Members of the military, particularly those on active duty, are subject to enormous risks. There is no question that a soldier walking the streets of Baghdad in the years after we invaded Iraq in 2003 was taking great risks with his life. There is no question that a soldier walking the streets of Kabul anytime in the past decade up until now was and is also taking an enormous risk with their life and well-being.
These existential risks form the gravamen of what a friend of mine calls the “rebuttable presumption” of hero status for people in the military. That is to say, American soldiers should be considered noble, and be prima facie praised for their service, because an ordinary member of the military, who carries their duties out in an ordinarily competent fashion, is at constant risk of losing life or limb. Injuries both minor and grievous are an ever-present possibility. To do one’s work despite the threat of such injury takes a certain measure of courage; or perhaps merely apathy. Regardless, it remains certain that, regardless of a soldier’s motivations, winding up a bloody casualty in a hospital bed is a daily possibility when one wears a military uniform.
The person you see in the hospital photo above is not a member of the military. This is Charles Hawkesworth. He is a cab driver from Surf City, North Carolina. Hawkesworth was brutally beaten by a Gunnery Sgt. John Adam Kinosh after Kinosh became convinced that Hawkesworth had not dealt with him fairly after Hawkesworth picked Kinosh up in Hawkesworth’s cab. Hawkesworth tried to reason with Kinosh after he became uspet. The Marine responded with a vicious barrage of punches to Hawkesworth face. Kinosh beat him so savagely that a piece of Hawkesworth’s face literally separated from the rest of his skull. “they need to do reconstructive surgery and reattach that piece of my skull with 3 or 4 steel plates,” he told reporters from a local news station. The marine now faces felony charges, although at first, prosecutors were reluctant to charge him with anything more than a misdemeanor.
This story is reminiscent of a far more serious incident that was recalled by Eric at the Unwashed Advocate, a former JAG officer and current military defense attorney, who wrote about the case of Lieutenant William Calley. Calley was a Vietnam officer who was tried and convicted by a military court for crimes committed during the My Lai Massacre:
After deliberating for 79 hours, the six-officer jury (five of whom had served in Vietnam) convicted [Calley] on March 29, 1971, of the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. On March 31, 1971, Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor at Fort Leavenworth, which includes the United States Disciplinary Barracks, the Department of Defense‘s only maximum security prison.
Despite the fact that Calley was convicted by a jury of his peers, the reaction from civilian America was one of outrage:
Many in America were outraged by Calley’s sentence; Georgia’s governor Jimmy Carter instituted “American Fighting Man’s Day” and asked Georgians to drive for a week with their lights on. Indiana’s governor asked all state flags to be flown at half-staff for Calley, and Utah’s and Mississippi’s governors also disagreed with the verdict. The Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, New Jersey, and South Carolina legislatures requested clemency for Calley. Alabama’s governor George Wallace visited Calley in the stockade and requested that Nixon pardon him.
After the conviction, the White House received over 5000 telegrams; the ratio was 100 to 1 in favor of leniency. In a telephone survey of the American public, 79% disagreed with the verdict, 81% believed that the life sentence Calley had received was too stern, and 69% believed Calley had been made a scapegoat.
Calley was eventually pardoned. Eric recalls the consternation of one of his former instructors over the result of the Calley case:
Attending the Infantry Officer Basic Course in 1996, my fellow-Second-Lieutenant-classmates and I endured many ethics classes mentioning the My Lai Massacre. After all, we were all preparing to be platoon leaders just like Calley was. The massacre was a subject rich with talking points and lessons.
My instructors, however, took it a step further. They called one of Calley’s jurors to speak to our class. Long since retired, the Lieutenant Colonel started his lecture abruptly.
Listen Lieutenants. I want to make one thing clear, William Calley is a convicted MUR-DER-ER!
He smacked the podium with his large hand for each syllable in the word murderer. While I’m sure he understood his role in teaching a valuable ethics lesson to us noobs, it became clear that this crusty, retired officer was releasing years of anger, frustration, and bewilderment on the 120 butter-bars in the lecture hall that day.
The fact that Calley, on that July 1996 hot, Georgia day remained a free man chapped the Lieutenant Colonel’s ass.
The moral of these stories is this: people who do wrong should not be shielded from the consequences of their actions merely because they wear a military uniform. That’s what makes the ”rebuttable hero presumption” so problematic. Such a presumption creates a critical mass of political pressure that makes it more difficult to hold malfeasant soldiers accountable for their bad behavior, both within the military and outside of its ranks. Remember that William Calley was found guilty of murder by a jury of military officers, 5/6 who were combat veterans. They knew what “the shit” was. They too had “put their lives on the line” for the good ole’ USA. And yet the judgment of these other “heroes” apparently didn’t matter. People were so blinded by their “love” for the troops that they could not bring themselves to see him for what he was: a murderer.
It goes without saying that in my ideal justice system, even a person of Calley’s depravity would be in no worse shape that Anders Brevik, who serves a maximum 21 year sentence for his rampage in Norway. I’m sure others disagree, but I will leave the debates about the poverty of retributivism for another day. What is important here is to recognize that people should be judged by their affirmative acts and omissions. I do not think serving in the military entitles anyone to a presumption of heroism. There are plenty of honorable men and women in the military. There are also plenty of scumbags. What is important is to remember that their honor or scumbaggery has more to do with their personality than their military service.
I say this as a person who may very well enter the military at some point in the future, and has close family and friends who serve in the military: putting on a military uniform doesn’t make you a hero. It’s what you do while you’re wearing it that makes the difference.
(Photo via News WETC 6, North Carolina)
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