Army, Navy Games

Randy Cohen
Posted: Oct 01, 2008 12:01 AM
Army, Navy Games


During a tour in Baghdad, I befriended a man who, working for an Iraqi employer, emptied our trash, cleaned our bathrooms and shared our danger. He learned that he could double his salary by working for another contractor overseeing a mess hall, but he would have to show he had experience with menial kitchen work. As he had no such experience, he asked if I would prepare a false document saying he did. I refused. Was I right? -- C.M., Colonel, U.S. Army, Fort Hood, Texas

Experience doing menial work in a kitchen? Surely there are tasks a person can swiftly learn on the job. But dimwitted as is this prerequisite, you were right to decline your friend's request. The military and its contractors do not need more phony documentation. The lack of reliable record keeping, of conscientious oversight, has had lamentable consequences in Iraq. Nor will it benefit your friend to be nabbed with faked papers.

But deceit was not your only option. Integrity need not have relegated you to inaction and remorse. You could have written an honest letter to the American contractor, attesting to your friend's ability to do the mess-hall job and detailing his true work history. (Cleaning a bathroom sink is not profoundly different from cleaning a kitchen sink.) You might have found ways to get this fellow the experience required for that better job or sought employment for him that lacked this ridiculous obstacle. Surely as an officer you knew both military and civilian officials who could have guided you toward legitimate options. Ethics requires not just the rectitude to refuse wrongdoing but the resourcefulness to devise an honest alternative.

UPDATE: Unassisted, the friend found a better-paying job, $4 instead of $2 an hour, but in a more dangerous locale, a small combat outpost in a Baghdad neighborhood. The colonel does not know his current fate.

Years ago during my Navy service there was a series of barracks thefts. Before going on leave, I booby-trapped my locker so that anyone attempting a break-in would be met with a faceful of liquid bleach. (The locker contained just my stuff, not the crown jewels.) Ethical? P.S. The locker was intact upon my return. -- Philip Salow, Bronx, N.Y.

I'm relieved that you didn't rig a small nuclear device to your locker, so that anyone attempting a break-in would be met with the destruction of the surrounding town.

Even if all had gone according to plan, your response would have been wildly disproportionate. I am not a lawyer, but as I understand the criminal code, we do not put out the eyes of thieves. Or subject them to hideous facial scarring. Without a trial. Indeed, we sometimes punish those who react so ferociously. You might have a legal case against the driver who rear-ends you, but you go to prison if you shoot him. (Except in Texas. Or so say the snarky. By which I mean me.)

And if things had not gone according to plan? They seldom do. Suppose someone had a legitimate reason to open your locker: An infestation of mice in the barracks? An inconvenient decision to repaint the lockers while you were away? A little kitty inexplicably trapped inside? You would have imposed your grotesque penalty on an innocent party.

It is reasonable to install a mechanism to thwart thieves -- a burglar alarm, a packet of cash that sprays dye onto a bank robber or that classic, a stout lock -- but not to harm others in such a situation.