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.