You Can’t Legislate Honor

October 13, 2007 § 6 Comments

The story in brief:

Four Navy SEALs on a covert mission come across some unarmed civilians in remote Afghanistan. They now face a moral dilemma: kill the civilians and thereby assure that they are not exposed to local Taliban, or let the civilians go and risk betrayal and exposure.

Their natural sense of honor supported by the legislated morality embodied in their formal rules of engagement, the SEALs let the civilians go. The civilians promptly betray them to the Taliban. Three of the SEALs and sixteen members of a reinforcement team give their lives as a result of the choice to release the civilians rather than summarily executing them.

The badly wounded sole survivor of the original four SEALs, Marcus Luttrell, is taken in by a group of friendly Afghans. As Luttrell puts it, “I probably killed one of their cousins. And now I’m shot up, and they’re using all the village medical supplies to help me.” These Afghans go for help from the US Marines, carrying a note from Luttrell, and Luttrell is eventually rescued.

In a world with less honor in it, nineteen American soldiers would still be alive. The commander of the four-man SEAL team, Lt. Michael P. Murphy, has been posthumously awarded the Navy Medal of Honor. It is hard to imagine anything more appropriate. These men valorously and quite directly gave their lives for no other objective purpose than to preserve the honor, the integrity, the basic goodness of America. What we do both reflects and makes us into what we are. Heaven help us if we alter our rules of engagement – Heaven help us that we have already altered our rules of interrogation – in such a way as to dishonor the sacrifice made by these men.

(Cross-posted at What’s Wrong With the World)

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§ 6 Responses to You Can’t Legislate Honor

  • Tim J. says:

    Wow.You hit on something – THE thing – that ought to distingish us from our enemies.These soldiers did NOT make a mistake in letting the civilians go. They affirmed everything it was they were fighting for.

  • Tim J. says:

    Or rather, – “for which they were fighting”.

  • Scott says:

    Have you read Luttrell’s book? I’m interested in picking this up.

  • Scott says:

    Actually, I’ll go ahead and get this. A commentor at Amazon on the book says Luttrell makes comments about the team worrying about media portrayal if they killed the civilians. This seems highly unlikely that such an issue comes up in the middle of Afgan wilderness, so I’d like to check it out for myself.

  • zippy says:

    I haven’t read it. My post is based strictly on the article, so any factual errors in the article would reflect in the post.It is important though that my point isn’t about the individual dispositions of Luttrell nor of each or any of the men who died. One of the SEALs in Luttrell’s team voted to kill the civilians, by his account. There is some intentional irony in paralleling my title to the “you can’t legislate morality” trope (since morality is really the only thing which <>can<> be legislated). My post is about the honor <>in our rules of engagement<>, the honor of our fighting men in carrying them out (whether with reluctance or not), etc: in the things that make us corporately the good guys, as contrasted to our enemies whose civilian-murdering methods are inherently wicked. If we lose this distinction – the distinction of <>honor<> which restrained the hands of these men and kept them from murdering those civilians – then we have lost everything.I am sure from what I’ve read that Luttrell is uneasy with the choice. That is all the more reason to reinforce the fact that it was the right one. And one of the most alarming (I might almost say “despicable”) things in post 9-11 America is the tendency on the Right for genuine honor – like the very basic honor of a SEAL team in hostile territory unwilling to murder civilians – to be treated disparagingly as “liberalism”.

  • Anonymous says:

    It is often a failure of logic or creative imagination rather a true moral paradox that simply cannot be solved without accepting one of what appears to be horrendously unacceptable choices. In this case, I will admit that the outcome might have been the same, but: did the soldiers try simply persuasion or dealing? Say, something along the lines of: “We will not harm you, as non-combatants. But our own safety requires that you be true non-combatants, which means not presenting danger to us. If you will give us your word, with Allah as attesting, that you will not reveal our presence to the Taliban, we will let you go free without harm. If you will not give us your word, then you are admitting you are not true non-combatants, and we will have to tie you up in order to fully disarm you (render you unable to harm us). Though we would not intend harm to you, we will be unable to free you and you may die.” The point here in this case is that there was a logical failure in supposing that the only moral categories are those who are fully protected as civilians and those who are openly Taliban soldiers. Since the “civilians” are not openly soldiers, they must be “protected”.” But this ignores the category of collaborators, who are subject to harsh penalties under the laws of nations, including (sometimes) the same penalties as spies. Our soldiers not only had a moral duty to leave unharmed true civilians, but also to prudently not put more soldiers in danger – by every means legitimate. I don’t know this, but it is possible that they failed to take actions that were available that MIGHT have resulted in less danger. I do not, by the way, mean by the above that their bravery is any less complete or less honorable. These are (were) truly amazing men. Tony M

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