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
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?"
"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
"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
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!"