21. Morality, ethics and war

Baston spread his arms to indicate the countryside around them. "Hell man, I'm sensible to the mess we're into here. I don't like this killing anymore than you do. Sure, it isn't a fair fight, our heavy artillery against their knives and rocks. Where's a soldier's pride in that?"

The major looped his reins and used both hands for emphasis. "Matt, I want you to look at it from a different angle for a minute, if you can. I used to be just like you. When I was younger I knew only one kind of truth. A thing was right or wrong, good or bad, black or white, and I didn't scratch around long for moral equivalence. I found answers to life's questions in right action . It was simple, just do the right thing. Do good, tell the truth, eschew deceit and perfidy, a good foundation for a young man.

"Trouble was it didn't work. I soon found life rarely handed me easy questions. The older I got, the harder to be sure of my conclusions. What at first seemed like right action, very often got turned upside down when I looked a little closer. Eventually, I had to come to terms with the notion there may be no right answers, that a man can only do what he thinks is right at the time. History, Matthew, is the means by which right and wrong are determined."

Alstaetter flashed back to his Aunt Alice and her warehouse of convoluted, self-serving panaceas and felt his mind close. He pulled himself up short. Hear the man out, he told himself. You've made the decision to go along to get along, at least listen to what he has to say.

"I know what you think of the general and me, the other officers here. You think we're no better than murderers, we've no regard for innocent life, that we pursue this conflict with just a little too much zeal. I ask you, how can you fight a war any other way? Think about it for a moment, man. How do you engage an enemy halfway? How many Americans would die in a contest we weren't committed to win, where all our punches were pulled, our holds barred? That would be the worst kind of insanity. We may as well line up the troops and shoot them ourselves. Believe me, Matt, if you're going to lift your hand against another, you can't ask yourself in the process who's right or wrong, only who's left."

Alstaetter felt the muscles in his jaw tighten. He didn't want to say anything now. He'd swallowed his pride and eaten plenty of humble pie to get back this far with Major Baston. He tried to go along, but he just couldn't. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Of course."

"I agree with your thinking about fighting the war, sir. Better one hundred Asians die than a single American boy, but should we be here in the first place? What's right about traveling half a world away to depose a tyrannical government, and then step into their shoes? There's no moral or legal imperative for America to possess colonies. Just a hundred and twenty years ago we fought to free ourselves from foreign domination, and we've enjoyed the blessings of liberty ever since. Surely the Filipino people deserve no less."

"Good points all. If I understand you correctly, you're speaking about right action . What's right about forcibly imposing our will on another people? What's right about installing a white, capitalist, American government in a land of war-weary Asian peasants?

"Consider the matter first from the Filipino point of view. No one knows for sure, but let's say Aguinaldo has an army of forty thousand men ready to die for freedom. Forty thousand in a land of four million. How do the other ninety-nine per cent feel about his bloody experiment with independence? How do the tens of thousands of educators, merchants and bureaucrats in Manila feel about their loved ones conscripted into his band of renegade outlaws, and in most cases never seen again? How does the starving peasant feel about paying a 'freedom tax' on pain of death to every petty warlord that happens through his village? Certainly Aguinaldo's vision of right action can be held up for critical examination.

"Remember, Aguinaldo represents only a small percentage of the population, almost all Tagalog. Who speaks for the Ilokanos, the Ilongos, the Bikolanos, and the Waray - Waray? Who speaks for the Filipino Muslim, the Chinese Buddhist, the pagan Igorrote? Were they asked whether El Presidente's reckless, presumptive campaign for power is in their best interests?

"This land has a long history of poverty, ignorance, disease and endless struggles for clan domination. I'd wager a year's pay outside of Aguinaldo's band of fanatics, there's not a Filipino man, woman or child who wouldn't welcome a little American prosperity. Think of it, Matt. We can bring schools with good teachers, hospitals with doctors that really cure, farm machinery and new ways to grow and harvest crops. With our help they can live better than they ever dreamed. At home we teach our children to thank God every day for His blessings. What could be wrong with sharing those blessings? What could be right about a delusional monomaniac denying all that to his countrymen?"

Major Baston gave a signal and his new executive officer, Captain Welsh, rode forward. "Have the men break for midday meal. Post security patrols from A and H Companies." The captain saluted smartly, turned and passed the orders along. "Luncheon with me, Lieutenant, and we'll pursue this further."

The two men sat at a field table in the shade of a collapsible umbrella. A cook poured coffee, the major topped his with a splash of whiskey from his flask. Lieutenant Alstaetter ignored this, smiled at the major. "I was on the debate team at the Academy, sir, and I concede your argument well conceived, eloquently and persuasively delivered. However, isn't the argument itself flawed?"

Baston bit into an apple. "How so?"

"I mentioned the overthrow of an oppressive government, and you countered with the elusiveness of right action and the reliance on moral equivalence. If equivalence is the determining factor, then can't Aguinaldo's pursuit of freedom be compared with the American adventure? Who's to say his struggle won't yield the same fortunate results?"

Major Baston picked a little green flap of apple skin from his teeth, examined it, and then flicked it into the weeds beside his chair. "You'll remember I said history is the means by which right and wrong is determined. For example, to this day England enslaves every race they encounter, but we live free. History has determined Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and an unlikely band of citizen soldiers were right. Not so for Aguinaldo, because history has not made the determination."

"Sir, that's precisely my point. How can we be sure now whether it's we or Aguinaldo who does the right thing?"

"We can't. Precisely my point. As officers and gentlemen it's up to us to take a broad view and use our best judgment, the only tools we have. President McKinley has a vision of America far different from what she is today. What if he's right? What if taking these Islands means our nation will grow and prosper into the next century? What if it's our destiny to rule the world? Don't we have the right to look out for our best interests? Aren't we obligated to make a better, more prosperous world for our children and grandchildren? Who's to say building a strong, proud America is not right action ?" Warming to his subject, Baston drained his cup and signaled for more. "What if, as Shakespeare said, a divinity shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will with our meddlesome right action ?"

"What you describe, sir is chaos. If the end justifies the means, then there's no standard for moral or ethical behavior. Men are free to pursue any course of action whatsoever once they manufacture a potential or perceived greater good. It's anarchy."

Major Baston sat forward in his chair and closed one eye, better to focus on the young officer while he made his point. "What I describe is both chaos and anarchy, Lieutenant. It's war!"

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1. Fagen arrives in the Philippines

2. White soldiers bring their prejudice with them

3. Fagen hears another side of the story

4. Dinner with Colonel Funston

5. Fagen's first taste of combat

6. Fagen meets Clarita

7. More than fair?

8. The water cure

9. Fagen gets his fortune told

10. Imperialism exposed

11. Sergeant Rivers speaks his mind

12. Genocide

13. Fagen meets El Presidente

14. Bad news comes to Fagen

15. Fate takes over

16. San Lazaro leper hospital

17. An offer Fagen can't refuse

18. Funston makes a plan

19. "Capitan" Fagen

20. Funston assembles his team

21. Morality, ethics and war

22. Jungle encounter

23. Commencement

24. Benevolent assimilation

25. Colonel Bloody Shirt pays a call

26. Fagen declares war on God

27. Major Baston tastes his own medicine

28. Funston on the march

29. Fagen goes home