On a combat sweep through rural hamlets of South Vietnam, U.S. Marines accidentally wounded a 4-year-old child, torn by shrapnel from a hand grenade.
Daylight fading into deadly shadow. Webb, holding two radio mikes, struggling to get his men safe for the night. Knowing he cannot divert a medical 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, then you watch him die.' And he put that child down on an ammo box in front of 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 are clawing for their survival, does the concept of "moral behavior" have any meaning?
Or is war so fundamentally brutal and immoral that civilians ought not examine it too closely?
But the growing clamor over the Korea and Persian Gulf incidents suggests that more than ever, once-obscure battlefield actions seem subject 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 armies in uniform. Civilians are deliberately targeted. Things happen fast, in confusion, 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 Army colonel last year.
"This is not a matter of condoning 'war crimes,'" Peters said. "It's a matter of understanding the fundamental speed, confusion, terror, and eruptive violence of warfare. An army should be as moral as practical, but to me, war is by its very nature a fundamentally immoral act. So this is a matter of degrees, not absolutes."
But even he concedes that "the world of war is not a fully comprehensible, let alone a morally satisfactory, place."
One of the cases that has prompted renewed debate occurred during the first weeks of the Korean War.
As South Korean and U.S. forces staggered back under the impact of the North Korean invasion in 1950, American soldiers are said to have fired on and killed perhaps hundreds of South Korean civilian refugees gathered under a railway trestle near the village of No Gun Ri.
A detailed account by the Associated Press, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting, said many of the dead were women and children. The AP account quoted soldiers saying they opened fire on orders of their superiors. The report prompted the Pentagon, which had earlier denied rumors of the incident, to open a high-profile investigation.
The Army has declined, however, to pursue reports of another accusation. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in a lengthy report
Hersh said McCaffrey's men killed many Iraqis, including soldiers who had already surrendered, as well as civilians and children.
McCaffrey and others hotly deny the allegations, insisting they returned fire only after being attacked.
Many disputes over battlefield actions, like this one, pivot on the issue of "fairness."
The 1949 Geneva Conventions, which form a large part of the "laws of war" under which U.S. forces operate, specifically forbid attacks on civilians. The Hague Convention, also part of the laws of war, forbids "treacherous" attacks on enemy who have laid down their arms or who have no means of defense. International agreements also forbid the use of disproportionate force.
But successful combat leaders, from George S. Patton to Norman Schwarzkopf, have scoffed at the notion of waging a "fair" fight.
If soldiers are committed to battle, should they not intend to win?
"If the enemy is at a disadvantage, that is to your advantage. You're not looking for a fair fight," said Solis.
But Solis, who wrote a book about the 1970 court-martial of five Marines for the murder of 16 Vietnamese women and children, acknowledged the issue is not quite so clear-cut.
"It's an insoluble debate, but these are questions we have to address," he said. "There are no clear-cut answers in life and surely not in combat, and as we go on it's going to become more murky."
Still, military officers and others recognize that morality plays a critical, if poorly understood, role in combat performance.
"There is an aspect of courage which comes from a deep spiritual faith which, when prevalent in an Army unit, can result in uncommon toughness and tenacity in combat," Gen. Gordon Sullivan, who was Army chief of staff, wrote in a 1991 Army field manual.
Jonathan Shay, a Boston psychiatrist with long experience in working with Vietnam combat veterans, puts it the other way around. Combat veterans, he believes, can recover from the shock and horror of combat as long as their sense of moral purpose, their belief in "what's right," has not been violated by their own or their unit's behavior.
Soldiers who fight in sync with a moral code--"duty, honor, country"--are thus thought to be hardened against the psychological horrors of war.
On the first day of his class on war and ethics at West Point, Solis gives his cadets this problem to ponder: A crowd of civilians mixed with
"Boy, that is a tough one," said Solis, noting that it reflects the dilemma of the U.S. troops at No Gun Ri. "At the end of the course, I tell my students that there is no answer to that question, and they will have to answer it for themselves when the time comes."
In the end, perhaps, these issues cannot be resolved.
There is no neat, precise moral theory that can ease the acute dilemma of military commanders trying to balance their men's survival with consideration for the rights of enemy and civilians on the battlefield, Walzer observed.
"They can only prove their honor by accepting responsibility for [their] decisions and by living out the agony," he wrote.
As for those judging from the outside, "It is sometimes said we should draw a veil over the crimes that soldiers and statesmen cannot avoid. Or we should avert our eyes--for the sake of our innocence, I suppose.
"But that is dangerous business," Walzer concluded. "Having looked away, how will we know when to look back?"