Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Courageous Restraint

Royal Marines in Afghanistan
Photograph by Jane Mingay, Courtesy of the Telegraph

In January of 1973, Time Magazine published a story about B-52 pilot Captain Michael Heck refusing to fly missions over North Vietnam. According to Time, Captain Heck’s rationale was that “the goals do not justify the mass destruction and killing."

A case of “courageous restraint?”

This term might be unfamiliar to you, as it has just burst onto the scene. Here’s an Associated Press article published in May, 2010 at

NATO Pushes ‘Courageous Restraint’ for Troops

The idea is creating some consternation in the United States military, but its genesis is in our culture. We seem interested in replacing tried-and-true rules such as “Thou Shalt Not Kill” with a more interpretive standard of “Thou Shalt Do the Right Thing.” The advantage of the updated standard is that it requires a centralized moral authority to ensure the standard is administered properly.

Are you starting to feel the influence of politics?

Here are some situations to consider:

An elderly gentleman in Wheat Ridge, Colorado was recently charged with attempted murder. On February 24, 2010, Robert Wallace, an octogenarian, allegedly fired a handgun at a couple of people who were (allegedly) stealing a flatbed trailer from his home. Mr. Wallace thought he was defending his property. The Wheat Ridge police think that Mr. Wallace lives in a safe neighborhood and he should have used “courageous restraint”.

In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer is quite concerned about the lawlessness that comes with Mexican gangs using the Arizona border as an arena for drug trafficking and kidnapping. The head of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, has a different point of view. She feels that in the 18 months of her tenure, great progress has been made “addressing current challenges with our federal, state, local, tribal and Mexican partners in order to keep our communities safe from threats of border-related violence and crime.” One gets the feeling from Janet Napolitano that the Southwest border has never been safer.

While Governor Brewer sees the need for decisive action, Secretary Napolitano sees the need for courageous restraint.

And so it appears that the idea of courageous restraint is situational. By that, I don’t mean we have to look into such things as the ethnicity or gender of the people involved. Nor does it depend on the life experience of anyone; whether he or she had an abusive childhood or experienced bullying in school. Rather, it is based on the perspective of the individual thrust into the action versus the perspective of the moral authority with power over that individual. Depending on where you fit in that situation, you take one side or the other.

In the military, the troops at the “pointy end of the spear” often have a different perspective than the people in the Headquarters or Command Post facility. The operators (people in the trenches) don’t like being “used,” and particularly don’t like being pawns in a political game that treats their lives as expendable items.

Those who are removed from the battlefield are not physically at risk, and get to make their decisions from a safe and dispassionate sanctuary. These authority figures on any given day can actually render a moral judgment about a particular combat action and then later move on to the responsibilities associated with photo-ops, golf games and encounters with famous entertainers.

But back to the issue of the medal itself…

There is a hierarchy in military decorations. With the United States military, the decorations are awarded in this type of sequence:
Armed Forces Service Medal – if you are in a military unit but not subject to hostile action.
Southwest Asia Service Medal – if you are in theater and are supporting combat operations.
Presidential Unit Citation – if you are assigned to a unit in action against an armed enemy.
Purple Heart – if you are wounded or killed in combat.
Silver Star – for gallantry in combat.
Medal of Honor – for risking your life above and beyond the call of duty.
As you can tell, the more involved you are in combat operations, the higher the ranking of the medals being awarded. With this hierarchy in mind, where do you think a Courageous Restraint Medal should be placed?

While pondering that question, do you get a bad taste in your mouth; a feeling that makes you want to turn your head and spit?

A characterization of that feeling might be “disgust.”

UPDATE 7/17/2010:
Here is a Denver Post quote from a local judge making a ruling on the "Stolen Valor Act:"
"To suggest that the battlefield heroism of our servicemen and women is motivated in any way, let alone in a compelling way, by considerations of whether a medal may be awarded simply defies my comprehension."
That's U. S. District Judge Robert Blackburn declaring the 2006 Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional on free speech grounds.

Judge Blackburn says our Constitution allows people to make bogus claims of military service and decorations as protected speech.  He also feels that military decorations do not have a political component.  (I assume that Judge Blackburn would think the Courageous Restraint issue is trivial.)  The whole concern about the significance of military medals "defies [his] comprehension."

Unfortunately, people think of military decorations in different ways.  A posthumous award of a Purple Heart has greater significance to family members than the Purple Heart Senator John Kerry accepted for his injuries in Viet Nam.

An awards ceremony where a battle action is commemorated and some soldiers are awarded medals for valor while others are awarded medals for courageous restraint will cause a few people to feel uncomfortable.

The point to keep in mind is that when our leaders bring politics into a situation (especially where great physical risk and loss of life are in play) they are dealing with human emotions at their greatest intensity.

Many people would find that NOT to be trivial.

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