The recent controversy over scenes of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, a film dramatizing the hunt for terrorist Osama bin Laden, caused me to revisit a student paper from Steve Ambra’sContemporary Ethical Issues class. The student, a former U.S. soldier deployed to Iraq, reminded me of just some of the many ethical issues faced by our military in combat situations.
“I joined the military at seventeen and served alongside some of the best men I’ve ever known in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“During the year, we encountered many obstacles and many situations that most people our age couldn’t imagine facing, but no matter who we encounter or what happened, we all lived by the same values and principles that we all were raised with as well as those that were instilled in us later in life. This was true until one easy mission that proved to be the hardest test of my moral fiber.
“We had just left our base, outside of Ramadi. Our mission was a simple extraction of a third country national who was heading to Kuwait for medical care. My truck was taking up the front as we approached the designated extraction point which turned out to be a rundown shop on a desolate street.
“My squad leader, who was always a fair and level-headed guy, hopped out of the truck with a Kuwaiti medic and approached a young man who appeared to have an amputation below his left knee that was tied-off by a tan shirt saturated with sand and blood. The man appeared to be lost to the world with no facial expression. The medic started talking to the young man in a calm voice, then, without hesitation, started to yell profanity accusing the man of working for the enemy. He then proceeded to spit on the man and tell him that he did not deserve any care and walked away.
“I was appalled by the actions of this medic, but I was even more appalled by the actions or lack of action, taken by my squad leader. After all, was this not an example of the Golden Rule we were taught when we were young? Would he want to be spit on and sworn at? My squad leader didn’t even attempt to help the young man to the truck. This certainly was not doing the right thing no matter who or what was watching, nor was it living up to the Army values instilled in us since basic training. Worst of all, by doing nothing, my once fair and level-headed squad leader seemed cowardly and incapable of leading by example.
“All in one moment, the three most important principles I was ever taught fell into question.
“Rather than watch the world go by as my squad leader did, my team leader hopped out of our truck, picked the young man up, brought him back to our truck, and placed him on a stretcher. In this moment, I realized that values and principles would not be so easily broken. I followed my team leader’s actions and gave the young man one of our last Gatorade drinks and our driver followed my actions by letting him have the A/C hose in the truck to keep himself cool for the final eight-hour push to the border.
“No words were spoken between the four of us for the entire last stretch to the Kuwaiti border, but I knew in my head that in that moment, we all had the same thoughts. All it would take was my team leader to step-up when my squad leader failed to display those three important principles, all in one shot. After all, we didn’t expect the young man to do the same for us. He would never get the opportunity, but we all would simply hope that in our time of need, no matter where it might be, that whoever may cross our path, that they would have the same moral fiber and uphold the principles they were raised with as much as we did that day.
“My team leader told us later, ‘Everybody wants to be the guy that takes down fifty enemy, but nobody wants to be the guy that helps out the man in need; the man who is being kicked when he is down though he did nothing wrong. To me, the guy that helps is the guy that has the thickest moral fiber. That guy will forever be seen as a hero in the eyes of the person he helps.’
“What principles do I live by? Growing up, the Golden Rulewas the top of the pyramid followed closely by Lead by Example, and Do the Right Thing regardless of who is watching or not. These three principles are the short list of many that I was raised with, but nonetheless remain the most influential in the type of person I am today.”
Note: The above photo was not taken during the time of this story. It was taken by Spc. Gary Silverman during an evacuation exercise in Camp Ramadi, Iraq.