Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam veteran, has a Ph.D. in psychology, and has counseled veterans for many years. He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon.
This blog was written by Michael (Vietnam Veteran), with final thoughts at the end by Thuy (Amerasian Daughter of an American Vietnam Veteran).
Morality: The Gap Between Civilians and Combat Veterans
I want to make it perfectly clear that morality is exactly the same for civilians and combat veterans. However, there is often a wide divergence in the experience and understanding of morality between these two groups. In combat we see a wide range of moral behaviors, from the monstrously depraved to the gloriously heroic and good. Of course we also see this in civilian life, but generally speaking the extremes are usually not so pronounced.
Let us look at depravity first. Currently in the news there is a furor about some U.S. Marines who urinated on the bodies of their dead enemies. These kinds of acts happen in every war. In the Pacific in WWII Marines would knock out the gold teeth of their dead enemies. When they saw incidents of the Japanese mutilating dead American soldiers, they retaliated by mutilating dead Japanese soldiers. However, the news of these kinds of atrocities was suppressed. In the war in Vietnam such atrocities often received attention in the U.S. press. Usually the U.S. press captured the atrocities and corruption committed by American soldiers rather than the atrocities and corruption of Vietnamese soldiers, whether from North or former “South” Vietnam. Men drank from the skulls of their dead enemies. They made necklaces of ears. And so on. You get the idea. Obviously there is no justification for such depravity. Most men in combat know that these kinds of actions are wrong. However, in various times, places, and units, they become carried away. They are far from home, living and acting like beasts, killing and living in fear of being killed month after month, and for sometimes years. They crack and commit atrocities.
It seems to me that most civilians think that this could never happen to them. Psychological research, however, shows not only that it could happen, in some situations it most likely will. It does not take much pressure at all to make most people behave badly. Fraternity and sorority hazing is the most mundane example of ordinary college students succumbing to really rather mild social pressure to behave badly. In “Mean Girls, young schoolgirls bully each other. In time of war the pressures are far greater. Guards in prison camps can become very cruel. These soldiers, after all, were once civilians themselves. So let us not be horrified so much by what those soldiers have done, but let us be horrified by our own human nature, which so easily lapses into bestiality. Let us do a better job of training soldiers to be more psychologically resilient in war, and to act with integrity while in the hell of war. Easier said than done. The first step in this process is to recognize and admit to the depravity in all of us. Then we can prepare to prevent its emergence.
Consider the good and the heroic. Consider people risking and giving their lives to save the lives of others. There is no greater love than to give your life for another. Consider the moral judgments soldiers make. In the heat of combat soldiers must often instantly make moral judgments that would take the Supreme Court years to decide. A man is pinned beneath a burning tank and screaming as he is burning to death. A friend puts him out of his misery with a bullet. I think many people would tend to have intellectual arguments about how euthanasia is always wrong. But there is very little that is intellectual about watching your friend burning to death. And it does not take any intellectual deliberation at all to decide to do what you feel is right. The Supreme Court might want to argue such a case for years, but the soldier makes what he feels is the correct moral judgment almost instantaneously.
I once heard that a judge in the Nuremberg trials said that it was always wrong to kill prisoners. Most people without much experience of the realities of war would probably be all too quick to agree with this proposition. Don’t forget that many states do in fact kill prisoners. It’s called capital punishment. But somehow, when people are having intellectual arguments about these kinds of issues, they tend to be far removed from the reality of such situations. Consider that your platoon of thirty men is in the jungle far from your base, and you are surrounded by the enemy and need to make your way out of this perilous situation. You have six prisoners. If you call for a helicopter to have them evacuated, the helicopter will almost certainly be shot down. You cannot possibly take the prisoners with you as you try to covertly evade the enemy all around you. If you do, all thirty of you will almost certainly be killed. If you release the prisoners, they will immediately tell the enemy which direction you went in, how many of you there are, and what weapons and supplies you have, and again you will almost certainly be killed. So you decide to kill the prisoners. It is self defense in a time of war. You may remember that in Saving Private Ryan they released a prisoner rather than kill him, only to have that same prisoner kill the character played by Tom Hanks. Is it wrong to kill prisoners? Generally speaking, yes. But one can think of situations in which there is no other choice, and the soldier makes what he feels is the correct decision instantly and with little or no intellectualizing.
In a future blog I want to address killing and torture, as well as the fragging and killing of officers and others in combat, which happens more often than most people suspect. War is hell. It is a nightmare. I encourage everyone to pray to God that they will always do what is right. And pray that you will not be tested. Most civilians do not understand what soldiers have endured, and I believe that this is perhaps the biggest, yet unrecognized, part of post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldiers tend not to talk about their combat experiences, and even try not to think about them, because they know that most civilians will simply not understand. The civilians will most likely not be able to tolerate the horror, or they may make smug, self-righteous statements about morality that only make the soldier feel still sicker about the horror in which he participated. So the soldier becomes isolated and alienated by the horror he carries within, and cannot share with others. He is thereby excluded from any understanding, empathy, forgiveness, and intimacy by the very people who sent him to war, and for whom he fought and endured this horror. His service extends from a brief tour of duty to a lifetime as he protects the civilians from the horror. In this situation who is sicker? Those who must bear the painful reality, or those civilians who cannot bear it? And is PTSD a diagnosis of an individual’s sickness, or a diagnosis of his situation in which he is alienated from a society that cannot bear the truth?
Thuy’s added thoughts
War never ends when it ends. For many it is just beginning. The rippling effects continue long after the war is done. People in the U.S. are still dealing with issues from their own civil war, which began 150 years ago, and was fought by our great -great grandparents.
As Mike shared, there are the atrocities that take place during war. That is how war is and can never be avoided. This is why it is also vitally important for all citizens to question the justification before entering war and having to put our men and women serving our country in that position.
To question and to have this assurance is is not only the Rights, Ideals, and Freedoms of the American people and it’s veterans, it is also their duty. This is the very reason behind Veteran’s intentions for serving…..to protect these very rights and freedoms.
Read Related Post Part two-
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Mike Muller: MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970. Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971. In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army. I was in Vietnam for one tour.