New Orleans Times-Picayune

June 16, 1998

Must Moral Standards Be The First Casualty Of War?

U.S. Defectors Story Raises Old Question

By David Wood, Newhouse News Service

WASHINGTON -- Whether U.S. troops killed American defectors with nerve gas
during the Vietnam War 28 years ago, as a recent report alleges, might never
be established.

The more interesting question is not whether they did, but whether they
should have.

On desperate battlefields such as the back alleyways of Somalia, where
American notions of morality may be in dispute, must our soldiers always
behave impeccably: never shoot women or children, for example, even if they
are shielding enemy snipers?

Or does immoral behavior, for whatever reason, corrode America's moral
power? If U.S. forces gassed American defectors, can the United States
rightly criticize Saddam Hussein, who gassed Kurdish Iraqis?

Is America strong because it is good? Or can it afford to be good much of
the time because it is strong?

Americans celebrate lofty principles; politicians wield them like weapons
for political gain. But some people say that in the real world, principles
sometimes clash with a greater good and a pragmatic end.

"The basic source of our strength is spiritual," President Truman said. "We
believe in the dignity of man."

Of course this is the same man who in 1945 ordered atomic bombs dropped on
two Japanese cities, killing 200,000 people, mostly civilians. But the
attacks brought the long war with Japan to a swift end.

By national and international law, and by custom, the U.S. military is
supposed to work within tight boundaries.

"We do have rules, taught to us from basic training and constantly drilled
into us," said retired Army Col. Bob Coon, a combat leader in Vietnam. "But
sometimes those rules become hard to interpret. Do you open fire on a
village you know has women and children in it? "But you do have to maintain
the moral high ground. If not, you become the animal we are fighting in
these kinds of engagements," said Coon, professor of strategic and
operational planning at the U.S. Army War College.

An army that abandons its moral rules quickly disintegrates into
undisciplined rabble and becomes ineffective, said Army Col. Frank Hancock,
who commanded a 101st Airborne battalion during Desert Storm. "You open
Pandora's box, you gotta dance with Pandora," he said.

But the contrary view, from a highly decorated veteran who spent most of his
military career in secret operations, said that's only rhetoric meant for
the gullible public.

"For any major power, there exists a group of men who are the ones who make
the empire run," said the soldier, who asked not to be identified. "Shadow
warriors, the people who go out and do the dirty work of empire, things that
most people don't want to know about."

Keeping such activities secret, he said, "justifies how we want to look at
ourselves, in the light of high moral standards. That makes us feel good
about ourselves. But the shadow warriors are still out there."

If American defectors were killed in Vietnam, that would be fine with Peter
Rodman, who worked in the Nixon White House during the Vietnam War and was a
senior national security official for President Bush.

"Defectors are traitors and that was treason, and the choice of means
(weapons) is secondary," said Rodman, director of national programs at the
Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington.

Rodman said he knew nothing of the alleged mission at the center of the
controversy. But he defended the alleged targeting of defectors with nerve
gas. "War is war," he said. "Kill them with a rifle shot, is that better?"

Wrong answer, said Richard Armitage, a barrel-chested covert warrior during
the Vietnam War, who later was a senior Pentagon official and an
ambassador-rank diplomat.

Even if you are locked in combat with enemies who spit on your moral code,
Armitage insisted, it is vital to behave in strict accordance with the
loftiest American principles.

"I don't know how you can break the law in order to keep the law," said
Armitage, who is now in private business.

But a story Armitage tells suggests that a sliding scale of morality does
seem to apply.

In January 1986, the Reagan administration met to plan reprisal strikes
against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, whom Reagan had called a "mad dog"

"There was a very specific discussion about whether we ought to take him
out," Armitage said. "We'd have loved to have gotten him, but it didn't pass
our test." In addition, the direct assassination of foreign leaders is
forbidden by presidential executive order.

"But if we were bombing a military base and Gadhafi was there and we got him
- good!" Armitage said.

In the air strikes April 14 of that year, Gadhafi escaped injury. His
adopted infant daughter was killed, however, along with an undetermined
number of other civilians.

After the raids, which Reagan said were to punish Gadhafi for terrorism
against Americans, Libya's support of international terrorism declined
markedly, U.S. officials said.

Debate about morality in war is not likely to be resolved soon and indeed
may intensify if, as many analysts believe, a series of small but brutal
conflicts lie ahead.

Meantime, America seems inclined toward principled behavior.

"The mark of our civilization's greatness is a very simple but very rare
one," said Ralph Peters, a writer and retired Army officer.

"At this point in our social development, we would rather do good than evil,
so long as it doesn't cost too much. It is a surprisingly rare quality."