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Feb 3, 2006 8:42 am

History and Morality

Should historians include moral judgments in their accounts of the past? I don't presume to speak for other historians, but in response to the POTUS debate begun by Prof. Hamby on January 21 and 29 , I do want to comment briefly on how I try to deal with this contentious matter in my role as professional historian.

First, a general observation. Morals and morality, it seems to me, are inextricably part of history whether one means the word "history" as the actual past or "history" as the oral or written recollection of the past. Human beings are morally conscious creatures. All human cultures have defined and continue to define what it means to behave morally or immorally, although different cultures often disagree about what is moral or immoral. No matter what the culture, ambiguity suffuses the question, for life is complex and difficult. Moral rules don't always precisely match the reality of the situational context. Life is hard. It is sometimes hard to make the right moral choices; it is always hard to be on the receiving end of the wrong choices others make.

How should one write and teach about history and morality? I try to distinguish between what I will call descriptive questions and normative questions. If, for example, I am only trying to describe to a class what happened at the village of My Lai in South Vietnam during the late war, as well as how and why it happened, when it happened, who made it happen, and to whom it happened, it is not necessary for me to talk about morality.

However, this particular event would appear to demand a discussion of the moral issues associated with it. What happened at My Lai , why it happened , and what happened afterward has been a hotly debated topic precisely because of the moral and legal questions raised by the nature of the event itself. Moreover, Vietnamese and G.I. survivors have been deeply affected or traumatized by the experience and memory of the event. News of the event affected the course of history. The analysis of the event offers a window into the nature of the Vietnam War. There are lessons to be learned by students about leadership, character, judgment, and responsibility, whether they be officers in training or just young adults learning to be citizens of the Republic and of the world.

It seems to me that few would deny that moral issues are part of the historical story of My Lai or of other inherently moral-laden topics in history such as torture, war, slavery, political and economic oppression, corruption, poverty amidst wealth, and so on. All of these things produce misery, and I think we can agree that all humans, except those suffering from a mental disorder, dislike misery. The moral implications of misery, therefore, deserve intelligent and sensitive discussion.

Nonetheless, moral judgments are normative judgments; they have to do with values and ethics, as well as with human emotions, politics, and interpretations of the law. How to deal with all this?

If I formally take up a moral issue in a class or in my writing, I will usually begin by discussing the moral frames of reference—the system of standards by which people during the historical period in question made judgments about what is good or bad behavior, legal or illegal behavior.

The story of My Lai is a complex story, but in a nutshell I think it's safe to say that virtually everyone, whether Vietnamese or American, dove or hawk, agreed then and agrees now that it is immoral to kill unarmed noncombatants, especially if they are mostly women, children, and old men, and particularly if the killing takes place over an extended period of time in a more or less methodical way.

In addition, international law condemned such behavior. The United States was not only a signatory to this body of law but a leader in the creation and enforcement of the law. Further, what happened at My Lai on March 16, 1968 violated both of the principles that apply to the legality of military operations; namely, "military necessity" balanced against "reason and proportion." The U.S. Army itself acknowledged this.

Despite these moral and legal frames of reference, there were those who defended the morality of the My Lai massacre by taking a relative moral and legal position; that is, they argued, as Lt. Calley did, that the circumstances of war, and especially the circumstances of the Vietnam War, served to explain and justify his and others' actions that day. War is hell, and hell happens, they said. The other side committed its own atrocities, they said. Calley also claimed in his defense that he was protecting the men in Charlie company against an ideology, Communism, that he had been taught was evil. Moreover, he claimed, he was following orders. International law does not, however, recognize these circumstances as freeing one of responsibility, although the latter circumstance, following orders, might serve to mitigate the punishment.

If, then, I should I decide that it is necessary or proper to discuss moral questions in relation to historical events, I usually lay it out in the way I just described, urging students, if I am in a classroom, to consider the moral frames of reference, the rules, ethics, laws, and the responsibilities associated with each, as well as the personal and social consequences of taking one course of action or another. I don't tell them what to think; I tell them how one can think about or analyze the matter, how one can weigh the moral issues, and how philosophers, moralists, ethicists, and international lawyers have thought about these questions. As moral human beings, students can then make up their own minds.

Now, whether historical organizations should formally take moral positions on issues of the day—which was one of the questions raised by Professor Hamby—is another matter. As a general rule, I am not in favor of it for reasons of principle and practicality, which include the danger of politicizing history by the "tyranny of the majority," whether it be Left, Center, or Right. But each case needs to be judged on its own merits. Perhaps there have been and will be issues so important to the society and to the profession that historians need to draw upon their expertise, such as it is, and make a statement. But how to decide? That's the question.

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More Comments:

Jeffrey P. Kimball - 2/3/2006

Oops. Thanks for the typo correction.

Stephen Tootle - 2/2/2006

I think you mean "Hamby."