Jan. 15 2007
I believe in the Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal. Roughly speaking they tell us that we are to be held accountable for our actions.
The two of the Principles which come immediately to my mind are the the first and forth.
(1)Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore liable to punishment.
(4) The fact that a person acted pursuant to the order of his/her Government or superior does not relieve him/her from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible.
The meaning of Principle 1 is clear while the operative phrase in Principle 4, “provided a moral choice was in fact possible.”, is more nuanced. In a free democratic society making the moral choice, is always a possibility so long as the individual person can accept the consequences of the choice. I am reminded of the phrase, ‘do the right thing’ spoken so often by President Clinton and remembering many that have gone to jail, died and exiled for ‘doing the right thing.’. Henry David Thoreau spent the night in jail because he objected to paying the poll tax, a tax he concluded was connected to slavery. A mild punishment to be sure but this night in the Concord jail gave birth to the essay, ‘Civil Disobedience’, which influenced and has effected millions including Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
During the Vietnam War, I along with tens of thousands of Americans opposed, refused to serve, or were forced into exile because of morally objecting to the war. US armed forces invaded a country that had committed no act of aggression against us. The Vietnamese, not unlike our forefathers in 1776, were fighting to rid themselves of a brutal colonial rule. The leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, said that his most cherished political document was none other than ‘The Declaration of Independence’, while on the other side, Marshall Ky, the flamboyant mustachioed South Vietnamese commander, openly boasted of his admiration of Hitler. It occurred to some that our nation had made a seriously wrong turn and we were doomed to pay a huge and bitter price. A young John Kerry spoke true and well when he asked the US Congress, “how would you like to be the last man to die for a mistake?” The Rev. Martin Luther King risked and indeed endured the wrath of the FBI and the Johnson administration when in 1967 he spoke out forcefully at Riverside Church NYC, connecting the weakening of the civil rights movement with the war. The heavy weight champion of the world, Mohammed Ali, refused to serve in the army losing his title which prevented him from fighting in the ring for three years, saying ‘no Vietnamese ever called me nigger’. These and other principled single voices raised in opposition to the war all finally tip the scales of the critical mass and brought an unjust war to an end.
Many years ago on NPR I heard the story of an American helicopter pilot who witnessed an on going massacre of Vietnamese civilians, which we now know as the Ma Lia massacre. Helpless women, children, and babies too murdered in cold blood by American GI’s. The pilot landed nearby and with weapons drawn he and his men ordered the offending American soldiers to drop their guns and then rescued the survivors. If memory serves me correct the pilots name was Hugh Thompson. I do not know if his heroic deed was given any appreciation by our government. Over the years I heard of his difficulties both with the community and the US Army and finally a few years ago that he had died VA hospital in La. Hugh Thompson… may you rest in peace…you made the moral choice and you did the right thing… . Sadly the same cannot be said for those US soldiers that Mr. Thompson and his brave men prevented from committing further slaughter of innocents and for that matter anyone who had cooperated with the war. Nor can the same be said for most of our nations political leadership. LBJ fabricated the infamous ‘Gulf of Tomkin’ resolution which the US Congress supported as an excuse for our involvement in Vietnam. In 1970 President Nixon promised ‘peace with honor’ during his re-election campaign with a secret non-existent peace plan. Now, more then ever the lessons of our past need remembering. This is what I believe;
As an American, citizen or soldier, I, not the political leadership or my superiors, bear the ultimate responsibility of my choices and actions. Slogans such as ‘My country right or wrong’ only weaken the principles that make our nation into what we hold dear. The moral choice is mine and mine alone. As a citizen of a the most powerful nation on earth I bear a particular responsibility to carefully consider the policies that my government carries on with my dollars and witness. I must agree or disagree. If I am in agreement then I can support the policy simply by voting status quo and/or saying nothing. If I disagree then as a citizen of this free and democratic nation I must act in opposition to the objectionable policy. I believe that if every would be soldier of every nation would hesitate a moment in reflection on what the government is asking before putting on the uniform and picking up the gun, then tyrants, bullies and arrogant leaders everywhere would simply be without the means to wage useless, costly and unnecessary wars. This I believe.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.