It’s impossible to know how you’ll react to being shot at until it happens. And when it does happen there is little time for sober reflection on what to do next. There are only the nearly unconscious choices you make from among the conditioned responses instilled in you through training. Where is the threat? Where is my nearest cover? How clear is my shot? But training, no matter how realistic, never quite prepares you for that dreadful moment, that sudden flash in time, when you realize someone is doing his very best to kill…you.
I have been blessed in that I was able to avoid the bullets on both occasions when I came under fire, the first coming very early in my police career, the second only months ago. But as I write these words in the comfort and safety of my home I feel my heart begin to race, I feel the hair on my arms rising, I see the images of those moments as though they happened only yesterday. Or this morning. Or even five minutes ago. Neither incident aroused any interest in the press, nor were they even considered noteworthy around the police station after only a few days had passed; most of the people I worked with had had similar or even more harrowing experiences. It’s what cops do.
These things take some time to get over, if indeed one ever truly does. In the days that followed both incidents I was not quite the same man I was in the days before. I was more curt with the people I stopped, more wary of their actions. My hand didn’t leave the grip of my pistol until I was sure–perfectly sure–that the person I was dealing with meant me no harm. And yet, even as I relive those moments, even as I ponder what might have been, even as I picture the bullet hole in the police car only inches above my head, I cannot begin to grasp the hell that is the daily life of our Marines now fighting for control of Fallujah.
But today a young Marine–his name we do not yet know–sits alone somewhere in Iraq as the briefest snippet of his life is broadcast to the world, over and over again, inviting all who view it to pass their judgment on him and on the war he was sent to fight. By now you’ve seen the tape yourself, probably many times. An embedded NBC cameraman follows a squad of Marines as they enter a mosque in Fallujah, one that terrorists had been using as a fortress. A Marine is heard shouting that one of the ostensibly dead terrorists is only pretending to be. The screen goes black as a Marine raises his rifle. A gunshot is heard, after which someone says, “Well, he’s dead now.”
Yes, it is shocking. We are rightly unsettled at witnessing the violent death of a fellow human being. But for one moment try as best you can to put yourself in that Marine’s boots. He had been under fire for a week as his unit battled a maniacal enemy through the streets of Fallujah. He had seen a friend and comrade killed by a booby-trapped corpse. He had been shot in the face himself the previous day but chose to remain in the fight with his brother Marines. And now, as the camera rolled, he came upon several terrorists who appeared to be dead or wounded. What was it about that one man that presented a threat? Perhaps one day we will learn what was in that Marine’s mind when he pulled the trigger, but it seems safe to speculate he was thinking about his dead friend, a young man like himself, but one who did not see the danger until it was too late.
And now we are deluged with the outraged reactions from “the Arab street,” which finds more offense in the death of this terrorist than it does in the execution of Margaret Hassan, a gentle woman who devoted her life to helping Iraq’s most desperately needy citizens. This is the same Arab street that says a mosque is desecrated when Americans are shooting into it but not when terrorists are shooting out of it, that images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib are more appalling than those of mass graves, or of innocent civilians being butchered by savages gleeful in the task.
But we expect as much from this Arab street. What is more disconcerting is the reaction of our sophisticated betters in the American media, who, still smarting from the voters’ rejection of their candidate, put forth this terrorist’s death as a means to discredit the entire war in Iraq. Typical was MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who on Monday’s Hardball discussed the mosque incident with retired Army colonel Ken Allard.
“Well, let me ask you this,” Matthews says. “If this were the other side, and we were watching an enemy soldier, a rival–I mean, they’re not bad guys, especially, just people who disagree with us, they are in fact insurgents, fighting in their country–if we saw them do what we saw our guy do to that guy, would we consider that worthy of a war crimes charge?”
Not bad guys, especially, just people who disagree with us.
This is repugnant, but it is hardly new. Matthews’s moral relativism, indeed his moral inversion, is viewed by the exalted in his profession as the only proper mindset, the one that distinguishes them from the rabble out there in the red-state wasteland between Beverly Hills and the Hudson River. Nowhere was this mindset more vividly displayed than in a 1987 installment of the series Ethics in America, hosted by the late Fred Friendly, former president of CBS News. Each program in the series featured a moderator and panel of experts discussing ethical issues in business, medicine, or what have you, and the topic in one episode was ethics in the military. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree was the moderator, and among the well-known panelists were retired General William Westmoreland and media heavyweights Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace. (Hadley Arkes wrote about the series in the June 16, 1989, issue of National Review. The series is available on video here.)
Ogletree asked the panel to imagine a war between the hypothetical countries of North and South Kosan. The United States was backing South Kosan, and indeed American troops were deployed in the field alongside South Kosanese forces. The North Kosanese offered to allow Jennings and a crew to film them behind their lines. Would Jennings go? Of course, he answered.
Then Ogletree introduced the ethical dilemma: While filming the North Kosanese, you see they are setting up an ambush for an approaching column of American and South Kosanese soldiers. What do you do? Would you stand by and film as the North Kosanese opened fire on the Americans?
Jennings pondered the question. “Well, I guess I wouldn’t,” he said finally. “I am going to tell you now what I am feeling, rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.” He went on to say he would warn the Americans even if it meant losing the story, even if it meant losing his life.
But this admirable display of patriotic duty was short-lived, for he was then upbraided by Mike Wallace.
“I think some other reporters would have a different reaction,” Wallace said. “They would regard it simply as a story they were there to cover.” Wallace was “astonished” at Jennings’s answer, and he began to lecture him as he would an errant schoolchild.
“You’re a reporter,” Wallace scolded. “I’m a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American, you would not have covered that story.”
Didn’t Jennings have a higher duty, Ogletree asked Wallace, than to roll film as American soldiers were being shot? “No,” Wallace said. “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!”
Properly chastened, Jennings backed down. “I chickened out,” he said. He had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached from the story.
After more interplay between the newsmen (the sage and the cub), Ogletree turned to another panelist, George M. Connell, a Marine Corps colonel in full uniform.
Connell looked at Wallace and Jennings as he might a pair of stains on his dress blues. “I have utter contempt,” he said. “Two days later they’re both walking off my hilltop, two hundred yards away and they get ambushed. And they’re lying there wounded. And they’re going to expect I’m going to send Marines up there to get them. They’re just journalists. They’re not Americans.”
“Oh, we’ll do it,” Connell continued, “and that’s what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get a couple of journalists.”
There was complete silence all around. Even Ogletree was at a loss. Finally Newt Gingrich, then a junior congressman, summed it up perfectly. “The military,” he said, “has done a vastly better job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have.”
That Marine in Fallujah faced an ethical dilemma few of us can imagine. Unless the evidence against him is utterly clear and convincing, he is entitled to the benefit of the doubt. We owe him that much, at the very least.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.