You wouldn’t think that a South Korean baseball player could have much in common with John Wayne, but a slugging first baseman for the Cleveland Indians named Shin-Soo Choo now faces an ethical dilemma strikingly similar to the one “the Duke” encountered in 1942.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II, many stars from Hollywood and the world of sports didn’t wait to be drafted. They enlisted, with some, like James Stewart, distinguishing themselves in dangerous missions and risky combat. John Wayne’s film career was at a critical point in 1942. He had suffered through a frustrating decade of two-reel westerns and failed attempts to break into the A-list of leading men, but Wayne’s performance as the Ringo Kid in the 1939 John Ford classic “Stagecoach” had finally put him on the road to stardom. Still, none of his subsequent films had approached “Stagecoach” in quality or critical acclaim, and Hollywood insiders warned Wayne that a prolonged absence from the screen at that time could snuff out any chance at the successful film career that was within his grasp. Though greatly conflicted over the move, Wayne decided to accept a deferment from military service as the primary provider for two young children.
So, while Henry Fonda and Gene Autry were risking their lives for their country, John Wayne became the symbol of the American soldier by firing blanks at extras in German and Japanese uniforms in such films as “Back to Bataan” and “They Were Expendable,” and his career progressed beyond mere stardom to Hollywood legend and screen immortality.
With bellicose North Korea looming over it, South Korea’s national security is among the most precarious in the world. All young South Korean men are required to give two years to military service by the time they turn 30, and Shin-Soo Choo is a 27-year-old South Korean citizen living in the U.S. so he can be paid millions of dollars to playg Major League baseball for the Cleveland Indians. He is not yet a star, but getting there; the next few years are critical. A two-year absence would probably cost him any chance of having a significant career, as well as many millions of dollars. Nevertheless, he owes two years of military service to his country.
Choo could solve his problem by getting clearance from the Indians to play on the South Korean baseball squad in the 2010 Asian Games, which take place in November, and leading his team to a gold medal, for that would earn him an exemption from military service. Most believe, however, that Choo will either seek citizenship in the U.S. or simply not return to Korea.
The predominant sentiment among sportswriters regarding Choo’s dilemma is, “Well, of course he’ll keep playing baseball!” That is disturbing, because the ethical course is not really debatable. As a male citizen of South Korea, he has exactly the same duty as other young men there, and he is bound to fulfill it. Doing so will involve great personal sacrifice, but the assumption that Choo’s sacrifice is so much greater than other Korean men that he would be justified in ducking it is as offensive as it is wrong. Choo’s dream of being a baseball star has no more intrinsic value than another man’s dream of becoming a biology professor, an assistant mechanic, opening his own hair-dressing salon or marrying the girl next door. Who measures the seriousness of an interruption in their life plans by comparing it to what someone else is sacrificing? Each of our plans, aspirations and opportunities are important to us; don’t tell me that Shin-Soo Choo deserves extra sympathy because his future is especially bright. There is a strong counter-argument to that, after all. “He’s already had more excitement and earned more money than I ever will,” another South Korean could say. “Let him go into the Army, and let me have a shot.” How would Choo answer that?
ESPN blogger Rob Neyer, usually a perceptive and reasonable guy, sides with Choo, however. “I can’t summon any moral outrage over Choo’s stance,” he writes. “What would you do, if you were just reaching the peak of your profession and were faced with a legal obligation to leave your hard-earned position for two whole years, with no assurance that your job would be there upon your return? You probably would do exactly what Choo is doing.”
First of all, Neyer is wrong: I would fulfill my obligations, and I suspect many of you would as well. Second, just because Neyer would, as he presumes of Choo, choose to renege on his legal obligations doesn’t make it any more ethically defensible. Some day, I will have to write a book about how distortions of the Golden Rule foul up our ethical thinking. Neyer’s using one: “Regard what someone else does as unobjectionable if you would do the same thing.” No! That means that ethical standards must always be lowered to the level of the analyst’s failings. Neyer has the process exactly backwards. The first step is to determine that Choo has an obligation as a South Korean citizen, and his own desires, needs, and opportunities do not relieve him of meeting it. Step two is for Neyer to recognize that if he indeed would “do the same thing”—avoid a legitimate duty because of selfish objectives—he needs to repair his own ethics, because that instinct is wrong. He can empathize with Choo, as I do, but that’s not the same as giving him a pass on unethical conduct.
And Duke? Friends say was always defensive and guilt-ridden about his decision to stay out of the war, especially since his friend and mentor (and war hero), John Ford, wouldn’t let him forget it. Thanks to moral luck, it all worked out for the best: Wayne undoubtedly did more for the war effort by inspiring audiences at home with his portrayals of brave fighting men than he would have as one more G.I.; if he had been killed in battle, American culture would be missing a big and colorful piece as well as many wonderful movies; and the Allies prevailed without him having to fire a shot.
There is a difference between the situations of John Wayne and Choo, perhaps, for Wayne was excused from service by a legitimate deferment, and in the view of the U.S. Government, he had fulfilled his obligation. Still, America’s Greatest Cowboy went to his grave wondering if he did the right thing. In Choo’s case, there is no cause to wonder. If he avoids his duty to his country, there is nothing right about it.