Beliefnet
WASHINGTON (RNS)--The story, a cruel morality play, will haunt himforever.

On a combat sweep through rural hamlets of South Vietnam, U.S.Marines accidentally wounded a 4-year-old child, torn by shrapnel from ahand grenade.

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James Webb, then a 23-year-old company commander: "My medic came upto me carrying the boy in his arms and said, 'Skipper, we gotta get thiskid medevacked in 20 minutes or he's gonna die.'"

Daylight fading into deadly shadow. Webb, holding two radio mikes,struggling to get his men safe for the night. Knowing he cannot divert amedical evacuation chopper that's ferrying desperately wounded Marines.A civilian, even a child, is a lower priority.

"I said, 'Doc, I just can't do that.' And he said, 'OK, fine, thenyou watch him die.' And he put that child down on an ammo box in frontof me.... While I was working, I was watching this little kid die.

"And in half an hour he was dead."

In the bloody terror and chaos of combat, when American soldiers areclawing for their survival, does the concept of "moral behavior" haveany meaning?

The timeless question, bitterly debated during the Vietnam War, isback again. Is there a set of moral absolutes by which society should judgethose whom it sends into combat?

Or is war so fundamentally brutal and immoral that civilians oughtnot examine it too closely?

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"I did what I was supposed to do, and I don't have any hang-upsabout it," says Webb, who went on to become secretary of the Navy and abest-selling author.

But the growing clamor over the Korea and Persian Gulf incidentssuggests that more than ever, once-obscure battlefield actions seemsubject to national second-guessing.

And the issues are becoming more acute as the nature of war changes.Many of today's conflicts are fought by mobs instead of national armiesin uniform. Civilians are deliberately targeted. Things happen fast, inconfusion, under intense media scrutiny.

Is it even possible to fairly judge, not having been there?

"It's easy to second-guess somebody when you're sitting at home,"said Ralph Peters, an author and strategist who retired as an Armycolonel last year.

"This is not a matter of condoning 'war crimes,'" Peters said. "It'sa matter of understanding the fundamental speed, confusion, terror, anderuptive violence of warfare. An army should be as moral as practical,but to me, war is by its very nature a fundamentally immoral act. Sothis is a matter of degrees, not absolutes."

Even so, soldier and civilian alike have a responsibility to worktoward a resolution or at least a common understanding, argues anti-waractivist and philosopher Michael Walzer, who teaches at PrincetonUniversity's School of Social Science.

What do you think about the Bob Kerrey controversy?

Poll: Should Kerrey have accepted his Bronze Star?

What your religion says about battlefield ethics.

"It's easy to opt out" of the debate, but "only the wicked and thesimple make the attempt," Walzer wrote in his landmark study, "Just andUnjust Wars."

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