The U.S. Military Gives No Medals for Moral Courage
by John T. Reed [essay
on author's blog] [nb: all military leadership training
programs, including officer candidate courses in schools and
colleges, include a sworn honor code, and entail an honor court
to ascertain any breaches that would disqualify an aspirant based
upon his deficient character; although rare, such deficiency may
not be a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice
The U.S. military has a bunch of medals for
physical courage, but they have
never had even a single medal for
The military is an organization and all
organization executives everywhere
hate moral courage.
Moral courage is a willingness to risk things other than your
life or limb to stand up for a principle. What things?
- Your next promotion or assignment or job.
- Your pension and other retirement benefits.
- Within the military, getting a bad efficiency report that
you suspect may handicap you in getting a civilian job after you
leave the military.
On page 92 of the book The Gamble about the Surge in Iraq,
author Tom Ricks quotes Hew Strachan, a British military
Courage takes two forms in War. Courage in the face of
personal danger, whose effects are felt in the
tactical sphere, and the courage to take
responsibility, a requirement of
As I have stated on several occasions elsewhere at this military
blog web site, I am aware of only a handful of instances of a
U.S. military officer exhibiting moral courage in the entire
history of the nation. The most prominent example was Army Air
Corps General Billy Mitchell. He spoke out on principle and was
court martialed and was forced to resign from the Army. They
later named a bomber and the U.S. Air Force Academy mess hall
after him, and his picture was on a stamp, among other
posthumous honors. On the rare occasions when
the military rewards moral courage, it is usually posthumously or
close to it.
After World War II in Europe, the military decided to send to
U.S. museums [the] art works captured from the Nazis, who had
themselves previously stolen them from other European countries
and citizens. A group of art expert officers in charge of
cataloging captured art work signed a petition to stop the
shipments to the U.S. and were successful at doing so. But they
were not career military officers. Accordingly,
they risked little or nothing and, indeed, no doubt were heroes
in their once and future careers in the art and museum world.
Within organizations, anyone who exhibits moral courage is
usually called a “whistle-blower.” So if the U.S.
military did give a medal for moral courage, it
would inevitably be called the Whistle-Blower's Medal.
Also inevitably, no member of the military would ever
want to win it. If they did win
it, they would never wear it and would try to
steal the record of it out of their Pentagon
personnel file so no one would ever know about it.
In police forces, another uniformed
organization, those who exhibit moral courage are called
“rats.” Many end up working for the Internal Affairs
Bureau (IAB), also known as the “rat squad.” Frank
Serpico showed moral courage as a member of the New York Police
Department. For his courage, he got shot and harassed off the
police force. A movie titled Serpico was made about his
story. He lived in Europe for many years afterward.
Time magazine's Persons of the Year for 2002 were the
Whistle-blowers: three women who blew the whistle on the 9/11
hijackers (FBI agent), the Worldcom scandal, and the Enron
scandal. They all lost their jobs as a result
[of their exposures].
Brown and Williamson Tobacco USA scientist Jeffrey Wigand blew
the whistle and lost his job and marriage and was harassed by his
former industry. 60 Minutes did a segment about him and a
major motion picture called The Insider was made of his
Generally, whistle-blowers lose their jobs, sometimes their
families, and the people they expose get
promoted. Laws that are supposed to protect
whistle-blowers are a joke. Very prominent whistle-blowers often
get movies made about them. The movie about
Billy Mitchell was The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell
(1955) [twenty years after his death]. But otherwise, they are
done as far as the organization where they blew the whistle or
any other organization is concerned.
[I have also commented on the absence of moral courage in the
military in my review of John Nagl's book Learning to Eat Soup
With a Knife on another web page of this blog.]
Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, Jr. was the helicopter pilot
who spotted the My Lai Massacre when it was underway and got the
Americal Division platoon in question to stop murdering
civilians. Thompson had to order his door gunners to
hold the Americans off at gunpoint from continuing the killing.
The Wikipedia write-up on his actions expresses suspicion that he
was punished by subsequent dangerous assignments and says that he
suffered psychologically for the rest of his life, but they offer
no proof of either. Knowing the Army, I would expect that he was
retaliated against by the Army for exposing the misbehavior at My
Lai. But I also have no first-hand knowledge.
Thompson was not a
whistleblower in the sense of going outside the
military with his story. In the My Lai case, that was done by
Ronald Ridenhour. He was an investigative journalist in Vietnam
at the time, heard about the incident, investigated it on his
own, and sent a letter about his findings to the Pentagon and to
Thompson and his door gunners, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence
Colburn, were all awarded Soldier's Medals for
saving the lives of the wounded and the Vietnamese civilians who
had not yet been attacked, but they did not receive those awards
until THIRTY years later! Shows you how thrilled
the U.S. Army officer corps was with their displays of moral
courage. Thirty-one years later, Thompson and Colburn received
the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award. (Andreotta had been
killed in Vietnam after My Lai.) The Peace Abbey is a
Warrant officer is a [specialty] rank between non-commissioned
officer and [commissioned] officer. Many helicopter pilots were
warrant officers. I do not know if Thompson went to college or
where if he did. It was not to a service academy.
After I graduated from West Point, Major General Samuel Koster
became the Superintendent of West Point. In 1970, while he was in
that job, it was concluded that Koster had been part of the
cover-up of the My Lai massacre. He was the commanding general of
the Americal Division when it occurred. He was
fired from his job as Superintendent of West
Point, stripped of a Distinguished Service Medal he had been
awarded for commanding the Americal Division, and demoted one
star [to Brigadier General]. Nevertheless, he was then made the
commanding officer of the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground after
being fired from West Point.
I heard that the Corps of Cadets (student body) at West Point
held an unofficial parade in his honor before he departed from
West Point after being fired. Had I been a cadet at the time, I
would have refused to march in it. As far as I know, no cadet at
the time did refuse. I was shocked and profoundly disappointed
when I heard about that parade.
It is also noteworthy that Koster, who was [himself] a West Point
graduate, was promoted to the position of Superintendent of West
Point after the massacre. It suggests that what
happened at My Lai was not considered a disqualifying factor for
such a top “crown prince” job, at least until the
full story of it hit the media. (Previous superintendents include
Robert E. Lee, John Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, and William
Thompson gave lectures at Annapolis in 2003 and West Point in
2005 on Professional Military Ethics. Better late than never.
Thompson died not long after his talk at West Point.
Investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust in 2008, almost taking
down the entire world financial system. Matthew Lee was a senior
vice president (SVP) there before that happened. He wrote a
letter to the chief financial officer (CFO) and chief risk
officer (CRO) of Lehman warning of the ethics problems that led
to the bankruptcy. He was fired days later.
Two Matthew Lees have graduated from my alma mater
— West Point — but neither is old enough to have
worked at Lehman for fourteen years as the SVP did.
The problem is where are West Point's Matthew Lees? Where are the
Army's Matthew Lees? Where are the U.S. military's Matthew Lees?
The history of all three institutions is almost devoid of the
sort of moral courage exhibited by Lee. Shame on West Point, the
Army, and the U.S. military for that. And more shame on them for
their stiff-necked, self-righteous protestations of supreme honor
whenever anyone questions their integrity or moral courage. The
only thing worse than a moral coward is a moral coward who
hypocritically swears he is morally courageous.
Among West Point's value statements are two documents that one
would think would encourage more moral courage by its graduates
than has yet been seen in the 206-year history of that
- Cadet Honor Code:
A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal. (The words
“nor tolerate those who do” were added after I
graduated. They were implicit when I was there.)
- Cadet Prayer:
O God, our Father, Thou Searcher of human hearts, help us to
draw near to Thee in sincerity and truth. May our religion be
filled with gladness and may our worship of Thee be natural.
Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and
clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and
pretence ever to diminish. Encourage us in our endeavor to live
above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder
right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a
half truth when the whole truth can be won. Endow us with courage
that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that
scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear
when truth and right are in jeopardy. Guard us against flippancy
and irreverence in the sacred things of life. Grant us new ties
of friendship and new opportunities of service. Kindle our hearts
in fellowship with those of a cheerful countenance, and soften
our hearts with sympathy for those who sorrow and suffer. Help us
to maintain the honor of the Corps untarnished and unsullied and
to show forth in our lives the ideals of West Point in doing our
duty to Thee and to our Country. All of which we ask in the name
of the Great Friend and Master of all. — Amen.
I think these two statements of West Point values are
transcendent examples of what human morality should
be. But I see little evidence that the U.S. military
officer corps has the slightest interest in these values, which
are supposedly taught at West Point because of how important they
are in the military officer corps.
I believe one of my superior officers sneered something about my
being a “boy scout” when I tried to adhere to those
values against his wishes.
Here are some Boy Scout values related to moral courage:
- Scout Oath (or Promise): ...To keep myself
physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
- Scout Law:
- TRUSTWORTHY: A Scout tells the truth. He keeps his promises.
Honesty is part of his code of conduct. People can depend on him.
- BRAVE: A Scout can face danger even if he is afraid. He has
the courage to stand for what he thinks is right even if others
laugh at or threaten him.
Notwithstanding the word “boy” in the name of the
organization, those are values to which military officers ought
to adhere as well. And boy scouts who do adhere
to those values ought to be far more highly regarded than
military officers who don't. Actually, the
military officer corps is very big on embracing those values in
press releases and stiff-necked, self-serving, self-righteous,
public pronouncements, but that embrace is pure hypocrisy.
The 3/31/07 Wall Street Journal had a story about
Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch, a Marine officer who showed
moral courage by refusing to prosecute a Guantanamo Bay prisoner
whom he concluded had confessed due to torture. Couch is a Duke
graduate and got his law degree, and apparently his moral courage
training, from Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC.
Couch was assigned to other duties as a result of his display of
Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, a lawyer and chief military
prosecutor of all Guantanamo Bay cases, also resigned in protest
and will testify for defendants there that the military pressured
him to do show trials for political reasons.
My alma mater, West Point, probably spends more time
touting its moral training than any non-religious institution of
higher education in the country, complete with the occasional
honor code scandal showing the seriousness of the commitment.
Given that, someone ought to inquire into why the rare displays
of moral courage in the military officer corps are all exhibited
by non-service academy graduates. Col. Davis
graduated from Appalachian State.
The military has many medals for physical
courage. Recognizing physical courage is
necessary for a military.
But the U.S. military does not now have,
never has had, and never will
have a medal for moral courage.
What is moral courage? The Foundation for Moral Courage says:
We believe that when one individual stands up for what is
right, this singular act of courage can save lives, serve as a
catalyst to counteract injustice, and leave its mark on
The Center for Moral Courage says:
Standing up for values is the defining feature of moral
A person who is courageous in the face of ethical challenges does
the right thing, even if it's not popular, refuses to stand idly
by while others engage in unethical or harmful behavior
For us, moral courage has come to mean the capacity to overcome
fear of shame and humiliation in order to admit one's mistakes,
to confess a wrong, to reject evil conformity, to denounce
injustice, and also to defy immoral or imprudent orders.
William Ian Miller
To a large extent, John Nagl's book Learning to Eat Soup With
a Knife bemoans the lack of moral courage in
the U.S. Army during Vietnam, and extols the lack of
need for moral courage in the British Army in
Malaya. A U.S. Army officer who did the right
thing regarding pointing out the need for change in tactics and
strategy in Vietnam was committing career
suicide. A British [Army] officer in
Malaya, according to Nagl, was not when he did
the exact same thing there.
The career of any officer who won the Whistle-Blower's Medal
would be over. Sure, his superiors would wait a judicious period
of time before moving his office to the broom closet, but no
officer in the U.S. Army, or any other large organization, wants
a whistle-blower for a subordinate.
American military men and women have died, and will continue to
die, because of the lack of moral courage in the U.S. military.
In Fallujah, seventy Marines died. Some were no doubt inevitable
results of combat. But reading the details of how they died, it
appears that many of them died because their leaders lacked the
moral courage to protest bad tactics. (See my article on the
immorality of obeying stupid orders elsewhere in this blog.)
In the book, We Were One, about this Fallujah battle, one
anonymous moral coward “senior officer” is quoted as
saying: “Someone has blood on his hands,” because of
the stupid, ineffective rules of engagement they were required to
operate under. I agree. A number of people have
blood on their hands, including the “senior officer”
who apparently refused to risk his own future promotions or
pension benefits by raising hell about the stupid rules that he
accurately blamed for unnecessarily getting some of his men
According to what I read in We Were One, seventy Marines
lost their lives there, but not one career NCO or officer lost
their chances for promotion or retirement benefits as a result of
protesting the poor tactics. I guess we all have our priorities.
Leaders who are supposed to have as their
in that order, decided instead to go by:
- accomplish the mission,
- and welfare of the men,
- accomplish the mission,
- stay on the good side of my idiot superiors,
- welfare of the men,
- and body bagging of the men who died because I placed
staying on the good side of my idiot superiors ahead of welfare
of the men
Henry David Thoreau, of Walden Pond fame, was once jailed because
he stood up for some moral principle [refusal to pay taxes to
support the Mexican War]. While in jail, Ralph Waldo Emerson
asked him why he was there. Thoreau answered that, “In an
unjust society, the only place for a just man is in jail.”
Indeed. And the U.S. military sure as hell is an “unjust
society” when Americans are dying because they are being
taught stupid tactics, forced to fight under idiotic rules of
engagement, deprived of heavier weapons that are available, or
short-changed on armor or needed weapons and ammunition, et
cetera, et cetera.
So where are the U.S. military officers, other than Mitchell, who
should be protesting more vehemently? Universally, they choose to
sin by silence when they should protest. It's a disgrace and an
Retired Major General John Batiste, [a graduate of the] West
Point Class of 1974, six years after my class, is the most
prominent of a number of retired generals who are campaigning to
end the war in Iraq. Are they examples of the kind of moral
courage I am calling for?
I can't quite put my finger on it, but I don't think so. A couple
of comments. I have seen Batiste on TV and there is something
about his demeanor that bothers me. I am not sure what it is. I
have not seen the others enough to have a reaction to them.
I and others have always thought that Senator John
Kerry used his opposition to the Vietnam War as a
publicity stunt to draw attention to himself as
he was about to launch his John F. Kennedy-inspired political
career. Indeed, Kerry's whole life starting when Kennedy was
president in the early '60s seems to have been calculated to get
him elected president. I was in Vietnam when Kerry started
denouncing the war and the U.S. military there. It really angered
us, and I doubt very many who were there then ever forgave him.
Batiste has not denounced his former fellow soldiers, but he sure
seems to love the spotlight.
The press got wind of me during the Vietnam War. They asked to
interview me. I declined because I did not want to look like I
was drawing attention to myself for the sake of the attention. I
had hundreds of classmates and other former military colleagues
still in the war. I did not want to be a[nother] John Kerry.
Also, I was not then or now against the Vietnam War. I just
opposed the bureaucratic corruption and ineptness of the
military. The press seemed to want to put an anti-war spin on my
I think military officers who believe the war in Iraq is being
waged incorrectly should resign and speak out publicly if they
cannot get the required changes privately through the chain of
command. But such officers should restrict their comments to
specifics of military tactics and strategy including equipment
and personnel. Furthermore, they must take care
not to associate with politicians in the
process. Politicians are dishonest. Go on legitimate talk shows.
Talk to legitimate journalists. But do not let yourself be used
by ideological agenda-driven groups or individuals.
I also get the impression that lots of generals, including many
on active duty, did not like resigned Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld, and hold Bush responsible for hiring him. And neither
Bush nor Rumsfeld held the generals in as high an esteem as they
I did not see anything major wrong with the way Rumsfeld did his
job. He was the only Secretary of Defense who had ever been one
previously, and I think he came to office the second time
determined not to let the military brass prevent him from
bringing about badly-needed reform. My sense of the situation
from afar is that Secretaries of Defense come and go, and the
military brass is extremely adept at ignoring them when they are
in office. Rumsfeld knew that game and was not letting them get
away with it. The military brass hated him simply because he was
on to them.
That's not to say every decision he made was perfect. I doubt he
even made many decisions. The President makes
the important decisions. The Secretary of Defense is
Listen to the generals and failing to listen to the generals are
accusations currently being hurled by both Democrats and
Republicans at each other. I can straighten that out:
Don't listen to the generals. They don't know
what they are talking about, as evidenced by the plain fact that
none of them has ever won an asymmetrical war or even studied at
the feet of anyone else who did.
Another problem I have with Batiste is that he is vague and
political in his comments, rather than talking military
specifics. He strikes me as a politician who
happens to have previously been a general, rather than a general
talking about his area of expertise. Politicians are dishonest.
Batiste was fired as a CBS military analyst for making anti-Bush
ads for VoteVets.org.
I also have not heard him take any responsibility for the poor
progress in Iraq. He relies on having been there as the main
source of his credibility. How's about somebody asks him what he
did there and why he didn't get the job
In the military, they are fond of saying, “A commander is
responsible for everything his men do or fail to do.” It's
an overstatement, but I do not hear it, or even a lesser version
of it, in Batiste's criticism of Bush. Sounds like he's saying
everything was Bush's and Rumsfeld's fault.
What about all the active-duty generals who have been saying
“can do” in Iraq when the evidence
to date indicates they can't do? Indeed, the
evidence that generals like Batiste do not know
how to win asymmetrical wars stretches back through Somalia and
Lebanon to Vietnam forty-five years ago.
As I believe I have made clear on this and other web pages of my
military blog web site, you get promoted in the military for
being a suck up who goes along to get along. If
you demonstrate any sort of moral courage, that
is, standing up to your superiors on a matter of principle, you
are done. That's true even if it's something trivial like
refusing to join a poorly-managed officers' club or asking the
colonel's civilian wife to stop pulling rank on your
Batiste no doubt had many opportunities to stand up to his
superiors during his decades-long career. If he ever had, his
promotions would have stopped far short of major general. (He was
reportedly on the list to make lieutenant general at the time he
resigned.) In other words, he played the game
for over twenty years that he now denounces. What caused him to
[suddenly] get [some] moral courage religion in 2006? And has he
denounced his own prior behavior that he used to
get himself promoted to one- or two-star general?
I had this same complaint about a much lower ranking guy,
Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert during the Vietnam War. He was
on all the TV shows, most notably Dick Cavett, denouncing the
Army. I was in the U.S. Army then. My roommate from West Point
and I shared an apartment at the time. As Herbert railed against
the Army on TV, saying much the same stuff I was saying, my
roommate asked what I thought of him. “I agree with what
he's saying, but how did he get to be a lieutenant colonel [with
Later he was interviewed by 60 Minutes. It was probably
the most classic ambush interview in 60 Minutes history.
Herbert would make an accusation and 60 Minutes would
bring another former officer from the other room who stood right
in front of Herbert and denied it happened the way Herbert said.
I was interviewed on 60 Minutes by Morley Safer in 1986 in
a segment called Nothing Down. It was about the
get-rich-quick real estate gurus. I was there to provide the
sober real-world counterpoint to the get-rich-quick guy. I
believe I discussed the Herbert 60 Minutes program with
the producer who worked on my segment. I recall him saying they
originally assumed Herbert was a straight shooter, but in the
course of researching for the show, they found the discrepancies
that they confronted Herbert with.
Prior to the 60 Minutes show, LTC Herbert[, then known
Army wide as “Mister Ranger”] was a media star.
Afterward, I do not recall seeing him on TV. Would that happen if
60 Minutes or another [muckraking] show investigated
Batiste? I doubt it. He seems more political than Herbert-like.
But there is still the issue of how did he get to be a major
general if he stands up for what he believes is right.
Living an honest life has been one of my main goals. I have
managed to do that, in spite of powerful efforts to prevent it by
the Army, and lesser resistance in civilian life, and [I've]
explained how in my book Succeeding. That book has
- Working for other people
- Making an honest living
- Tenure and other deals too good to leave
- Conflict and conflict avoidance
I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism