Category Archives: War and the Military

Three Strikes And You’re Untrustworthy: Why VA Secretary Robert McDonald Must Be Fired

McDonald

I was going to post this story as an Ethics Quiz when I first saw it yesterday at the Huffington Post.  The most recent head of the troubled Veteran’s Affairs Dept., Robert McDonald, falsely claimed in a videotaped comment that he served in the Army’s elite special forces. In fact, his military service of five years was in fact spent almost entirely with the 82nd Airborne Division during the late 1970s. The quiz question was going to be whether this alone required his dismissal.

My conclusion: assuming that he only did something like this only once, and it was not a Sen. Richard Blumenthal or a Brian Williams situation involving repeated self-glorifying falsehoods, I would have been willing to let this pass were he not in the position he is in: Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Veterans are justly sensitive on the topic of stolen valor and imaginary service. The last individual to hold McDonald’s job was asleep on the job and betrayed his constituency: they should not be asked to trust a successor who lies about his military service, even once. I understand that this is a tough verdict, and why others could reasonably argue that one casual remark to cheer a homeless veteran should not be a career catastrophe. In fact, as I write that, I’m thinking that I could be persuaded to adopt that position as well.

However, that is not all there is to this situation. For McDonald had already shown a tendency to play fast and loose with facts, perhaps influenced by his boss, who is similarly inclined, and the Vice -President, of course, when he isn’t harassing women. Continue reading

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What’s Really Wrong About The President Refusing To Say That Islamic Extremists Are Islamic Extremists

(Other than the fact that it’s ridiculous, of course.)

war_is_peace

Not THAT again…

As far as preventing terrorist organizations from destroying civilization is concerned, the proposition being repeatedly made by Republicans that “you can’t fight something if you can’t accurately describe it” is also ridiculous. Obama can call ISIS Late For Dinner if he wants to, and still take effective steps to contain the group and others. I can’t remember ever experiencing such a long and intense debate over what something should be called, unless you count the Republican insistence that water-boarding isn’t torture after decades of the United States saying otherwise  in legal documents, treaties and places where English is spoken, That, however, was obviously deceitful wordplay to get around the law, lawyering at it’s worst. This is something else…but what is it?

Yesterday, poor Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson did the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows, and was asked to explain the Administration’s weird rhetorical line in the sand repeatedly. Presumably he was prepared beforehand, yet the best he could do was probably the version he came up with on Fox News, saying on the topic:

” [T]he thing I hear from leaders in the Muslim community in this country is, “ISIL is attempting to hijack my religion. Our religion is about peace and brotherhood and ISIL is attempting to hijack that from us.” And they resent that. Most victims of ISIL are, in fact, Muslims. So it seems to me that to refer to ISIL as occupying any part of the Islamic theology is playing on a — a battlefield that they would like us to be on. I think that to call them — to call them some form of Islam gives the group more dignity than it deserves, frankly.”

Wait..what? That’s it? So this is meant to, like, hurt their feelings? Why not go whole hog, and call them “Smoosh-Face Poopy-Heads,” then, or something similar? We’re officially denying what everyone knows to be true because moderate Muslims don’t like sharing a religion with the radicals, so to be nice, were speaking Fantasy rather than English? Continue reading

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A Hung Ethics Jury On Fox’s Broadcast Of The Isis Burning Video

jordan-pilot

The burning ethics issue of the moment is in the field of broadcast journalism, and Ethics Alarms is obligated to weigh in.

Who is right, the pundits are asking: Fox News, for defiantly posting on its website the 22-minute video from the Islamic State terror group that shows Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh being burned to death, or all the other U.S. news organizations that have refused to do so?

Fox’s decision has been criticized by its own media ethics watchdog, Howard Kurtz, as excessive and unnecessary, and by anti-terrorism experts, who unanimously say that this plays into the ISIS strategy. Malcolm Nance of the Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideology said the Fox was “literally – literally – working for al-Qaida and Isis’s media arm. They might as well start sending them royalty checks.”

Here are the Ethics Alarms observations on the controversy. The short version: I doubt everyone’s motives here, and nobody on any side of the journalism ethics debate is consistent or trustworthy. Unlike me.

1. Here are the relevant tenets of the Code of Conduct of the Society of Professional Journalists. Continue reading

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Ethics Quiz: The Case Of The Fabricating Anchorman

The key question in any ethics problem is usually “What’s going on here?” With Brian Williams’ bizarre admission that he had been telling a false story involving his experience covering the Iraq War for over a decade, it’s impossible to say with confidence what is going on.

We know this: Williams told viewers on his evening news broadcast last week about an incident when he was covering the Iraq war, saying that a helicopter he was flying in was hit and forced down by an RPG. After the broadcast, soldiers began complaining on Facebook:

Screen-Shot-WilliamsScreen-Shot-Williams 2

“Stars and Stripes” noticed, investigated Williams’ account and found it to be false. Williams quickly apologized, both on Facebook and in his Wednesday broadcast. Here is his Facebook recant:

“To Joseph, Lance, Jonathan, Pate, Michael and all those who have posted: You are absolutely right and I was wrong. In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp. Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize. I certainly remember the armored mech platoon, meeting Capt. Eric Nye and of course Tim Terpak. Shortly after they arrived, so did the Orange Crush sandstorm, making virtually all outdoor functions impossible. I honestly don’t remember which of the three choppers Gen. Downing and I slept in, but we spent two nights on the stowable web bench seats in one of the three birds. Later in the invasion when Gen. Downing and I reached Baghdad, I remember searching the parade grounds for Tim’s Bradley to no avail. My attempt to pay tribute to CSM Terpak was to honor his 23+ years in service to our nation, and it had been 12 years since I saw him. The ultimate irony is: In writing up the synopsis of the 2 nights and 3 days I spent with him in the desert, I managed to switch aircraft. Nobody’s trying to steal anyone’s valor. Quite the contrary: I was and remain a civilian journalist covering the stories of those who volunteered for duty. This was simply an attempt to thank Tim, our military and Veterans everywhere — those who have served while I did not.”

Research has revealed that Williams has been telling various versions of the story for over a decade, sometimes saying he was in a helicopter behind the one hit by fire, sometimes saying, as he did on the David Letterman show last year, that he was actually a passenger on the helicopter forced down. Thus his Facebook apology is misleading, and the one he gave last night even moreso. At Powerline, John Hinderaker explains:

This is the statement that Williams read on-air tonight:

“After a groundfire incident in the desert during the Iraq war invasion, I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago….”

No: Williams has been telling the false story since shortly after the incident occurred. He told it for the last time, not the first, last week.

“It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert….”

Not since last Friday, but it took a decade or more since Williams first told the false story.

“I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by [rocket-propelled grenade] fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. . . .”

Again, Williams tries to mislead: his “following aircraft” landed an hour after the one that took the hit from the RPG.

“This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and, by extension, our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not…”

A bungled attempt last Friday evening at the Rangers game. Williams implies, once again, that this was the first time he has told the false story. But he is on video telling the same story at least 13 times since 2003.

Williams’s on-air apology, like the Facebook version, was disingenuous. I doubt that it will help him in the long term.

Hinderaker, a prominent conservative political blogger, believes that Williams is certain to be fired as a result of the controversy, the convoluted details of which you can read about here, here, and here in addition to the Washington Post story linked above.

I’m not so sure that he will. Should he?

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is…

“Can Brian Williams be trusted after this?”

Continue reading

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Bias Check

Confirmation bias

Detecting and overcoming one’s own biases is one of the most important features of being ethical. “Bias makes you stupid,” after all, and stupidity can make you unethical. As the author of an ethics blog, this is of special concern to me, as I am constantly making choices that bias could seriously affect. Some of those choices include what issues and events have ethics components, which are most important to publicize, how should the ethical issues be analyzed, what conclusions are fair and reasonable, even how long a particular post should be, what authorities and references should be included, and what style—scholarly? humorous? bemused? indignant? outraged?—will best illustrate a point.

As regular readers here know, I can be harsh, often too harsh, when a commenter dismisses my commentary as partisan or ideologically motivated. First of all, it isn’t, and I resent the accusation. Second, it’s a cheap shot, essentially attacking my motives, objectivity and integrity rather than presenting substantive arguments. Third, it is a simpleminded approach to the world in general, and democracy in particular, and life, presuming that “there are two kinds of people,” and one type is always wrong, while the other type is always right. There is nobody I agree with all the time, and I am far from alone in that trait. People who agree with the same people all the time are not really thinking. They are just taking the easy route of picking sides, and letting others think for them.

Obviously, my approach to controversies, problems and ethical analysis are influenced by thousands of factors, including my parents,  my upbringing,  where I have lived,  teachers, friends, and family members, experiences, books, plays, movies and popular culture, interests  and passions (like leadership, American history, and baseball), what I’m good or successful at and I’m not, and so much else. These are not biases: once such influences mold your way of looking at the world and passing through life, they are, in fact, who you are. I’m comfortable with who I am. I just don’t want biases making me me stupider than I am.

Thus I am always interested in trying to identify where I stand on a the ideological scale. Some of my conservative friends think I’m liberal; all of my liberal friends think I’m conservative. Two sides again: I am confident that it is their place on the scale that leads to those perceptions. Today I encountered another test that supposedly divides liberals and conservatives sharply.  It comes from political scientist and philosopher James Burnham’s  1964 book “The Suicide of the West.” Burnham was one of those radical leftists who did a complete reversal in middle age and became an influential conservative theorist. You are asked to agree or disagree with these 39 statements, and the result reveals your ideological bent.

Here are the questions: Continue reading

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Ethics Quote Of The Week: Gary Sinise

gary-sinise

“With all due respect, what the hell are you talking about?”

—Actor and Wounded Warrior ally Gary Senise, in an open letter responding to Howard Dean’s statement that the audience for “American Sniper” consisted of “angry people.”

Good question. What are the vicious and anti-military critics of Clint Eastwood’s box-office busting bio-pic about Navy Seal Chris Kyle talking about?

I saw the film yesterday. It’s not pro-war, pro-Iraq invasion, or political in any way. The various critics of the film out themselves as hateful and so biased against combat, the military and, I don’t know—life? Reality?—that they can’t even keep their minds open a crack for a thought-provoking piece of popular art. Dean had said, turning his review (I’ll bet anything that he hasn’t seen the film) into a gratuitous attack on tea party supporters:

“There’s a lot of anger in this country, and the people who go see this movie are people who are very angry. And this guy basically says ‘I’m going to fight on your side.’ … I bet you if you looked at a cross-section of the Tea Party and the people who go to see this movie, there’s a lot of intersection.”

In the same forum–his weekly HBO conservative-bashing fest–Bill Maher called Kyle a “psychopath patriot” (there is nothing whatsoever in the film that supports that diagnosis). Seth Rogen compared “American Sniper” to a Nazi propaganda film. Michael Moore used the film–which he couldn’t possibly have seen–to make the ridiculous observation that snipers were “cowards.” Kyle, the most effective sniper in U.S. military history, was wounded repeatedly and awarded two Silver Stars and five Bronze stars. For him to be smeared as a coward by the likes of Michael Moore is grotesque.

The film, among other things, shows just what kind of horror our service men and women endured in Iraq, how they suffered (and suffer still), what it did to them and their families, and accords them well-deserved compassion and respect. How sad, bitter and rotten inside someone must be to resent that. As I watched the film, it occurred to me that this was probably exactly what John Wayne wanted “The Green Berets” to be during Vietnam, but had neither the discipline to avoid agitprop and sentimentality, nor Clint’s directing skills to pull it off.

After expressing his disgust at Dean’s outburst in a tweet, the stage and screen star, whose foundation works to help and recognize the soldiers and veterans he calls our “defenders,” wrote,

To Howard Dean,

I saw American Sniper and would not consider myself to be an angry person. You certainly have a right to make stupid blanket statements, suggesting that all people who see this film are angry, but how is that helpful sir? Do you also suggest that everyone at Warner Brothers is angry because they released the film? That Clint Eastwood, Jason Hall, Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller and the rest of the cast and crew are angry because they made the film? Chris Kyle’s story deserved to be told. It tells a story of the stress that multiple deployments have on one military family, a family representative of thousands of military families. It helps to communicate the toll that the war on terror has taken on our defenders. Defenders and families who need our support. I will admit that perhaps somewhere among the masses of people who are going to see the film there may be a few that might have some anger or have been angry at some point in their lives, but, with all due respect, what the hell are you talking about?

My guess is that Dean is talking about his own estrangement from basic American values, its history, and its essential role in the world, including all the sacrifices, risks and difficult choices that role demands. He’s the angry one.

 

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Ethics Alarms Encore: “Aesop’s Unethical and Misleading Fable: The North Wind and the Sun”

north-wind-and-the-sun-story-oil-painting

[ I vowed that the next time I got a comment on this post, I would publish it again. It hails from four years ago, when  Ethics Alarms got a quarter of the traffic it gets now. I confess that I wrote it on a whim, having been talking with my wife about how Aesop’s Fables were joining Mother Goose stories,  Edward Lear limericks and American folks song in the Discarded Bin of our culture and then stumbling upon a fable I had either never read before or forgotten about.  To my surprise the post attracted intense criticism from fans of the story—I even had to ban a commenter who got hysterical about it—and the post joined a very eclectic group of early essays here that get considerable and consistent readership every week. Apparently there are a lot of Sun-worshipers out there. Anyway, since you probably missed it the first time, here it is.]

Today, by happenstance, I heard an Aesop’s Fable that I had never encountered before recited on the radio. Like all Aesop’s Fables, at least in its modern re-telling, this one had a moral attached , and is also a statement of ethical values. Unlike most of the fables, however, it doesn’t make its case. It is, in fact, an intellectually dishonest, indeed an unethical, fable.

It is called “The North Wind and the Sun,” and in most sources reads like this:

“The North Wind and the Sun disputed as to which was the most powerful, and agreed that he should be declared the victor who could first strip a wayfaring man of his clothes. The North Wind first tried his power and blew with all his might, but the keener his blasts, the closer the Traveler wrapped his cloak around him, until at last, resigning all hope of victory, the Wind called upon the Sun to see what he could do. The Sun suddenly shone out with all his warmth. The Traveler no sooner felt his genial rays than he took off one garment after another, and at last, fairly overcome with heat, undressed and bathed in a stream that lay in his path.”

The moral of the fable is variously stated as “Persuasion is better than Force” , or “Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.”

The fable proves neither. In reality, it is a vivid example of dishonest argument, using euphemisms and false characterizations to “prove” a proposition that an advocate is biased toward from the outset. Continue reading

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