The Ethics Project

The Ethics Blog

The Door-Gunner’s Mischief: 

Who is to Blame for War Crimes and Moral Injury?



While serving in the army in Vietnam in 1969, waiting for a helicopter to take off, I asked the 18-year-old door-gunner whether he liked his job, and he told me that he did.  Here’s why: “Sometimes the pilot flies low over the boonies and lets me shoot up some hooches.”  With the people in them.  I don’t believe he had had yet to learn how to shave his face, but surely he knew by now that this was wrong; it was a forbidden pleasure; he grooved on it, and its being forbidden made it all the more exciting. He was a mischievous teenager who happened to have a 50-caliber machine gun in his hands and had been taught how to use it—but evidently not when to use it. Had he not been drafted into a war his mischief might have been less harmful, but as it was, his mischief was fatal to innocent people. If he is alive today, I imagine his dreams may be tormented by images of shattered homes, and children, and the bodies of the dead. He may well be among the morally injured. (On moral injury, see the preceding blog in this series by Robert Prentice.) 

Practical ethics seeks to know how to prevent such crimes and such injuries. From cases like the door-gunner’s mischief, I realized early on that teaching people to tell right from wrong is not enough to save them from moral danger. This is as true in business as it is in war. What kind of teaching might help? Our “Ethics Unwrapped” videos, developed by Robert Prentice and Cara Biasucci, offer well researched short lessons that can help, especially in the business world.  We will have more postings about the theory and research behind that approach in the near future.

Here I will ask who is to blame for the door-gunner’s mischief, because anyone who could have taken action to prevent that mischief, and had a responsibility to do so, must bear part of the blame. We can start with the young gunner himself, but he is not the only one to blame.  The pilot could easily have prevented the crimes and the injuries that followed from them, simply by not flying so low, or by ordering his gunner to practice fire-discipline.  The pilot’s higher-ups could have prevented the crimes by making and enforcing clear policies about the altitude of helicopters and the use of door-guns. The burden of blame may trickle all the way up the chain of command.  In the case of war crimes in Iraq, the burden goes all the way up to the White House, from which emanated a refusal to endorse the Geneva Conventions during that war, as we learn from studying the well-known ordeal of Ian Fishback. (On Fishback, see Anthony Appiah’s discussion in his The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, 2010.)

We must also recognize that a certain culture in the military may make such war crimes easier to commit.  A teenager who can call homes “hooches” and human beings “gooks” or “zipperheads” has been partly undone morally by the language he has learned in the military.  We were all strictly taught never to call a rifle a “gun”; why couldn’t we also have been taught never to call people by de-humanizing names?  Who is responsible for the culture of an organization?  Again, it is those who command it, and those who set the most salient examples. 

The prevention of crimes and moral injuries in the end comes down to leadership.  Leaders must recognize the huge range of their moral responsibility and act accordingly.  Had they paid attention, and had good values, military leadership could have saved the door-gunner from his mischief. 






This posting is prompted by a recent book, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe.

            This highly-regarded book is about the Troubles (and more) in Northern Ireland.  The detailed descriptions of the violent struggles and political battles between the IRA and the British authorities is as horrifying as it is riveting.  Amazingly, Boston College created an archive of oral histories containing interviews with many of the participants given with the understanding that the interviews would not be made public until after those interviewed had died.  Keefe was able to take advantage of some of these interviews to paint a detailed and sometimes excruciating picture of the bombings, the torture, the “disappeared,” the hunger strikes, and all the rest. 

            What caught our attention at Ethics Unwrapped was the book’s reference to the notion of moral injury.  One definition of “moral injury” is a betrayal of what’s right by a person in legitimate authority in a high stakes situation.” (Shay).  In Say Nothing, author Keefe speaks of moral injury in connection with the interview with Brendan Hughes, a former soldier in the IRA who laments having killed people, and having sent members of the IRA out to their deaths in the struggle against the British authorities.  At the time, these actions seemed justified.  They seemed to be “worth it” in the battle for an independent and united Ireland.  However, when IRA leaders later negotiated with the Brits and settled for much less than total victory, those sacrifices suddenly seemed unnecessary and perhaps wasted.  Hughes felt as if he had killed and caused others to be killed for no good reason. It was devastating for him. These emotions seem to be classic manifestations of moral injury.  Moral injury can be very serious, leading to “serious distress, depression, and suicidality.” (Syracuse University).  Its impact can be comparable to that of PTSD.

            Moral injury is most commonly associated with those who have served in the military.  Perhaps they served on the U.S. side in Vietnam and later wondered what they had actually fought for, given the many lies they learned that their government had told to justify the war.  Perhaps they served in Iraq or Afghanistan and later obsessed about the seemingly endless nature of those conflicts.  Had they killed civilians, tortured prisoners, bombed cities and the like, for reasons that seem inadequate now?

            Do only those who have seen war-like conditions experience moral injury?  It has been suggested (Talbot & Dean) that physicians who suffer from “burn out” are actually manifesting a form of moral injury that arises from continually being unable to provide high-quality care and healing in a broken health care system.  Police officers, journalists, and first responders have also been thought vulnerable to moral injury when their ideals clash with what they are actually asked to do.

And we agree with Dr. Michael D. Matthews that “[w]orkers in corporations, who believe in the intrinsic value of the products or services the corporation sells, may experience moral trauma when they come to understand that the corporation puts profits above health and safety concerns of customers or even the employees themselves.” If much of your career has involved hiding debt for Enron, creating fake customer accounts for Wells Fargo, manipulating LIBOR for Deutsche Bank, creating software to cheat emissions detection devices for Volkswagen, or saddling minorities with sub-prime mortgages for Countrywide Financial, you might well feel moral injury.

            The engineers at Morton Thiokol whose initial opposition to the disastrous January 1986 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger was overcome by their superiors and officials at NASA suffered from that decision most of the rest of their lives.  Bob Ebeling suffered deep depression and was saddled with guilt.  Boisjoly was disabled by severe headaches, depression, and insomnia; he even sued Thiokol and NASA for his depression and the PTSD-like symptoms which are often caused by moral injury.  Engineer Allan McDonald suffered feelings of loss, grief, and “gnawing anguish.”    

            Some, like the Morton Thiokol engineers, likely feel moral injury almost immediately after their actions.  For others, it may take longer.  But over time, the rationalizations they used at the time (e.g.: “It’s not my fault, my boss ordered me to do it.” “Hey, everyone was cheating.” “They were so stupid, they deserved to be screwed.”) wear thin and the enormity of their wrongdoing and its painful clash with their desired self-image, causes the pain of moral injury to bloom.

            When we think of financial frauds and other forms of corporate wrongdoing, we must consider not only the harm to the victims, but also the damage to the self-concepts of the employees who are recruited to the task.  Only then can a full accounting of the damage of unethical business activity be had.

Our next posting for the Ethics Project will be Paul Woodruff’s blog on responsibility for war crimes.



Howard Berkes, “Remembering Roger Boisjoly: He Tried to Stop Shuttle Challenger Launch,” NPR, Feb. 6, 2012, at

Howard Berkes, “30 Years After Explosion, Challenger Engineer Still Blames Himself,” NPR, Jan. 28, 2016, at

Philip M. Boffey, “Engineer Who Opposed Launching Challenger Sues Thiokol for $1 Billion,” New York Times, Jan. 29, 1987, at

Patricia Hynes, “The Iraq War and Moral Injury,” Truthout, March 20, 2013, at

Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2019).

Giulia Lamiani et al., “When Healthcare Professionals Cannot Do the Right Thing: A Systematic Review of Moral Distress and Its Correlates,” Journal of Health Psychology 22:51-67 (2017).

Brett T. Litz et al., “Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy,” Clinical Psychology Review, 29: 695.-706 (2009).

Michael Matthews, “Stress Among UAV operators: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Existential Crisis, or Moral Injury? Ethics and Armed Forces: Controversies in Military Ethics and Security Policy (2014).

Michael Matthews, “Moral Injury: Toxic Leadership, Maleficent Organizations, and Psychological Distress,” Psychology Today, March 10, 2018, at

Thomas Ricks, “What is Moral Injury, and How Does It Affect Journalists Covering Bad Stuff?” Foreign Policy, Sept. 7, 2017, at

Jonathan Shay, “Moral Injury,” Psychoanalytic Psychology, 21(2): 182-191.

Simon Talbot & Wendy Dean, “Physicians Aren’t ‘Burning Out.’  They’re Suffering from Moral Injury,” Boston Globe, July 26, 2018, at

Syracuse University, “The Moral Injury Project,” at

Brooke McQuerrey Tuttle et al., “Police Moral Injury, Compassion Fatigue, and Compassion Satisfaction: A Brief Report,” Salus Journal, April 29, 2019, at

Victoria Williamson et al., “Occupational Moral Injury and Mental Health: Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis,” The British Journal of Psychiatry, 212(6): 339-426 (2018).






What makes a system “good”? This may feel like an odd question for those of us working in the technology industry to ask ourselves. But we must. 

We are seeing the first signs of recruitment risk for technology companies.

As described in a January 12, 2020, New York Times Sunday article, new graduates are having second thoughts about whether to work for technology companies.  The technology industry reputation among our young is shifting, moving closer to Wall Street: amoral.

How can this happen to us in the tech industry?  We used to be good guys and gals, wearing the white hats.

The reasons for this are well known. In order to repair a fraying reputation, our industry must face questions such as these.  I’m sure others will be added, hopefully as a result of dialog stimulated by this blog posting: 

  1. Is a business model based on selling personal data ever OK?  If not, what should replace it?
  2. Online gaming and Virtual Reality's impact on the human mind, especially that of the pre-adolescent.  How much time online, immersed, is too much? What does it do to the human brain on a synapse level?
  3. Personal data control, especially of medical and financial data.  Should you be notified before a company sells your hospital record?
  4. Shorter, more reasonable and understandable click-through agreements.  Should we invalidate any that contain indemnification clauses?  Probably.
  5. Liability for data breaches.  Should there be minimum payments made to every user whose information is lost to a data breach? How much?  Who decides?
  6. Should an AI algorithm make decisions impacting a person’s financial, physical or mental health? How about prison sentences?

The fundamental question being asked of our industry is this: “what does ethical thinking require of the industry?”  And, how do we do that without endangering our global competitiveness? 

Stated in a different way, reputational risk accrues to a company’s brand.  I am interested in quantifying the value to a company’s brand of integrating explicit ethical considerations into product development, corporate governance, product management and other similar processes used by most technology companies.  It will be very interesting to determine the change in brand value related to not doing these things.  The question this will answer, amongst others: “Is ethical thinking good for the bottom line?”  And if so, how best to quantify that?

Answering this question correctly can guide both product development teams and Boards of Directors at small, medium and large technology companies.

The ethical question related to this is whether ethical thinking is compromised by focusing on the bottom line.  

If you want to engage the conversation on addressing ethical issues that matter to you and your company, reach me at  

We are identifying industry leaders interested in pragmatic, impactful technology-driven ethical topics as research projects.

The next blog on this topic will describe a potential research project that will quantify the impact on a company’s brand of incorporating ethics into its “thinking and doing.”  This next blog in the series will be on moral injury and responsibility for war crimes.






Some time ago, a group of faculty members at UT from different departments set up The Ethics Project with two missions: to bring together the scholars at UT who write and think about ethics, and to lay the groundwork for the ethics center we hope will take root here as funding becomes available. 

We held a conference in November 2018, on the design of an ethics center, and we have also sponsored various smaller-scale meetings and talks. Every college and school at UT has faculty members working in ethics, but too often we do not know each other or, if we do, we meet each other all too rarely.  Hence, we are starting this blog.

My first posting will be on a major interest of mine—responsibility for war crimes and the moral injury that results from them.  This issue has been in the news lately, owing to actions of the president.  It will continue to arise as veterans of combat return and try to heal.

We will also have a posting early on from our industry fellow Rebecca Taylor.  She will give us her thoughts on the importance of ethical issues facing the technology industry, where she has spent 30 years as a software engineer, inventor, startup founder, investor, and mentor to startups.  

We are hoping that this blog will provide a good way for us to stay connected with each other’s work, as well as to let the outside world know what we are up to.  If you have a position at UT and your work touches on ethics, please do send me a brief posting (250-500 words) on an issue or an idea that concerns you. If your posting bears on some issue in the news, all the better.

Send it to me, as an attachment in Word, at

Paul Woodruff
Department of Philosophy
College of Liberal Arts