Ethics Quiz: Axis Sally

Mediocre movies can still raise important ethics questions, and so it is with a 2021 bomb called “American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally.” The film dramatizes the bizarre tale of Mildred Gillars, a Maine-born American woman of modest looks and talents who rode her aspirations for a Hollywood career into an infamous gig as an infamous Nazi German radio propagandist during World War II. My father told me about her broadcasts from Berlin, and how she used sexy tones to tell American servicemen that they were doomed, that the Jews, not Germany, were their real enemy, and that their wives and girlfriends were cheating on them while they were in Europe fighting Hitler’s “invincible army.”

Her last broadcast was just a few days before Germany surrendered; Gillars was arrested and charged with being a traitor. In 1948, “Axis Sally” faced a very real threat of being hanged as she went on trial for eight counts of treason. Thanks in great part to a vigorous (if reluctant) defense by famed criminal defense attorney James Laughlin, played by Al Pacino in the film, the jury found her guilty of only one, and what could have been a 30 year jail term turned into ten.

Dad said that American GIs thought “she”Axis Sally” was hilarious, that no soldiers took her seriously, and that her singing was terrible. Her broadcasts were popular in the U.S., as she often relayed news of American prisoners of war to show how well they were being treated by their German captors.

Although I suspect that Pacino’s ringing closing argument in her defense was punched up considerably from the original by Laughlin and maybe even contained some arguments Laughlin did not make, the points he raises in the movie are fascinating:

Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: The USS Chancellorsville

In a final flurry of Black History Month pandering by the Biden administration, the missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville was renamed USS Robert Smalls. A US government Naming Commission reviewed military bases and vessels that appeared to honor the Confederacy and made recommendations regarding which should to be renamed. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin approved the commission’s recommendations in October 2022, and this was one of the results. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced that the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser would lose its previous name and henceforth would bear the name of Smalls, a former slave who took over a Confederate ship and delivered it to the Union navy.

Esteemed reader Steve-O-in NJ brought this story to ethics Alarms’ attention, and makes this argument:

It used to be we would name carriers after battles, but, for whatever reason, when these cruisers, once the most expensive and most sophisticated non-carrier vessels afloat in the US Navy, were built, they decided to name them after battles instead (with one exception, the USS Thomas S. Gates, which left active service long ago because it was not built with the vertical launch system).  I questioned this choice of names from the get-go, since as far as I know all US ships named after battles were named for US victories or at least battles where our forces gave a good account of themselves (one of the other ships in the class is the USS Chosin, another the USS Anzio).  Why did they decide to name this one after a disastrous US defeat?  Well, presumably the same reason the names USS Semmes, USS Buchanan, USS Waddell, and USS Barney found their way into the Charles F. Adams and Spruance classes of destroyers, but are unlikely to be used again.
I can think of a long list of names that would not break the class tradition, nor stick out like a sore thumb, and speak to the entire US.  Notably the names USS Saratoga and USS Lexington are not presently in use, nor the names USS Coral Sea or USS Midway.  Give me a few minutes and I’ll come up with a dozen more.  But of course this couldn’t be just a switch of names to something more universally admired, it HAD to be the name of a former slave, as a rebuke to those evil racists who dared name a ship after a legendary victory led by Robert E. Lee, and now everyone who sees it or hears the name will know of the rebuke.  

A two-part Ethics Quiz of the Day arises from this discussion:

Continue reading

The Murder Of Private King

My father told me he was certain that there were incidents like this during World War II, but that the military covered them up.

The Army Board for Correction of Military Records has changed the death record of African-American WWII Private Albert H. King to list him as having died “in the line of duty.” King, a 20-year-old black soldier with the Quartermaster Corps, was in fact murdered on March 23, 1941, by a white member of the military police, Sgt. Robert Lummus, who shot King five times as he walked on the main road at Fort Benning toward his barracks. King had tried to escape a mob of whites intent on beating him on a bus. Sergeant Lummus claimed self-defense and just 13 hours after shooting King, was found not guilty by a military court.

A thorough investigation had taken place, clearly.

Continue reading

Comment Of The Week #3 on”Open Forum (11/11/22)” Re: Armistice Day

Other Bill raised another aspect of Armistice Day ethics: is there such a thing as war ethics? Ethics Alarms has barely touched on the subject, as I absorbed the values of my father on this topic among so many others. He believed, like General Sherman, that war was such hell that the only ethical way to fight it was in a manner that would end it as quickly as possible. Dad supported the dropping of the first atom bomb (he was less certain about the second), admittedly with a bias: he was preparing to be part of the U.S. invasion force when Hiroshima was destroyed. He strongly felt that the Nuremberg Trials were hypocritical, and our many debates and arguments about that controversy led to my directing “The Andersonville Trial” twice and producing “Judgment at Nuremberg” at my late, lamented professional theater company. My father also thought the Geneva Convention was unenforceable, disingenuous, and naive.

Here is Other Bill’s Comment of the Week from this week’s Open Forum:


Armistice Day has me thinking about war ethics. How’s that for an oxymoron? Russia has been getting crap for targeting civilian infrastructure, including apartment buildings and the electrical grid. There has been talk about the Russians destroying a dam to flood an area and deprive the Ukrainians of a river crossing.

What’s the deal? What did the U.S. destroy during shock and awe in Iraq? Other than regime change, why did the U.S. invade Iraq? During WWII, the Allied strategic bombing campaign, which included bombing cities, was intended in large part to “discomfit” the German populous, thereby reducing Germany’s industrial output (not to mention the firebombing of wooden Japanese cities, purporte ly to destroy dispersed manufacturing facilities). A famous British operation “busted” a dam and flooded large parts of the Ruhr flood plain.

Continue reading

Comment Of The Week #2: Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 11/11/2022: The Ethics Post To End All Ethics Posts Edition

My father, now in Arlington National Cemetery, would have really liked Steve-O-in NJ’s post. the second of this weekends’s Comment of the Week. The great irony of his life was, as he once mentioned, that he hated war, but had a natural aptitude for it. Jack Sr. never boasted about his many war exploits, forcing us to drag them (definitely not all, though) out of him over nearly 6 decades. Nevertheless, he was more proud of fighting the Nazis in Africa and Europe than of anything else in his life, except, perhaps, of being a good father, unlike his own father.

Dad used to imitate FDR’s famous “I …hate… war!” speech (“My wife Eleanor hates war…”) , which he felt was ponderous and insincere—The Roosevelts all liked war, he believed—and said more than once that anyone who didn’t hate war was a lunatic. (This was just one of the many reasons he detested General Patton). But my father never hesitated to display reminders of his participation in the victory over Hitler and his minions.

We had beautiful, brilliant red curtains separating our play room from the laundry area in our basement in Arlington, Mass.when my sister and I were kids; it wasn’t until long after I had moved to the Washington, D.C. area that I learned that my mother had cut them out of the giant Nazi flag my father had brought home as a trophy. He felt that using the red portion of the menacing flag as a cheerful decoration in the most humble part of his all-American home was a nice, final, private “Bite me!” to the evil losers.

Here are Steve-O’s reflections on Armistice Day, prompted by the introduction to this post…


103 years ago, the guns finally fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, ending the greatest conflict to date, known as the Great War in Europe, as World War One here. The war that was supposed to end by Christmas 1914 had dragged on for more than four years, shaken civilization to its core, and thrown down no fewer than four empires, leaving chaos in their place. It had also killed six million and badly damaged a generation.

The world thought another war like this must not, could not ever happen again. In memory of what had happened, the allied nations proclaimed Armistice Day a year later, including the red poppy as the symbol of the fallen, the two minutes silence, and the continued hope for world peace.

Here’s the dirty little secret, though, the allied nations, weary of war and afraid of another one, turned their back on the problems left unresolved at the end of World War One. They made a few half-hearted attempts to deal with them, like the poorly organized Allied intervention in Russia to stop Communism before it took root, which accomplished nothing. For the most part, however, they either just looked the other way or threw up their hands. Turkey mopped up what was left of the Armenians and forced Greece into a population exchange that destroyed thousands more lives, and the allies just nodded. The Soviets attempted to conquer Poland, but they found themselves thrown back by a nation not inclined to give up the freedom it had just won under the leadership of the military and political genius Josef Pilsudski. France and the UK didn’t do or say anything. Ireland erupted in violence, and the UK all too quickly concluded a peace that left it embarrassed and Ireland bankrupt. Let’s also not forget the abandonment of the Finns, the Ethiopians, and the Austrians to tyrannical aggression. The major nations were too busy trying to come up with lofty promises and ways to prevent there from ever being a war again: the Washington Naval Treaty, signed with a smile by the Japanese and promptly violated, the Locarno Treaties, which were quickly ignored, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which supposedly outlawed war, and is still technically in effect, but which was ignored from its inception, and actually reads like a bad joke in hindsight.

Continue reading

Ethics Hero Emeritus: Vasily Arkhipov (1926 –1998)

I was so focused yesterday on commemorating my son’s birthday and the Boston Red Sox’s “curse”-breaking victory, both October 27 highlights, that I neglected to note the minor matter of nuclear war being averted because of the integrity and courage of a Russian naval officer few Americans have heard of. Let me fix that…

October 27, 1962, was right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in a stand-off over the discovery of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Any number of miscalculations or rash actions could have triggered a nuclear war. US Navy destroyers located the diesel powered sub B-59, one of a four sub Soviet flotilla, near Cuba and commenced dropping small depth charges to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. This itself was a risky measure, as the American ships were in international waters.

Soviet Captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky misread the tactic and believed the American ships were trying destroy the K-59. His sub had received no contact from Moscow for several days and he was relying on American radio broadcasts to determine what was happening while the USSR and the US were “eyeball to eyeball.” Savitsky sent his vessel deep to hide from the American war ships, and at the resulting depth the B-59 could get no radio signals at all. Savitsky, perhaps addled by stress and conditions on the submarine that included a build-up of carbon dioxide, decided a war had started. He wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo. It wasn’t known by the US. at the time that the B-59 had nuclear weapons. But they it did, and almost used one..

Continue reading

Now THAT’S A Threat To Democracy!

“That” in this case, meaning the abysmal, irresponsible quality of individuals both parties present to the public for election to Congress, and the willingness of lazy, intellectually-stunted Americans to vote for them.

Let’s just look at two, a sitting member of the House and a candidate for the job, the former a Democrat, the latter a Republican.

First, the Congressman, Democrat Modaire Jones of New York (that’s him on the left, above). On the floor of the House yesterday, Jones stated that Officer Brian Sicknick was “bludgeoned to death” in the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. That’s an outright, calculated lie, and has been a lie ever since the news media belatedly corrected its false narrative and admitted that Sicknick died of a series of strokes the next day that no physician could tie to his experiences in the riot; the medical examiner ruled his a death of “natural causes.” True, President Biden continued to use the false narrative either because he’s dishonest or because he’s sliding into dementia, but Jones doesn’t have the latter excuse. He made a deliberately false statement to continue the absurd “the riot in the Capitol was the worst thing ever and proves we’re threatened by fascism” theme that Democrats hope will keep them from being wiped out in November. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC.) couldn’t let him get away with it, and corrected Jones on the spot. Continue reading

UPDATE! “Wait: Why Did It Take A Congressional Commission To Point Out That A KKK Plaque Wasn’t Appropriate At West Point?” Answer: Because It Was Completely Appropriate…

I don’t like to reflexively blame the news media and it biases for my blog’s misinformation and wrong turns, but in this case, it’s justified. In yesterday’s post “Wait: Why Did It Take A Congressional Commission To Point Out That A KKK Plaque Wasn’t Appropriate At West Point?”

I expressed amazement that a Congressional commission had to protest the presence of a bronze artwork apparently commemorating the Ku Klux Klan that had been hanging in a West Point building for decades. “Finding out that a Klan plaque was on display all this time at West Point is like discovering that St. Paul’s Cathedral had a statue of Satan hanging around for centuries without anyone objecting,” I wrote, endorsing the commission’s clear belief that the plaque should be taken down.

My source was the New York Times, which yesterday professed that the origins of the plaque were shrouded in mystery, and which also provided no context or explanation for why the Klan made it into halls of the academy at all. Nice reporting there, Times! Today, in the same article, this appeared:

Continue reading

Wait: Why Did It Take A Congressional Commission To Point Out That A KKK Plaque Wasn’t Appropriate At West Point?

[NOTICE: This post was materially wrong, based as it was on bad and incomplete information. An UPDATE is here]

This does not give me great faith in the military’s powers of observation and urgency.

That bronze panel above is one of three mounted at the entrance of Bartlett Hall Science Center U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. It’s unclear how long it has been there (I bet Woodrow Wilson had something to do with it, KKK fanboy that he was) but it wasn’t exactly hidden from view for the decades cadets passed under it. Yes somehow, it wasn’t until the report released by a congressional panel this week pointed out the damn thing that West Point was moved to do something.

The panel, called the Naming Commission, was created by Congress to provide recommendations for the removal or renaming of Defense Department places, decorations and things that commemorate the Confederacy, including those that appear at the military academies. The commission flagged the KKK plaque but said that recommending the its removal fell outside of its scope because the Ku Klux Klan, though founded by former Confederate soldiers, doesn’t technically relate to the Civil War, but rather to Southern resistance to post-war Reconstruction. That still doesn’t explain why the plaque was still up at West Point. One can argue about the effort to erase Confederacy figures from the nation’s honors and memorials (although the military has the strongest argument for doing so: the other two bronze plaques honor Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, who fought against the U.S. military), but the Klan is irredeemable, and has been an unambiguous symbol of hate, racism and evil at least since the 1950s. Finding out that a Klan plaque was on display all this time at West Point is like discovering that St. Paul’s Cathedral had a statue of Satan hanging around for centuries without anyone objecting.

Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 7/11/2022: Twitter Wars And More

But first, a cheerful song, because it’s all downhill from here…

Speaking of music, some opening notes are in order:

  • Yesterday was the anniversary of the much-heralded Scopes “Monkey Trial,” a 1925 ethics train wreck that I wrote about extensively last year, here and here.
  • Today, July 11, marks two of the most vivid examples of how random chance changes everything—history, culture, values, traditions– in ways that cannot be imagined. The first was the foolish duel in 1804 between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr that resulted in Hamilton’s premature death (but ultimately in a boffo Broadway musical!). The second was Count Claus von Stauffenberg’s close-but-no-cigar assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler in 1944.
  • Nearer to the present, the apparent collapse of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is disappointing, because it would make reporting on various Twitter-Twiggered ethics issues a lot easier if I could start an account again in good conscience, as I was prepared to do once the service got out from under the clutches of its current censorious and progressive-biased masters.
  • I also haven’t felt like participating in Facebook of late, as the Woke Hysteria among my once rational friends there over the recent SCOTUS decisions is too great a temptation–as in “target”— for me. Right now they just want an echo chamber to scream in, and that’s what they have. Someone somewhere on the web opined yesterday that late night talk shows,  “Saturday Night Live” and its ilk were no longer primarily about comedy, but rather therapy sessions for angry and depressed progressives and Democrats, with the shows using mockery and insults to reaffirm their convictions about “the others”—those dumb, evil, racist conservatives. I think that may be a perceptive analysis. “Saturday Night Live” is a particularly vivid example: the show that once reveled in portraying Gerald Ford as a bumbling klutz and George W. Bush as an outright moron week after week while they were in the White House now hesitates to exploit the comedy gold represented by Biden’s misadventures and Kamala Harris in general. It proves that SNL is more interested in hanging out with the cool kids than actually being funny—which is supposedly its mission. This is a conflict of interest, and the producer and writers aren’t even attempting to resolve it ethically.

1. Twitter Wars #1: @Ka1zoku_Qu0d, an idiot of the sort that literally clogs Twitter, posted this: “Hold on I want to make sure I say this carefully. Yeah Anne Frank had white privilege. Bad things happen to people with white privilege also but don’t tell the whites that.” This caused so much static on the platform that “Anne Frank” ended up “trending.” Continue reading