“Marines don’t do that.”, a U.S. Marine Corp. officer is alleged to have said to another soldier during the Vietnam war, as that other soldier was about to kill a non-combatant, presumably out of frustration or as revenge for a loss he took personally or maybe just for fun.
In the anecdote, the would-be war criminal backs off. But lets examine this story with some psychological context. We have probably made some assumptions:
1. We have probably assumed the officer to be motivated by humanitarian concern.
2. We have probably assumed the other soldier to be motivated by anguish or some other mitigating psychological state. That is, we have assumed the other soldier was NOT evil.
3. We may have assumed the non-combatant didn’t deserve to die.
4. We very likely assumed the non-combatant was Vietnamese.
I’ll stop right there, as there is not a finite number of assumptions that could be made, it could take a long time to state them all.
The 1st and 2nd assumption’s have another assumption underlying them: Soldiers are good. After all, a good person would try to stop a (war) crime from happening. A good person would NOT kill a non-combative person intentionally.
There are other assumptions we could make as to the character of the two Marines that would have us interpret the scene coherently, but “Soldiers are good.” works pretty damn well . . . but, are soldiers good? What if someone acting in a soldier capacity suddenly or not so suddenly started being bad?
“Marines don’t do that.
You are a Marine.
Therefore, you do not do that.”
Underneath all the pomp and circumstance of soldiers and Marines and HONOR! lies a syllogism. The fact of it poses a simple dilemma. You can be a Marine or you can commit a war crime.
It is telling that the officer did not say:
Good people don’t do that.
Americans don’t do that.
Men don’t don’t do that. etc.
The war was presumably to repel communist aggression. Why didn’t he say “Soldiers of capitalism (or freedom or democracy or peace) don’t do that”? Most telling is that the officer did not say: “Christians don’t do that.”? The other soldier is presumably a Christian of some denomination, being that he’s an American in the 60’s or 70’s. And, it isn’t any sort of assumption to say that Christians are supposed to do good.
What we can infer is that “Marines don’t do that” is NOT an appeal to good. It is an appeal to ego, to vanity. It isn’t that the other soldier wants to be good, it is that the other soldier wants to be thought of as a Marine. The title of “Marine” is a prize. It’s cost is doing some abstract thing called “good”, which in this particular instance translates into the concrete action of not murdering someone. The other soldier must weigh the value of the title of “Marine” (along with all the other titles and privileges he might also lose) against the temptation to murder. But what if he didn’t care about being a Marine? And, for that matter, what if he didn’t care about being an American or a man or a citizen of democracy or a liberator or a citizen of capitalism or a Christian, etc.?
Each identity comes with a set of rules of behavior, an ethical framework, a code. Warriors, such as Marines in the anecdote, have a code. They do not intentionally kill non-combatants. Doctors have a code. Do no harm. Clergymen, police, judges have codes. But, really, any identity an individual might assume comes with a code.
In the anecdote, the officer could have appealed to virtues such as temperance or mercy. Instead, he appealed to vanity. He didn’t say, “You want to do good, don’t you?”. He said, “You want the title of ‘Marine’, don’t you?”.
From this we can infer that for a significant portion of people, some of them Marines, their ego, their pride, is more important than their goodness. If we want them to be “good”, we call them American or Christian or Marine. If we want them to do otherwise, maybe all we have to do is call them something else.