Support Our Troops – or Judge Them?

KING HENRY V [disguised as a fellow soldier]

I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s minds: methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.


That’s more than we know.


Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the king’s subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.

(From Henry V by William Shakespeare, Act IV, Scene I)

Many people on both sides of the Iraq war debate claim that they "support our troops." Few people specify what they mean by that. There’s an obvious sense in which we all support our troops – we are taxed quite heavily to pay, house, clothe, feed, and arm them. But that’s not what most people mean. What do they mean?

The pro-war side seems to mean that they applaud our troops as long as the troops are doing what President Bush wants them to do. Many of the anti-war side seem to mean that they support our troops by wanting them to come home safely. And there’s something to the anti-war side’s meaning. Wanting someone to live instead of being killed surely counts as support, doesn’t it?

While I also want our troops to come home safely, "Support our Troops" is too vague and too much of a blank check. I think it can be honed, and here’s my suggested edit: Judge our troops, and support them, or not, on the basis of your judgment.

In any large group, some people will do good things and some will do bad things. Even within the group doing bad things, some will do it with relish and others will do it reluctantly. Wal-Mart workers make up a large group, but no one says, "Support Our Wal-Mart Workers." Most of them probably are good, while some are bad and some are in between. But any reasonable person, if asked to support Wal-Mart workers, would choose to judge their actions as individuals and would not buy into supporting the entire group without reservation.

Similarly, the military is a large group of people. It has many good people, some evil people, and a fair number in between. How can it make sense to support them all? I remember when I first showed up to teach at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in August 1984. I had a mildly anti-military bias and I wondered how I would get along. I soon figured out that the military is a lot like any other organization. I learned quickly that there were many people in the military whom I liked intensely – some of them I came to love and still love. There were a few to whom I was indifferent and a very few whom I disliked.

So the idea of opposing a whole group of people just based on the publicized bad actions of a few, which I had been doing implicitly before arriving at NPS, made no sense to me. But the opposite idea – judging a whole group well because some people in the group have outstanding moral character – makes no sense either. We need to judge people individually. My main criterion for judging someone is that person’s degree of integrity. Does he take responsibility for his actions? Does he lie, cheat, or steal?

Thus the above quote from William Shakespeare’s Henry V. After Williams says that he doesn’t know enough to judge whether Henry V’s cause is just or his quarrel is honorable, Bates says that Williams, Bates, and other soldiers don’t need to know. Bates argues that simply obeying the king is good enough; even if his cause is unjust and his quarrel is dishonorable, believes Bates, the fact of the soldiers’ obedience to the king makes them blameless.

In other words, Bates thinks he is not accountable for his actions. But I disagree. He and other soldiers are accountable. There may be situations in which they feel the need to follow what they regard as immoral orders. Even there, that does not absolve them of responsibility. There are degrees here: there are many conceivable situations where I could disapprove of the action but think relatively well of the soldier because he does something wrong due to extreme pressure – such as a threat of a court-martial.

But there are also clear-cut situations where the soldier or sailor can speak up against an immoral act or order without risking a court-martial, where the main risk is that of not being promoted. In such a case, I would judge him negatively if he didn’t speak out. One of the lines you often hear from people is, "You’ve got to pick your battles." This is true. But, as one of my more-outspoken military students once put it, "The problem with some people who say you must pick your battles is that they are unwilling to pick any battles."

Which brings me to a military man who did pick his battle and, because of his heroism in picking it, deserves our support. That man is Morris Davis, who retired as a Colonel in the Air Force in October 2007 over the use of torture to extract information to be used at trial. Davis was the chief prosecutor at the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In an impassioned op-ed in the New York Times (February 17), former Colonel Davis wrote:

"My policy as the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo was that evidence derived through waterboarding was off-limits. That should still be our policy. To do otherwise is not only an affront to American justice, it will potentially put prosecutors at risk for using illegally obtained evidence.

"Unfortunately, I was overruled on the question, and I resigned my position to call attention to the issue – efforts that were hampered by my being placed under a gag rule and ordered not to testify at a Senate hearing. While some high-level military and civilian officials have rightly expressed indignation on the issue, the current state can be described generally as indifference and inaction."

Former Colonel Davis has said that he will testify as a defense witness in the trial of Osama bin Laden’s driver, who has been detained at Guantánamo since 2002. Davis alleges that Pentagon general counsel William Haynes said in August 2005 that any acquittals of terrorism suspects at Guantánamo would make the U.S. look bad by making the proceedings look unfair. And what was Haynes’s response? According to Davis, Haynes said, "We can’t have acquittals, we’ve got to have convictions."

Colonel Davis is not alone in his campaign against injustice. In 2006, three high-level officers from Guantánamo Bay came to the Naval Postgraduate School to give a talk on the need for Guantánamo. I went there prepared to ask some tough questions. I didn’t need to. U.S. military officers did the job quite nicely. They were respectful and polite, as they are trained to be. But they challenged the legitimacy of Gitmo all the same. Their concerns were about the legal legitimacy of having prisoners of war who were not treated as prisoners of war. Had they known then about the waterboarding going on at Gitmo, they would probably have been even more outspoken. Officers like that deserve our support on those issues also. So judge the troops and, on that basis, support those who deserve our support.

Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at