators. But while he was there, another investigator brought in three of the soldiers he had just turned in. The investigators shielded Darby’s identity, then they wrapped him in rugs and blankets and sneaked him out of the office.

For the next three weeks, he said, he hid in his closet when he slept because the soldiers he had turned in continued their duties at Abu Ghraib. He said he breathed a sigh of relief when the soldiers he had identified were finally arrested.

Then, during a TV interview broadcast while Darby was eating in a dining hall with 400 other soldiers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld named him as the whistleblower.

“I didn’t know it was going to be this big and hurt the Army,” he said, “but it had to be done.”  

Kennedy, 2006 (reprinted with Permission

The popular narrative sees Abu Ghraib as only the worst moralistic challenge of the Army in Iraq.  The less popular story shows it as a triumph of an individual conscience. Despite knowing it would send his fellow Soldiers to prison, despite having to sleep in his wall locker for three weeks, despite having to move his family and never return to his home town, Joe Darby stands by what he did.  And what he did was a nothing if not an expression of conscience.

It’s Personal

Ethics are always personal. These two examples are more extreme cases but they are still representative of the larger movement. In the trolly situation no government rule will tell the driver which course of action to choose. The person making the choice isn’t some bureaucrat in an office somewhere. It’s the driver. He might be informed by something someone else said, but it’s his choice.

As long as we remain in the driver’s seat in our lives we are exercising personalistic ethics. Personalistic ethics aren’t the exception. They’re the norm. Saying otherwise reduces someone’s liberty and liberty is one of the great denominators.

Photo by Leo Cardelli on