This post has been sitting for a long time, primarily because it has been missing key pieces for me, personally. Being post command and getting ready to move into my second command, I’m looking hard at the choices I made, the leaders I developed and more, the command climate that I established. Did I always act when I was charged to do so or did I turn away? Hindsight being what it is, this post is a reflection of looking back, looking inward and trying to learn what I can do better in the future.

In Michael Sandel’s book Justice, he mentions the Ursula K. Le Guin story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. He points to her story as an illustration of the justification that people use to ignore a wrong in the name of a greater good. In The Ones Who Walk Away, a perfectly happy society exists except for the suffering of a single, wretched child. The members of the society all know and do nothing because to end this child’s suffering is to end their functioning, happy society. And yet, some do walk away, leaving for the unknown.  

The question of justice at Penn State is one that truly illustrates the benefit of the few versus the well being of all. Penn state built a successful university football program on the suffering of the innocent. Would it have been morally justified, however, if it had been some greater good?  Perhaps if the justification for allowing the evil had not been the success of a football team but saving the lives of soldiers in combat? Hard to see the parallel, I’ll admit, but bear with me for a moment.

 In the Ursula K. Le Guin story, it is easy to say no, I will not be part of a society that punishes even one innocent for the betterment of the whole. And yet, we look now at Penn State and see arguably an entire football program built with the knowing consent of those in power to allow innocents to be abused. There were justifications. There were excuses.

 There were justifications from those involved that I reported it, I did all I could. The moral question, thus, is not the same as the legal question. It is easy to point the finger and say I will not be part of something like that. It is easy to condemn – as i have condemned – the entire system at Penn State which allowed this situation to exist and then chose to conceal. What if it is your pastor? What if it is someone you hold as a paragon of virtue?

 Would you act? If you knew that someone was harming the innocent, knowingly, grievously, and continually, would you act? Would you risk your own familys well being? Would you fall on your sword and risk everything to do the right thing?

 The situation at Penn State is visible and yet it is distant. We can sit back and watch the news and say what we would or wouldn’t do.

 But would you? Honestly. Would you quit? Would you go to the police? Would you go to the media when the backlash could just as easily target you and your family for reporting what may only be an allegation?

 Or would you sit back and think of something else, the bills that were due next week or how little Johnny was doing in school or whether or not your spouse was cheating on you or whether the dog had shit on the floor again or not, saying that this then, is not your problem?

 I read an article today on Thomas Rick’s blog by LTC (Retired) Peter Fromm entitled Hazing Vs Leadership: Thoughts on Getting My Arm Broken At West Point that talked about his experience at West Point as a young man in the early 1970s, a time generally not held in high regard in the Army’s history. His piece is a personal reflection on how we (the Army) focus on the things like loyalty, duty and honor without really defining what those things really mean. We talk about the honor code and yet, we allow and maybe even encourage sadism in the guise of creating institutional toughness to breed uncontrollably in the dark corridors of our institutions. What’s more, we talk about developing a moral code amongst our warriors and yet, video games that are unequivocally amoral at best, drive home a careless shoot first, move on to the next level attitude that directly counters what the Army hopes to accomplish in the realm of ethical warriors.

 If the Army is truly set on defining what it means to be a Profession of Arms, aren’t we a decade late? Should this discussion really have been pushed to the back burner to when we had quote the time to really delve into it before the rise of toxic leadership and the moral cesspool of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib? With the abuses of power so readily visible in the recent cases of toxic leadership, have we as a military but also as a society really sat back to think about power relationships and what they mean to those in them? How much have we asked ourselves the impact that power has had on our own actions?

 I recently read The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Do Bad Things by Phillip Zimbardo, the man behind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment in the 1970s. He argues that the situation is a powerful influence on people’s moral code of what is and is not acceptable. If then, combat is the ultimate influence on people’s behavior, how then can we as a profession of arms, stand up and resist the urge to descend into the darkness that war often demands of us? Can we possibly hope to counter act a society that derides all talk of what is right and wrong as something people have the luxury to do when they don’t have bills to pay, mouths to feed or men to bring home from the hell of combat?

 More, how do we as a society move beyond the passive outrage of ranting on twitter (raises the hand of the guilty) about the Sandusky’s of the world to actually considering what the right thing to do is and then acting on it? How do we act in a case where we have only allegation and innuendo? It may be somewhat easier to say in the case of Ursula Le Guin’s piece that everyone knew, they had proof and they therefore had a clear choice. It’s easy to have moral outrage that people at Penn State knew about Sandusky and chose to build the empire out of a foundation made of young boy’s innocence.

Much hard, though, is what do you do, though, when you are neck deep in the situation, trying to make sense of it all and determine what you can do? What are your moral obligations if you have no proof? Do you have any? Life is never black and white, a clear choice between acting and not acting. When should you act? What can you do? As a commander, when must you act and when must you simply chose your battles? As a commander, what if your focus is on x when the festering infection is y and you never see it until it is too late or until after you can impact change? As someone who looks inward first, it’s easy to point the finger at self and say I failed to do enough. How then, do we as leaders, see the situation differently the next time around, so that we may act before it’s too late. 

And at the end of it, are we all merely like Voltaire’s Candide, content to tend our gardens?