Category Archives: War and the Military

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 7/3/2018: Remember Pickett’s Charge! Edition [UPDATED]

Good Morning!

1. “General, I have no division!” At about 2:00 pm, , July 3, 1863, by the little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee launched his last, desperate and audacious stratagem to win the pivotal battle of the American Civil War, a massed Napoleonic assault on the entrenched Union position on Cemetary Ridge, with a “copse of trees” at its center. The doomed march into artillery and rifle fire, across an open field and over fences, lasted less than an hour. The Union forces suffered 1,500 casualties,, while at least 1,123 Confederates were killed on the battlefield, 4,019 were wounded, and nearly 4000 Rebel soldiers were captured. Lee’s bold stroke had failed spectacularly, and would go down in history as one of the worst military blunders of all time.

That verdict is debatable, but this is not: Pickett’s Charge, as the attack came to be called, holds as many fascinating ethics lessons as any event in American history, and this blog has returned to it for enlightenment time and time again.

There is the matter of the duty to prevent a disaster that you know is going to occur, the whistleblower’s duty, and the theme of Barbara Tuchman’s work, “The March of Folly.” There was Robert E. Lee’s noble and unequivocal acceptance of accountability for the disaster, telling the returning and defeated warriors that “It is all my fault.” The defeat also turned on moral luck, with many unpredictable factors, such as the intervention of a brave and intrepid Union cavalry officer named George Armstrong Custer, who also teaches that our greatest strengths and most deadly flaws are often the same thing, and that the Seven Enabling Virtues can be employed for both good and wrongful objectives.  Pickett’s Charge shows how, as Bill James explained, nature conspires to make us unethical.

Pickett’s Charge also teaches that leadership requires pro-active decision-making, and the willingness to fail, to be excoriated, to be blamed, as an essential element of succeeding. Most of all, perhaps, it illustrates the peril’s of hindsight bias, for without a few random turns of fate, Robert E. Lee’s gamble might have worked.

2. Funny how if you continually denigrate someone based on his color and gender, he will eventually stop respecting you. Stanford University has established a Men and Masculinities Project  that aims to help men develop “healthy and inclusive male identities”—because they obviously don’t have those now.  “We acknowledge that male identity is a social privilege, and the aim for this project is to provide the education and support needed to better the actions of the male community rather than marginalize others,” anti-man-splains Stanford’s gurus. Stanford, of course, is not alone in pushing the ubiquitous progressive narrative that men are toxic, along with whites, making white men the worst of all. Perhaps this might explain why support for Democrats among young white men is falling fast.

Nah, it must be because they are sexist and racist…

3. But..but…settled science! The Economist estimates that as many as 400,000 papers published in supposedly peer-reviewed journals were not peer-reviewed at all. Scientists, scholars and academics are no more trustworthy or alien to unethical conduct than anyone else, but because most of the public (and journalists) don’t  understand what they write about and have to accept what they claim on faith, they are presumed to be trustworthy.

Think of them as the equivalent of auto mechanics. Continue reading

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A Lost Ethics Movie: John Ford’s “Sergeant Rutledge”

All right: not exactly lost, but certainly almost forgotten.  Released in 1960, “Sergeant Rutledge” was a daring Western with a racial justice theme well before Jim Crow had breathed its last. The iconic film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” was two years from being made, and master director John Ford told the story of a black “buffalo soldier” wrongly accused of raping and killing a white woman and shooting an officer. The film was the first to feature the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black cavalry units that continued through World War II, and was the first Western to feature a black protagonist. Sergeant Rutledge, played by the perfectly cast Woody Strode. Rutledge is innocent, but because he is black and a white girl was one of the victims,  he is presumed guilty. The prosecution in his military trial has blatant racist overtones, and Ford unsparingly focuses on the indignities imposed on African Americans in the unsettled frontier culture following the Civil War. In Strode, Ford had an almost too ideal star: everything about him is perfect. He’s brave, well-respected, professional, trusted and gorgeous: Strode was a magnificent former athlete who projected virtue quiet dignity in every film appeared in. I don’t think he ever played a villain.

The movie has some problems, including a Perry Mason-style resolution that is either over-acted, badly-acted, or badly-written: I couldn’t decide. It was also a flop, perhaps because the nation was more ready for the theme two years later, perhaps because Ford’s star was fading fast by 1960, but more likely because it had no major star like Gregory Peck  (or John Wayne, who was busy making “The Alamo”) to persuade audiences take a chance on an unusual film. It is Strode’s only starring role, and Hollywood was just beginning to cast Sidney Poitier in leads—Poitier was a far more versatile actor—in 1960. The other star is Jeffrey Hunter, best remembered today for making the original pilot for “Star Trek” as “Captain Pike.” Hunter never was a box office draw, though he was a strong second lead in Ford’s “The Searchers.”

Somehow the myth has grown that this was a film in which Ford, nearing the end, was “apologizing” for his previous racially insensitivity in other films. That’s revisionism. Ford made Westerns about cowboys and the West, and both were undeniably dominated by whites, with blacks in subservient positions. It’s not insensitive to be faithful to history.  Ford was, by the standards of his time, a progressive liberal, and the kind, apparently now extinct, who could still have close friendships and working relationships with conservatives, like Ward Bond, Walter Brennan, James Stewart and John Wayne. For example, Ford memorably stared down arch-Right director Cecil B. DeMille when DeMille was trying to get the Screen Director’s Guild to install a loyalty oath. Continue reading

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“Bombshell,” Hedy Lamarr, And The Duty To Remember

I alluded to Hedy Lamarr in an earlier post about my favorite celebrities, those who manage to be outstanding in multiple diverse fields at once. The glamorous cult actress is a prime example, being known publicly for her pulchritude and in much more rarefied circles as a brilliant inventor. I had been waiting for the release of the documentary–produced by Susan Sarandon!—about Lamarr, called “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” ever since a friend and commenter here told me that it was in the works. Now it is on Netflix, and I watched it. You should too. I’ll just jot down some loosely connected thoughts about the ethics lessons of Lamarr’s life.

  • The sexual exploitation of young women in films may have been worse in the past than it is now, but Lamarr’s life is a reminder of how excruciatingly slowly cultures change. She was made infamous as the star of a sensational sex film in  Germany, shown naked, and also in an apparently explicit sex scene when she was too young (19) and naive to know what the director was doing.

The episode literally shadowed her life. Yet half a century later, very young actresses like Drew Barrymore and Dakota Fanning were similarly abused by directors, the main difference being that public attitudes now make the resulting stigma less permanent.

  • Antisemitism was sufficiently pervasive in the U.S. that Lamarr denied her Jewish heritage for much of her life.

Living a lie is not an ethically healthy existence, but Lamarr had few reasons to trust that she would be accepted for who she was….fewer than most, on fact.

  • There are few more vivid examples than Lamarr of a brilliant woman who rapidly learned that she had to rely on the favor of men based on her physical charms to have any chance of succeeding. Yet it is a bargain with the devil, for the price is not being taken seriously. The suppressed resentment and anger Lamarr reveals in interviews is palpable.

Sometimes I think it’s a mircale that women didn’t rise up and slaughter millions of men while they slept. They deserved it.

  • Hedy Lamarr is primarily remembered now as a running joke in “Blazing Saddles.”

Think about that. Continue reading

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Ethics Quiz: Operation Paperclip

That’s Wernher in the nice suit…

In the previous post, I discussed the position holding that scientists should be shunned, and even blocked from grants and research opportunities, based on their character flaws, statements, and workplace misconduct.

Operation Paperclip was a secret program of the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency that occurred between 1956 and 1959.  The operation  brought more than 1,600 Nazi German scientists, engineers, and technicians, most notably Wernher von Braun and his V-2 rocket researchers, plus their family members (bringing the total to over 6,000 Germans)  to the U.S. for government employment in the effort to gain a military and scientific advantage over the Soviet Union in the post-war world. The Soviet Union took their own selection of German scientists.

The Ethics Incompleteness Principle states that…

…when a system or rule doesn’t seem to work well when applied to an unexpected or unusual situation, the wise response is to abandon the system or rule—in that one anomalous case only— and use basic ethics principles and analysis to find the best solution. Then return to the system and rules as they were, without altering them to make the treatment of the anomalous situation “consistent.” No system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario, which is why committing to a single ethical system is folly, and why it is important to keep basic ethical values in mind in case a pre-determined formula for determining what is right breaks down.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz Of The Week: Continue reading

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Sunday Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 5/27/18: On Bullies, Dogs, Signs, Cheats, And The Worst WWII Movie Ever

Good morning.

1. BOY, is that a lazy and inaccurate movie! As usual, they are playing every war movie they can dig up on Memorial Day weekend. I just watched the tail end of  “The Battle of the Bulge,” the 1965 Cinerama Hollywood portrayal of the decisive 1944 WWII battle in the Ardennes that reminds me of my dad, buried in Arlington National Cemetery, more than any other war film, and not because it was in that battle that my father earned his Silver Star. No, the film reminds me of Dad because he hated it so much. He regarded it as an insult to the veterans who fought the battle, and  a cretinous distortion of history in every way. His name for the movie was “How Henry Fonda Won the Second World War.”

The most striking of the endless misrepresentations in the movie is the absence of snow. The battle’s major feature was that it was fought in freezing, winter conditions, on snow covered terrain sometimes up to two feet deep. Some battle scenes are shown being fought on flat and bare plain, about as distinct from the mountainous, thickly forested territory where the actual battle took place as one could imagine. My father also started complaining during the film, loudly, about the use of modern American tanks to portray the German Tiger tanks.

Former President (and, of course, former Allied Commander) Eisenhower came out of retirement to hold a press conference to denouncing “The Battle of the Bulge” for  its gross  inaccuracies. THAT made my father happy.

2. Funny! But…no, it’s just funny. Scott Campbell, the owner of the Pell City Fitness gym in Pell City, Alabama,  put up a sign that says “tired of being fat and ugly? Just be ugly!” City officials told him to take down the sign or be fined, saying it is too big and needs a permit, but other business owners told the local news media that they have never heard of the ordinance the city is citing being enforced. The suspicion is that Campbell is being singled out because some have complained that the sign is “insensitive.” No, it’s just funny…

This is the ethical problem with excessively restrictive laws, rules and regulations that are not consistently enforced. Prosecution can be used for ideological and partisan discrimination. Not only is the sign benign, it is not even original: that same language is on fitness company ads all over the country. So far, it looks like the community is supporting Pell and that the city will back down, but this is Alabama. Call me pessimistic, but I doubt the sign would be allowed to stand for long in Washington State or California if an ordinance could be found to justify pulling it down.

The First Amendment dies in increments. Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 5/16/ 2018: The Fake Moussaka Edition

Gooood morning Pyongyang!

…and everyone else too, of course.

1. ” Winning.” How many in “the resistance” and the news media are rooting, secretly or openly, for the North Korean talks to fail? Based on the tone of some premature gloating on social media and news reports after North Korea threatened to pull out of talks, I think “many” is the fair answer. Other recent headlines and news stories also point in this direction, like “Improving Economy A Problem For Democrats.” (No, an improving economy is not a problem for any Americans, unless they care about their own power more than their country.)

This is especially revolting ( and hypocritical) from the same people who 1)  falsely attributed Rush Limbaugh’s indefensible statement in 2008 that he wanted Obama to fail to the entire Republican Party (I condemned Limbaugh’s statement at the time) and 2) used it to feed the narrative that conservatives who opposed that Presidents left-ward policies were doing so out of personal and racial antipathy.

A President’s success–as in “being proved correct” or “getting lucky,” it doesn’t matter which— makes it more likely that policies you don’t like will be continued? Suck it up and cheer like the good citizen you are. His accomplishments make it less likely that your favorite politician will get elected? Cry me a river: your duty is to care about your nation and fellow citizens first. That you are on record that—okay, still think that—this Presdent has crap for brains and you wouldn’t shake his hand without gloves makes you look less wise and prescient than you would have if he fell flat on his face? Cue the world’s smallest violin, have some integrity, and grow the hell up.

2. Ken Burns ethics, and FDR. In this post earlier this year, I scored documentary whiz Ken Burns for the hagiography of Franklin Roosevelt that marred his otherwise superb “The Roosevelts.”  “The smoking gun for me,” I wrote, “is that despite ten and half hours, Burns somehow never found time to highlight FDR’s internment of American citizens solely because they were of Japanese ancestry. The civil rights outrage is only alluded to in passing, as part of a list from a biographer preceding the nostrum, ‘All great leaders make mistakes.’” That critique stands, but it is slightly unfair, I subsequently discovered. Burns covered the internment of Japanese Americans extensively in an earlier, also excellent, PBS series, 2007′ s “The War.”  Even that section, however, avoided laying proper accountability for the debacle at President Roosevelt’s feet.  I watched the documentary over the past two days, and the deceit is really extraordinary.  The narration keeps referring to Executive Order 9066, without specifically saying whose order it was, like the thing appeared on its own. Here, Ken, let me fix this for you:

President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the imprisonment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan in concentration camps (“internment” is a euphemism and a cover word, like “pro-choice”) with towers and guards with loaded rifles. Though some German-Americans and Italian-Americans were imprisoned as well, far fewer were taken. The risk they posed was not considered as great, because they were white.’

Executive Order 9066 wasn’t rescinded, incredibly, until February 19, 1976, by President Ford. The Supreme Court decision upholding the order, Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944),has never been overturned. In that case’s 6–3 decision approving the abrogation of American citizen rights with fear as the justification, six of FDR’s eight appointees—you know, the liberals—  sided with Roosevelt, and against the Bill of Rights. Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 5/15/2018: Alito Gets One Right, Ellison Deceived, And An Ancient, Unethical Tactic Works Once Again…

To a glorious morning, Ethics-Lovers!

1. Bad Alito, Good Alito.  As I briefly noted yesterday (and hopefully will do in detail today), Justice Alito authored an unethical and embarrassing dissent defending a lawyer who deliberately betrayed his client by telling the jury that he had killed someone his client denied killing. Bad Alito. However, the arch-conservative jurist also authored the majority opinion in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, in which the SCOTUS majority struck down a virtuous but unconstitutional law, and did so clearly and well.

These are, I think, my favorite Supreme Court opinions, where the Court ignores the motives and objectives of a law and simply rules whether the legislature is allowed to behave like that. I don’t know, but I would guess that most of the majority feel the way I do about organized sports gambling: nothing good can come of it, and a lot of harm is inevitable. One they get the green light, I’m sure that as many states will take over sports gambling for its easy revenue as now prey on its poor, desperate and stupid with their state lottery scams. Everyone involved–sports, fans, athletes, states, the public’s ethical compass—is going to be corrupted by letting the sports betting genie out of its bottle: just watch.

Nevertheless, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a 1992  law known as PASPA, should have been struck down decades ago; I’d love to know why it took so long. No, it did NOT ban sports betting, though this is what far too many news reports tell you. Congress can ban sports betting directly if it chooses to, as it is interstate commerce. This isn’t in dispute. What it did in 1992, however, was to order states not to pass laws states have a constitutional right to pass. The distinction matters. From SCOTUS Blog, which is usually the best source for analysis of these things:

The 10th Amendment provides that, if the Constitution does not either give a power to the federal government or take that power away from the states, that power is reserved for the states or the people themselves. The Supreme Court has long interpreted this provision to bar the federal government from “commandeering” the states to enforce federal laws or policies. [The] justices ruled that a federal law that bars states from legalizing sports betting violates the anti-commandeering doctrine…

…In a decision by Justice Samuel Alito, the court began by explaining that the “anticommandeering doctrine may sound arcane, but it is simply the expression of a fundamental structural decision incorporated into the Constitution” – “the decision to withhold from Congress the power to issue orders directly to the States.” And that, the majority continued, is exactly the problem with the provision of PASPA that the state challenged, which bars states from authorizing sports gambling: It “unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do.” “It is as if,” the majority suggested, “federal officers were installed in state legislative chambers and were armed with the authority to stop legislators from voting on any offending proposals. A more direct affront to state sovereignty,” Alito concluded, “is not easy to imagine.”

…The court also rejected the argument, made by the leagues and the federal government, that the PASPA provision barring states from authorizing sports betting does not “commandeer” the states, but instead merely supersedes any state laws that conflict with the provision – a legal doctrine known as pre-emption. Pre-emption, the majority explained, “is based on a federal law that regulates the conduct of private actors,” but here “there is simply no way to understand the provision prohibiting state authorization as anything other than a direct command to the States,” which “is exactly what the anticommandeering rule does not allow.”

Got it.

Good decision. Continue reading

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