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International Journal of Applied Philosophy

Volume 16, Issue 2, Fall 2002

Jan Narveson
Pages 153-162

Kerrey and Calley
What Is the Moral Difference?

In the Vietnam war, Lieutenant Calley, claiming to be following orders, ordered the killing of several hundred women, children, and elderly people in the village of My Lai. In 1969, Lieutenant (later Senator) Kerrey led a small group of SEALs in the dead of night on a dangerous military venture. In course, a dozen or so innocent villagers were either shot in crossfire or killed intentionally because there seemed a real chance that they would inform the enemy, endangering themselves and the mission. I argue that Calley was clearly not justified and that Kerrey, given the circumstances, may have been. More generally, I argue that all soldiers at all ranks must be expected to act decently, with as much regard to the distinction of civilian/combatant as circumstances permit. That one is following superiors’ orders is never sufficient, of itself, to justify what would otherwise be grossly evil acts.