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The U.S. military gives no medals for moral courage

Posted by John Reed on

The U.S. military has a bunch of medals for physical courage, but they have never had even a single medal for moral courage.

Why not?

The military is an organization and all organization executives everywhere hate moral courage.

Moral courage is a willingness to risk things other than your life or limb to stand up for a principle. What things?

  • Your next promotion or assignment or job
  • Your pension and other retirement benefits
  • Within the military, getting a bad efficiency report that you suspect may handicap you in getting a civilian job after you leave the military

    On page 92 of the book The Gamble about the Surge in Iraq, author Tom Ricks quotes Hew Strachan, a British military historian:

    Courage takes two forms in War. Courage in the face of personal danger, whose effects are felt in the tactical sphere, and the courage to take responsibility, a requirement of strategic success. [Emphasis added]

As I have stated on several occasions elsewhere at this military Web site, I am aware of only a handful of instances of a U.S. military officer exhibiting moral courage in the entire history of the nation.

The most prominent example was Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell. He spoke out on principle and was court martialed and was forced to resign from the Army. They later named a bomber and the U.S. Air Force Academy mess hall after him and his picture was on a stamp, among other posthumous honors. On the rare occasions when the military rewards moral courage, it is usually posthumously or close to it.

Art experts

After World War II in Europe, the military decided to send to U.S. museums art works captured from the Nazis, who had themselves previously stolen them from other European countries and citizens. A group of art expert officers in charge of cataloging captured art work signed a petition to stop the shipping to the U.S. and were successful at doing do. But they were not career military officers. Accordingly, they risked little or nothing and, indeed, no doubt were heroes in their once and future careers in the art and museum world.

Whistle-blower medal

Within organizations, anyone who exhibits moral courage is usually called a “whistle-blower.” So if the U.S. military did give a medal for moral courage, it would inevitably be called the Whistle-Blower’s Medal.

Also inevitably, no member of the military would ever want to win it. If they did win it, they would never wear it and would try to steal the record of it out of their Pentagon personnel file so no one would ever know about it.

In police forces, another uniformed organization, those who exhibit moral courage are called “rats.” Many end up working for IAB— (Internal Affairs Bureau—) also known as the “rat squad.”

Frank Serpico showed moral courage as a member of the New York Police Department. For his courage, he got shot and harassed off the police force. A movie titled Serpico was made about his story. He lived in Europe for many years afterward.

Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year for 2002 were the Whistle-blowers —three woman who blew the whistle on the 9/11 hijackers (FBI agent), the Worldcom scandal, and the Enron scandal. They all lost their jobs as a result.

The Insider

Brown and Williamson Tobacco USA scientist Jeffrey Wigand blew the whistle and lost his job and marriage and was harassed by his former industry. 60 Minutes did a segment about him and a major motion picture called The Insider was made of his story.

Generally, whistle-blowers lose their jobs, sometimes their families, and the people they expose get promoted. Laws that are supposed to protect whistle-blowers are a joke. Very prominent whistle-blowers often get movies made about them. The movie about Billy Mitchell was The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955). But otherwise, they are done as far as the organization where they blew the whistle or any other organization is concerned.

Here is a discussion of the matter which also appears at my Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife book review Web page.

Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, Jr.

Thompson was the helicopter pilot who spotted the My Lai Massacre when it was underway and got the Americal Division platoon in question to stop murdering civilians. Thompson had to order his door gunners to hold the Americans off at gunpoint from continuing the killing.

The Wikipedia write-up on his actions expresses suspicion that he was punished by subsequent dangerous assignments and says that he suffered psychologically for the rest of his life, but they offer no proof of either. Knowing the Army, I would expect that he was retaliated against by the Army for exposing the misbehavior at My Lai. But I also have no first-hand knowledge.

Thompson was not a whistleblower in the sense of going outside the military with his story. In the My Lai case, that was done by Ronald Ridenhour. He was an investigative journalist in Vietnam at the time, heard about the incident, investigated it on his own, and sent a letter about his findings to the Pentagon and to numerous Congressmen.

Thompson and his door gunners, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, were all awarded Soldier’s Medals for saving the lives of the wounded and not yet attacked Vietnamese civilians—, but they did not receive those awards until 30 years later! Shows you how thrilled the U.S. Army officer corps was with their displays of moral courage. 31 years later, Thompson and Colburn received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award. (Andreotta had been killed in Vietnam after My Lai.) The Peace Abbey is a civilian organization.

Warrant officer is a rank between non-commissioned officer and officer. Many helicopter pilots were warrant officers. I do not know if Thompson went to college or where if he did. It was not to a service academy.

After I graduated from West Point, Major General Samuel Koster became the Superintendent of West Point. In 1970, while he was in that job, it was concluded that Koster had been part of the cover-up of the My Lai massacre. He was the commanding general of the Americal Division when it occurred.

He was fired from his job as Superintendent of West Point, stripped of a Distinguished Service Medal he had been awarded for commanding the Americal Division, and demoted one star. Nevertheless, he was then made the commanding officer of the Army’s Aberdeen Proving ground after being fired from West Point.

I heard that the Corps of Cadets (student body) at West Point held an unofficial parade in his honor before he departed from West Point after being fired. Had I been a cadet at the time, I would have refused to march in it. As far as I know, no cadet at the time did refuse. I was shocked and profoundly disappointed when I heard about that parade.

It is also noteworthy that Koster, who was a West Point graduate, was promoted to the position of Superintendent of West Point after the massacre. It suggests that what happened at My Lai was not considered a disqualifying factor for such a top “crown prince” job, at least until the full story of it hit the media. (Previous superintendents include Robert E. Lee, John Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, and William Westmoreland.)

Thompson gave lectures at Annapolis in 2003 and West Point in 2005 on Professional Military Ethics. Better late than never. Thompson died not long after his talk at West Point.

Matthew Lee, SVP, Lehman Brothers

Investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust in 2008, almost taking down the entire world financial system. Matthew Lee was an SVP there before that happened. He wrote a letter to the CFinancialO and CRiskO of Lehman warning of the ethics problems that led to the bankruptcy. He was fired days later. (Wall Street Journal 3/20/10)

Two Matthew Lees have graduated from my alma mater—West Point—but neither is old enough to have worked at Lehman for 14 years as the SVP did.

The problem is where are West Point’s Matthew Lees? Where are the Army’s Matthew Lees? Where are the U.S. military’s Matthew Lees? The history of all three institutions is almost devoid of the sort of moral courage exhibited by Lee.

Shame on West Point, the Army, and the U.S. military for that. And more shame on them for their stiff-necked self-righteous protestations of supreme honor whenever anyone questions their integrity or moral courage. The only thing worse than a moral coward is a moral coward who hypocritically swears he is morally courageous.

West Point values

Among West Point’s value statements are two documents that one would think would encourage more moral courage by its graduates than has yet been seen in the 214-year history of that institution.

  • Cadet Honor Code: A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal. (The words “nor tolerate those who do” were added after I graduated. They were implicit when I was there.)
  • Cadet Prayer:

    O God, our Father, Thou Searcher of human hearts, help us to draw near to Thee in sincerity and truth. May our religion be filled with gladness and may our worship of Thee be natural.

    Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretence ever to diminish. [Emphasis added] Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole truth can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy. Guard us against flippancy and irreverence in the sacred things of life. Grant us new ties of friendship and new opportunities of service. Kindle our hearts in fellowship with those of a cheerful countenance, and soften our hearts with sympathy for those who sorrow and suffer. Help us to maintain the honor of the Corps untarnished and unsullied and to show forth in our lives the ideals of West Point in doing our duty to Thee and to our Country. All of which we ask in the name of the Great Friend and Master of all. - Amen

I think these two statements of West Point values are transcendent examples of what human morality should be. But I see little evidence that the U.S. military officer corps has the slightest interest in these values which are supposedly taught at West Point because of how important they are in the military officer corps.

‘What’re you—, some kind of boy scout?’

I believe one of my superior officers sneered something about my being a “boy scout” when I tried to adhere to those values against his wishes.

Here are some Boy Scout values related to moral courage:

  • Scout Oath (or Promise): ...To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
  • Scout Law:
    • TRUSTWORTHY: A Scout tells the truth. He keeps his promises. Honesty is part of his code of conduct. People can depend on him.
    • BRAVE: A Scout can face danger even if he is afraid. He has the courage to stand for what he thinks is right even if others laugh at or threaten him.

Notwithstanding the word “boy” in the name of the organization, those are values to which military officers ought to adhere as well. And boy scouts who do adhere to those values ought to be far more highly regarded than military officers who don’t. Actually, the military officer corps is very big on embracing those values in press releases and stiff-necked, self-serving, self-righteous, public pronouncements, but that embrace is pure hypocrisy.

Lt. Col. Stuart Couch

The 3/31/07 Wall Street Journal had a story about Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, a Marine officer who showed moral courage by refusing to prosecute a Guantanamo Bay prisoner whom he concluded had confessed due to torture. Couch is a Duke graduate and got his law degree, and apparently his moral courage training, from Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC.

Couch was assigned to other duties as a result of his display of moral courage.

Col. Morris Davis

Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, a lawyer and chief military prosecutor of all Guantanamo Bay cases, also resigned in protest and will testify for defendants there that the military pressured him to do show trials for political reasons.

My alma mater, West Point, probably spends more time touting its moral training than any non-religious institution of higher education in the country, complete with the occasional honor code scandal showing the seriousness of the commitment. Given that, someone ought to inquire into why the rare displays of moral courage in the military officer corps are all exhibited by non-service academy graduates. Col. Davis graduated from Appalachian State.

No medal for moral courage

The military has many medals for physical courage. Recognizing physical courage is necessary for a military.

But the U.S. military does not now have, never has had, and never will have, a medal for moral courage.

What is moral courage? The Foundation for Moral Courage says,

We believe that when one individual stands up for what is right, this singular act of courage can save lives, serve as a catalyst to counteract injustice, and leave its mark on history.

The Center for Moral Courage says,

Standing up for values is the defining feature of moral courage.

A person who is courageous in the face of ethical challenges does the right thing even if it’s not popular refuses to stand idly by while others engage in unethical or harmful behavior

For us, moral courage has come to mean the capacity to overcome fear of shame and humiliation in order to admit one’s mistakes, to confess a wrong, to reject evil conformity, to denounce injustice, and also to defy immoral or imprudent orders.

William Ian Miller

To a large extent, John Nagl’s book Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife bemoans the lack of moral courage in the U.S. Army during Vietnam, and extols the lack of need for moral courage in the British Army in Malaya. A U.S. Army officer who did the right thing regarding pointing out the need for change in tactics and strategy in Vietnam was committing career suicide. A British officer in Malaya, according to Nagl, was not when he did the exact same thing there.

The career of any officer who won the Whistle-Blower’s Medal would be over. Sure, his superiors would wait a judicious period of time before moving his office to the broom closet, but no officer in the U.S. Army or any other large organization wants a whistle-blower for a subordinate.

Dying for lack of moral courage

American military men and women have died and will continue to die because of the lack of moral courage in the U.S. military. In Fallujah, 70 Marines died. Some were no doubt inevitable results of combat. But reading the details of how they died, it appears that many of them died because their leaders lacked the moral courage to protest bad tactics. See my article on the immorality of obeying stupid orders.

The book We Were One about that battle quotes one anonymous moral coward “senior officer” as saying, “Someone has blood on his hands,” because of the stupid, ineffective rules of engagement they were required to operate under. I agree. A number of people have blood on their hands including the “senior officer” who apparently refused to risk his own future promotions or pension benefits by raising hell about the stupid rules that he accurately blamed for unnecessarily getting some of his men killed.

According to what I read in We Were One, 70 Marines lost their lives there, but not one career NCO or officer lost their chances for promotion or retirement benefits as a result of protesting the poor tactics. I guess we all have our priorities.

Leaders who are supposed to have as their priorities

  1. accomplish the mission and
  2. welfare of the men

in that order, decided instead to go by

  1. accomplish the mission
  2. stay on the good side of my idiot superiors
  3. welfare of the men
  4. body bagging of the men who died because I placed staying on the good side of my idiot superiors ahead of welfare of the men

Henry David Thoreau of Walden Pond fame was once jailed because he stood up for some moral principle. While in jail, Ralph Waldo Emerson asked him why he was there. Thoreau answered that, “In an unjust society, the only place for a just man is in jail.” Indeed. And the U.S. military sure as hell is an “unjust society” when Americans are dying because they are being taught stupid tactics, forced to fight under idiotic rules of engagement, deprived of heavier weapons that are available or short-changed on armor or needed weapons and ammunition, etc., etc.

So where are the U.S. military officers, other than Mitchell, who should be protesting more vehemently? Universally, they choose to sin by silence when they should protest. It’s a disgrace and an outrage.

What about retired Major General John Batiste?

Retired Major General John Batiste, West Point Class of 1974, six years after my class, is the most prominent of a number of retired generals who are campaigning to end the war in Iraq. Are they examples of the kind of moral courage I am calling for?

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I don’t think so. A couple of comments:

I have seen Batiste on TV and there is something about his demeanor that bothers me. I am not sure what it is. I have not seen the others enough to have a reaction to them.

Publicity stunt

I and others have always thought that Senator John Kerry used his opposition to the Vietnam war as a publicity stunt to draw attention to himself as he was about to launch his John F. Kennedy-inspired political career. Indeed, Kerry’s whole life starting when Kennedy was president in the early ’60s seems to have been calculated to get him elected president. I was in Vietnam when Kerry started denouncing the war and the U.S. military there. It really angered us and I doubt very many who were there then ever forgave him.

Batiste has not denounced his former fellow soldiers, but he sure seems to love the spotlight.

The press got wind of me during the Vietnam War. They asked to interview me. I declined because I did not want to look like I was drawing attention to myself for the sake of the attention. I had hundreds of classmates and other former military colleagues still in the war. I did not want to be a John Kerry. Also, I was not then or now against the Vietnam war. I just opposed the bureaucratic corruption and ineptness of the military. The press seemed to want to put an anti-war spin on my views.

I think military officers who believe the war in Iraq is being waged incorrectly should resign and speak out publicly if they cannot get the required changes privately though the chain of command. But such officers should restrict their comments to specifics of military tactics and strategy including equipment and personnel. Furthermore, they must take care not to associate with politicians in the process. Politicians are dishonest. Go on legitimate talk shows. Talk to legitimate journalists. But do not let yourself be used by ideological agenda-driven groups or individuals.

Rumsfeld haters

I also get the impression that lots of generals, including many on active duty, did not like resigned Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and held Bush responsible for hiring him. And neither Bush nor Rumsfeld held the generals in as high an esteem as they hold themselves.

I did not see anything major wrong with the way Rumsfeld did his job. He was the only Secretary of Defense who had ever been one previously and I think he came to office the second time determined not to let the military brass prevent him from bringing about badly-needed reform.

My sense of the situation from afar is that Secretaries of Defense come and go and the military brass is extremely adept at ignoring them when they are in office. Rumsfeld knew that game and was not letting them get away with it. The military brass hated him simply because he was on to them.

That’s not to say every decision he made was perfect. I doubt he even made many decisions. The President makes the important decisions. The Secretary of Defense is staff.

DON’T listen to the generals

Listening to the generals and failing to listen to the generals are accusations currently being hurled by both Democrats and Republicans at each other. I can straighten that out: Don’t listen to the generals. They don’t know what they are talking about as evidenced by the plain fact that none of them has ever won an asymmetrical war or even studied at the feet of anyone else who did.


Another problem I have with Batiste is that he is vague and political in his comments rather than talking military specifics. He strikes me as a politician who happens to have previously been a general rather than a general talking about his area of expertise. Politicians are dishonest.

Batiste was fired as a CBS military analyst for making anti-Bush ads for

He wasn’t in Iraq as an OBSERVER

I also have not heard him take any responsibility for the poor progress in Iraq. He relies on having been there as the main source of his credibility. How’s about somebody asks him what he did there and why he didn’t get the job done?

In the military, they are fond of saying, “A commander is responsible for everything his men do or fail to do.” It’s an overstatement, but I do not hear it or even a lesser version of it in Batiste’s criticism of Bush. Sounds like he’s saying everything was Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s fault.

What about all the active-duty generals who have been saying “can do” in Iraq when the evidence to date indicates they can’t do? Indeed, the evidence that generals like Batiste do not know how to win asymmetrical wars stretches back through Somalia and Lebanon to Vietnam 45 years ago.

How did he get to be a major general?

As I believe I have made clear on this and other pages of my military Web site, you get promoted in the military for being a suck up who goes along to get along. If you demonstrate any sort of moral courage, that is, standing up to your superiors on a matter of principle, you are done. That’s true even if it’s something trivial like refusing to join a poorly-managed officers club or asking the colonel’s civilian wife to stop pulling rank on your civilian wife.

Batiste no doubt had many opportunities to stand up to his superiors during his decades-long career. If he ever had, his promotions would have stopped far short of major general. (He was reportedly on the list to make lieutenant general at the time he resigned.) In other words, he played the game he now denounces for over twenty years. What caused him to get moral courage religion in 2006? And has he denounced his own prior behavior that he used to get himself promoted to two- or three-star general?

LTC Anthony Herbert

I had this same complaint about a much lower ranking guy, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert during the Vietnam War. He was on all the TV shows, most notably Dick Cavett, denouncing the Army. I was in the Army then. My roommate from West Point and I shared an apartment at the time. As Herbert railed against the Army on TV, saying much the same stuff I was saying, my roommate asked what I thought of him. “I agree with what he’s saying, but how did he get to be a lieutenant colonel?”

Later he was interviewed by 60 Minutes. It was probably the most classic ambush interview in 60 Minutes history. Herbert would make an accusation and 60 Minutes would bring another former officer from the other room who stood right in front of Herbert and denied it happened the way Herbert said.

I was interviewed on 60 Minutes by Morley Safer in 1986 in a segment called Nothing Down. It was about the get-rich-quick real estate gurus. I was there to provide the sober real-world counterpoint to the get-rich-quick guy. I believe I discussed the Herbert 60 Minutes program with the producer who worked on my segment. I recall him saying they originally assumed Herbert was a straight shooter, but in the course of researching for the show, they found the discrepancies that they confronted Herbert with.

Prior to the 60 Minutes show, Herbert was a media star. Afterward, I do not recall seeing him on TV. Would that happen if 60 Minutes or another show investigated Batiste? I doubt it. He seems more political than Herbert-like. But there is still the issue of how did he get to be a major general if he stands up for what he believes is right.

Living an honest life has been one of my main goals. I have managed to do that, in spite of powerful efforts to prevent it by the Army, and lesser resistance in civilian life, and explained how in my book Succeeding. That book has chapters on:

• Reputation
• Values
• Working for other people
• Making an honest living
• Tenure and other deals ‘too good to leave’
• Conflict and conflict avoidance

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.


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