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NEWS | Sept. 4, 2009

A Little Gem of Innocence

By Col. Scott A. Haines 89th Maintenance Group commander

"That's what it takes to be a hero, a little gem of innocence inside you that makes you want to believe that there still exists a right and wrong, that decency will somehow triumph in the end."
- Lise Hand

In his book, "True Faith and Allegiance: The Burden of Military Ethics," James H. Toner posited that the test of "true faith and allegiance lies always in attempting as best as [one] can to know the right thing to do and then do it to the best of their ability." Without doubt, a definitive understanding of right and wrong represents the most enduring challenge for executing this apparently simple equation. Humankind utilizes tradition, rule of law, religious belief, personal experience, culture, and a host of other "tools" when determining rightness or wrongness. Understandably, individuals differ in their determination of what is right or wrong depending on personal experience. This raises the obvious question as to the feasibility or legitimacy of teaching ethics and, if so, how to accomplish such a difficult task.

Webster's Dictionary defines 'right' as, "what is right, or just, lawful, morally good, proper, correct, etc." Based on this relatively simple definition, one supposes identifying the difference between right and wrong requires minimal thought or effort. However, factors such as those mentioned above frequently inhibit attempts at providing an objective textbook answer. Additionally, some argue rightness as it applies to the individual affected. Conversely, many people assert that something is right if the consequences of the act positively affect the majority impacted. In truth, however, the nature of the act itself determines rightness or wrongness, not the situation or people affected. Interestingly, one of the most effective methods for gaining an understanding of the inherent difference between right and wrong is through use of cinema, with in-depth study of classic movies such as "Les Miserables" and "Billy Budd."

In the screen adaptation of Victor Hugo's powerful novel, "Les Miserables", the viewer follows the trials of convict Jon Valjean as he struggles to survive in a world where doing the right thing may result in death. Abject poverty requires him to steal food for his extended family, eventually resulting in his imprisonment under unbearably harsh conditions. While in prison, he is stripped of everything he knows and loves, similar in many ways to the concentration camp experience of Viktor Frankel, as recounted in his book "Man's Search for Meaning." Unable to find honest work upon his release, Valjean steals silver from a bishop who provided him with food and shelter, thereby breaking his parole. When the bishop forgives Valjean and permits him to keep the silver, he vows to make the most of this second chance. Despite the apparent justification for resorting to theft (situational ethics?), both instances were wrong and Valjean makes a determined effort to lead a just existence. Eventually, he becomes a successful businessman and mayor of his town, saves the life of a wrongfully accused convict, and adopts the illegitimate orphan of a destitute former employee. However, throughout his trials he suffers the relentless pursuit of inspector Javert, an officer intent on returning him to prison for life. Eventually, Valjean receives an opportunity to eliminate Javert as a threat, thereby ensuring his personal safety and well-being of his family. However, he sets Javert free, once again placing his own future in peril. This act shatters Javert's world, in which he thought he clearly understood the difference between right and wrong. As eloquently stated by Hugo: "Before him he saw two roads, both equally straight; but he did see two; and that terrified him -- he who had never in his life known anything but one straight line. And, bitter anguish, these two roads were contradictory." To the end, Valjean cared not about himself; he simply sought to do the right thing, to live a just life. Upon assurance that his loved ones were safe, he expressed willingness to atone for his perceived transgressions.

Herman Melville's "Billy Budd" also represents a screen adaptation of a literary classic. In this movie, the English Navy impresses Billy Budd into service on board the war ship H.M.S. Avenger. Billy approaches the brutality of life at sea with an innocent naivety that endears him to his shipmates, with the exception of the Master-at-Arms, John Claggert. Indeed, Claggert frequently maintains discipline on board with Machiavellian flair, relying on sadistic cruelty meted out with disconcerting enjoyment. Eventually, he concocts a story accusing Billy of inciting mutiny and disloyalty. Tragically, in his fear Billy cannot find the words to defend himself. He strikes out at Claggert, accidentally killing him in the process. Subsequently, Captain Vere convenes a hasty court-martial to determine Billy's fate. Initially, the ships officers unanimously support Billy and call for his acquittal (as do many viewers). However, Captain Vere intervenes and insists they put personal feelings aside and do their duty, resulting in the eventual hanging of Billy Budd in accordance with the Mutiny Act. In fact, one of the ship's officers states that, "we do not deal with justice here, but with law." This story represents the classic struggle between good and evil. Fittingly, following Claggert's death, Captain Vere exclaims, "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the Angel must hang!" Regardless of how justifiable Billy's actions appeared, he caused the death of another human being and threatened discipline on the Avenger.

Assuredly, determining the difference between right and wrong sometimes represents an immense challenge. Each situation consists of endless independent variables, including rule of law, culture, religion, and personal experience. This is not to acknowledge, or condone, situational ethics, but merely to emphasize the importance of understanding that where someone stands sometimes depends on where they sit. For example, in the movies reviewed above, each story consisted of at least two viewpoints, with one eventually determined good (right) and the other evil, or bad (wrong). Ironically, both included rule of law as a means of judging "rightness or wrongness". In the end, Jean Valjean and Captain Vere both faced Dr. Toner's test of "true faith and allegiance" and attempted to determine the right thing to do and "then do it to the best if their ability." Undeniably, right and wrong clearly still exist in our world. Consequently, each of us retains the moral responsibility to continue the quest for a definitive understanding of the difference between the two. Reviewing and discussing movies based on ethical dilemmas such as the ones mentioned above (and others, such as "Breaker Morant," and "To Kill a Mockingbird"), provide an interesting and sound head start!