403 Forbidden

Nine Moons » Blog Archive : To Shoot, Perchance to Kill » To Shoot, Perchance to Kill

To Shoot, Perchance to Kill

David - August 2, 2010

When I was a kid, I had an LDS friend whose grandfather served during World War I and had, for a while, been assigned to the firing squad. He would brag to me (more than once) that he was proud to say he never killed a man while on that duty. When the command was given to “Aim!” he’d point his rifle slightly to the side of the prisoner, so when it was time to “Fire!” he’d always miss. Of course, others in the squad would aim accurately and kill the man, but the grandfather’s conscience was clear. He said he knew the feel of a live round, and he wasn’t about to find out after the fact if he had one. He was pretty tickled, too, about how he had fooled the army. Unfortunately, when he confessed it to his bishop, it cost him his recommend (dishonesty, disobedience, dishonor, something like that) and got him a major tongue-lashing. He never regretted his choice, though and, of course, he did eventually get another recommend.

Personally, I can’t see the Lord agreeing with the bishop on this one.


  1. Too bad we can’t run this story through snopes.com. It sounds like a fairy tale.

    First, what were the questions in the recommend interview back in 1925? I remember a time when the “honest in your dealings with your fellow man” was not in the interview. And I can’t believe that “Did you aim straight when you served in the firing squad?” was one of the questions back then.

    Second, why would anyone feel that this was a matter that had to be confessed to the bishop? What next? Confess that you didn’t stand up straight when the drill sergeant said “Ten-hut!”?

    Comment by Mark B. — August 2, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

  2. I would never tell the bishop such a story, as it is none of his business.

    Comment by Dan — August 2, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

  3. Mark B.,

    No, no fairy tale. He was a cool old guy. But I think you need to read the story again. I didn’t say he confessed during a recommend interview, I said it cost him his recommend. It’s been about 38 years, but the impression I remember was he went to the bishop to talk about the deception. Oh, and WWI was 1914-1918; the U.S. was involved from 1917-1918.


    I think everyone reacts differently. Me, I can’t even come close to imagine what it would feel like to be ordered to execute someone. Faced with the conflict of respecting authority and cherishing life, I could see someone might feel the need to vocalize it.

    Comment by David — August 2, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

  4. It seems counterproductive to assign people to the firing squad who have an objection to killing under orders. For that matter, a guy like that should probably just be on permanent KP.

    Still, I think after the fact it’s a little silly to take his recommend. But that could have been a reaction to the fact that he appeared to be proud of his actions, which were clearly nothing to brag about.

    Faced with the conflict of respecting authority and cherishing life, I could see someone might feel the need to vocalize it.

    But you said he didn’t vocalize it. He just intentionally missed and cravenly kept silent about his objections. If he had voiced his objections and said he was morally opposed to killing and took his lumps for it, that would be brave and commendable. As it is, he was just a passive-aggressive coward.

    Comment by MCQ — August 3, 2010 @ 1:32 am

  5. MCQ,
    Why should he have voiced his concerns and taken his lumps? Chances are he was drafted into the military (according to this, about 3/4 of the army was drafted in WWI). So chances are he wasn’t there at his own desire in the first place.

    And even if he was, it doesn’t sound like he volunteered to be on the firing squad. Although I’ve never been in the military or on a firing squad, it seems to e to be a significantly different thing to shoot at someone who is shooting at you and to execute somebody who is standing there.

    I would agree that it would have been a cowardly passive-aggressive thing to do if he had volunteered to be on the firing squad or if he had volunteered to be in the military and it was reasonably foreseeable at that point that he would be on a firing squad. But I don’t see anything in the OP that suggests it was.

    As it was, he was probably an 18-year-old kid trying to make it in a place he didn’t intend to be and trying to hold onto his humanity. And taking his recommend for that is totally absurd (although who knows if that’s the whole story of the loss of his recommend). There is certainly no reason for him not to be proud of his objection, whether voiced or unvoiced, and no reason he should have aimed for the prisoner.

    Comment by Sam B. — August 3, 2010 @ 4:21 am

  6. I know quite well when World War I started, and ended, David. But thanks for the primer.

    1925 was just a random post-war date–would you have preferred that I randomly pick 1919? With the armistice effective at 11:00 on November 11, there would hardly have been time for him to be discharged and get home and be stripped of his temple recommend in the remaining seven weeks of 1918.

    With Sam B, I think we’re not hearing the whole story.

    The original post seems to suggest that his firing squad duty might have been a regular thing. I’ve found one online source (without footnotes, so I have no idea if it’s trustworthy) that says the U.S. executed 10 soldiers during World War I. The Canadians executed 23.

    The British seem to have dispatched about 350 men during the period 1914 to 1920–I suppose, David, that the executions after 11/11/1918 were for offenses committed during the war, and not because the Brits didn’t know that the war had ended.

    So, what are the odds that this guy was involved in one execution, much less more than one as seems to be implied in your original post? If his telling of the story implied that this happened more than once, I find it even less believable.

    (Or maybe the guy was in the British army.)

    Comment by Mark B. — August 3, 2010 @ 5:26 am

  7. Mark B. has a point about being assigned to the firing squad “for a while,” as though it were a standing body ready for all the slackers who had to be shot on any given day. The story needs to be tightened up. “When I was a kid, I had an LDS friend whose grandfather served during World War I and had once been assigned to a firing squad.”

    Comment by John Mansfield — August 3, 2010 @ 6:02 am

  8. Bishops hear all kinds of things. I have a relative who served as a bishop who told me that a convert had come in and confessed all kinds of war crimes as a Green Beret during Vietnam. The guy had even been a mercenary during the Rhodesian bush war and had killed a attacker in self defense with a knife in a street fight in a major US city.

    He was not a mental guy making things up either he wanted to know if his baptism could really wash these types of sins away. He had lots of medals from Vietnam and had really served there in SOG

    Comment by bbell — August 3, 2010 @ 6:16 am

  9. It sounds fishy to me as well and I certainly don’t think a person should lose their recommend. BUT, if I were in a foxhole with a guy and I found out he was doing that, I’d be tempted to shoot him myself. How on earth could he be proud of risking his friends’ lives? The truly honorable thing would have been to hold up his hands and walk out onto the battlefield unarmed and find out for himself how many of the enemy were pacifists like himself.

    Comment by annegb — August 3, 2010 @ 7:09 am

  10. Oh I totally missed the point. Sorry! I’m a moron. Different situation. I would have done the same thing and told the bishop to stick it. Although it’s a crappy thing to put on his fellows.

    Comment by annegb — August 3, 2010 @ 7:11 am

  11. I think you have to have been from those years in the pass as people thought very differently. Around the early 1900 thru 1945 serving in the military for your country was very importent and ones duty. So to be questioned about honor would not have been out of place. We might think that this is odd but for the times with patriotism running high and all that I can understand the issue of honesty in question. Today we won’t approach the subject since most deaths end by other means except Utah. But we may talk about the right behavour in battle and maybe some moral issues during those trying times.

    Comment by Mex Davis — August 3, 2010 @ 7:35 am

  12. Waxing Kantian for a moment and applying the Categorical Imperative, imagine if all the men on the firing squad had done the same thing! That would have been a pretty interesting scene, actually, the accused looking around AFTER the guns went off, thinking, “what the heck?!? I’m still here?”(though he’d probably think in stronger language. I know I would).

    Sounds like it would have made a good Monty Python skit!

    Comment by Jordan F. — August 3, 2010 @ 7:40 am

  13. It’s possible I would have done the same thing, but I certainly wouldn’t have bragged about it on multiple occasions. For me, it would have been a private psychological act, not an occasion to earn moral capital I could brag about later.

    Comment by Syphax — August 3, 2010 @ 8:25 am

  14. There is some evidence that your acquaintance was not along is his reluctance to kill, even while simulating it. While there is considerable debate about numbers and percentages, evidence indicates that many soldiers in combat do not fire their arms at all and that those who do may fire intentionally away from or above the enemy. Psychologists theorize that this is because human beings have in us an aversion to killing that is difficult to overcome, even in combat. One of the seminal books on the subject is David Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

    Comment by DavidH — August 3, 2010 @ 10:46 am

  15. A link to some of the debate about Grossman’s arguments that a large number or even majority of soldiers decline to kill. http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=536561

    Comment by DavidH — August 3, 2010 @ 10:48 am

  16. Isn’t that a paid job?

    I understand the lack of desire to kill a person – but it’s a job, a responsibility of employment. Isn’t it?

    Comment by danithew — August 3, 2010 @ 11:32 am

  17. Okay – I’m at work and didn’t read this too closely. He’s a drafted soldier. Forget I asked.

    Comment by danithew — August 3, 2010 @ 11:33 am

  18. Syphax,
    I suspect that his reasons for bragging about it were different than his reasons for doing it. Specifically, many war stories I’ve heard (generally from WWII vets, not WWI) are almost trickster stories. That is, they focus on how the soldier managed to stick it to the man. (My favorite: the marine who said that, while he was on Guam waiting deployment, soldiers were given a number of chits. They got like 2 that were good for beers and a lot more good for soda. The idea was to keep soldiers on Guam from getting drunk and doing dumb things. So what did they do (according to my interlocutor)? They played poker, and whoever won got everybody’s beer chits.)

    By telling the story, then, he’s not boasting about what a moral person he is. Instead, he’s telling why, even though his body was essentially owned by the U.S. Army, his actions were his own, and he could subtly undermine the power of the Army. (I see these same I’ve-got-the-power stories from one of my grandmothers and one of my grandmother-in-laws.)

    Of course, I don’t know the guy, and don’t know the spirit he told the stories in. But WWII vets (and presumably WWI vets) were famously reticent to open up about their experiences in the war, and I’d be surprised to hear this guy was doing that.

    Again, I have little to know doubt that, at the time, he didn’t shoot to kill in order to preserve his moral sense of himself (assuming, of course, that he ever was on a firing squad, etc., etc.). But in the abstract, I really doubt that’s why he told the story later in life.

    Comment by Sam B. — August 3, 2010 @ 11:43 am

  19. Why should he have voiced his concerns and taken his lumps?

    Sam, because it’s the moral, honest and courageous thing to do. Last I checked, those were ideals we sought to live by. I’m not saying that doing so would be the easy way to go, but the easy way is not necessarily the right way, even in the army. Intentionally missing a target that you were commanded to shoot is insubordinate, dishonest, immoral and illegal. But hey, you go ahead and celebrate it if you want, Sam.

    There is certainly no reason for him not to be proud of his objection, whether voiced or unvoiced, and no reason he should have aimed for the prisoner.

    Are you kidding me? No reason? You can think of no reason at all for him to have done as he was commanded to do as a soldier in the army? And no reason for him not to be proud of being disobedient and dishonest?

    Remind me never to go into battle with you, Sam.

    Comment by MCQ — August 3, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

  20. MCQ,
    No worries about that; I have no intention of ever going into battle. I’m too old and ornery for them to want me, in any event.

    His taking his lumps would certainly by the courageous thing to do. (Other adjectives, like “stupid,” might also apply.) I’m not sure, though, why you think it is either the moral or the honest thing to do. I suppose it would be the moral thing for him to vocally object if the execution itself violated law. And I suppose it would be the honest thing to do if somebody asked him if he’d aimed for the heart. But if it were a proper execution and nobody asked, why is what he did immoral or dishonest?

    Moreover, I don’t buy the idea that a soldier is obligated to obey orders at all costs. The ability to choose, in spite of what others (including military superiors) tell him to do is part of his moral formation. I realize that the military doesn’t want him to become fully moral in that way while he’s in the military, but I don’t frankly care what the military wants.

    Note that my view changes if he voluntarily got on the firing squad or he voluntarily joined the military knowing there was a not-negligible change he’d be in a firing squad. If he went into it knowing what he’d be required to do and then silently refused, that strikes me as immoral (or at least bad) behavior.

    Comment by Sam B. — August 3, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

  21. But if it were a proper execution and nobody asked, why is what he did immoral or dishonest?

    I can’t believe I acually have to explain this, but ok, here goes:

    In the army, or other military unit, you are required to follow oders. If you cannot follow a command because you believe it is morally wrong or improper or you just object to it, you have a responsibility to say so so that the officer can correct the command or get someone else to do it. Otherwise, vital military commands may not be carried out and military discipline breaks down and the entire mission of the unit is threatened.

    This is a potentially very dangerous thing. Especially in combat situations. But let’s take the example of the firing squad and point out the obvious thing that someone else has already pointed out: if everyone does what this soldier did, no one hits the target and a person who was ordered executed lives. Do you think that’s the proper outcome? Do you think it’s appropriate for individual soldiers to decide when and if they are going to follow orders and hit the target? Do you think that’s even a good thing for the poor prisoner, who lives through the first firing squad and now has to be put in front of another one? Is that a very humane thing? Or would it be more humane to just do your job and end the prisoner’s life and not prolong the execution unnecessarily?

    Keep in mind that this soldier wasn’t saying that he objected to the firing squad. He wasn’t saying that the prisoner did not deserve to die. He just didn’t want to do his job. He didn’t want to be the person to do the actual killing. He wanted to keep his hands clean. So he made others do the dirty work while he technically kept his hands clean, but kept silent about it, so others would think he was actually doing his job. That’s dishonest, Sam. No matter how you slice it, it’s lying.

    It’s also illegal to disobey a direct order unless you think the order itself is somehow illegal, and then you have an obligation to say so, so that the officer can sort out the objection and decide if the oder is illegal or get someone else to carry out the order.

    Your situational ethics are frankly ridiculous. It mastters not one bit whether the soldier volunteered or was drafted. Once you are in the military, you obey orders, or you get the hell out. Otherwise, you are endangering yourself and your unit. It is the officer’s responsibility to decide what gets done. It is the soldier’s responsibility to do it. There are, of course (as I already stated), exceptions to that in the case of illegal orders, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

    Comment by MCQ — August 3, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

  22. MCQ,
    I wrote a long response, but it wasn’t really cogent, and I’d rather head home from work than edit it so it makes sense. So, summarized, here’s what I would say:

    I disagree. There is a huge difference between getting into something voluntarily and being drafted. And I’m not military, so I see no reason to take seriously the idea that orders from a superior carry a normative weight that cannot be refused. You clearly disagree. I don’t find your arguments compelling, and you clearly don’t find mine compelling. So the only thing left for me to say is, dude was telling a story, and I don’t buy that it was a moral self-aggrandizement story. I think it was probably a self-mythologizing story.

    But whatever.

    Comment by Sam B. — August 3, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  23. Sam, that you’re not military goes without saying, but neither am I.

    Those of us who are not in the military, however, can still understand some military principles. One of those is military discipline, which requires that orders be followed, with rare exceptions.

    But the fact that he didn’t follow the order he was given is not the worst part, for me. I think it’s much worse that he hid that fact. That’s deceptive and wrong whether you’re in the military or not.

    Imagine that you’re in a workplace. Your boss gives you a job to do. You don’t like the job and have moral objections to it, but instead of voicing those objections, you just pretend to do the job, while in reality you intentionally make sure that your part of the job does not get done.

    Then later you brag about the fact that you didn’t do your job and made others pick up the slack for you.

    Still think there’s nothing dishonest or immoral going on here? Still think there’s something to be proud of in this behavior?

    Comment by MCQ — August 3, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  24. If the OP is accurate, there may indeed be some vexing moral dilemmas at play here. However, one thing at least is very clear:

    That Bishop? What a t**t.

    Comment by Latter-day Guy — August 3, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

  25. toot?

    I can’t think what it is you’re calling him.

    Comment by MCQ — August 3, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

  26. See definition #3.

    Comment by Latter-day Guy — August 3, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

  27. Ah, forgot about that one.

    LdG, I agree that the bishop probably overreacted, but if the guy was bragging about this behavior, it seems extreme to start calling him names over trying to get the guy to realize that his actions were wrong.

    Comment by MCQ — August 3, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

  28. Well, I agree that there may be some fraught moral issues here, but the case is clearly not cut and dried. The ambiguity (how do we balance duty and one’s personal convictions about the sanctity of life?), the time that had passed (I got the sense from the OP that it was years after the fact), and the fact that wartime involves suspending to some degree our normal categories of ethical behavior. It is one thing to say that we kill men for the sake of a greater good, but it is a very different matter to look down your gun sights at that particular man and believe that your putting a chunk of metal in him is going to make the world a better place. This effect is enhanced when the guy is unarmed and restrained, and is likely facing execution for something that normally would not merit a punishment anywhere near so severe.

    Given all those factors, I think the bishop was exercising unrighteous dominion.

    (In the interest of full disclosure, I am probably a bit oversensitive on this issue, having seen several people I’m close to subjected to Church discipline without any justifiable cause. That is not to say that the discipline was an overreaction to minor sins, but that their “sins” weren’t actually sins at all. “Behavior unbecoming a Latter-day Saint” is an extremely convenient category if you’re a priesthood leader with a god complex or an axe to grind. Eventually––years later––GAs got involved and rectified the situation, but ever since then, anytime somebody uses the phrase “Judge in Israel” as some kind of honorific, I want to blow raspberries at the pulpit.)

    Comment by Latter-day Guy — August 3, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

  29. Whoa. It’s going to be ok, man.

    Comment by MCQ — August 3, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

  30. Heh, I suppose I ought to have included a winking emoticon at the end there. All I meant by that last bit is that now I am much more comfortable subjecting a leader’s statements/behavior/decisions to critical evaluation, as opposed to treating them as some sort of protected category due to the position of whoever said/did/decided it. It’s probably a good thing for me––my expectations are much lower! ;-)

    Comment by Latter-day Guy — August 3, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

  31. While we are at it, we could look at the actual offenses for which the firing squad was implemented in that time period and ask what we would have done in the same situation.

    Would you refuse to pull the trigger on the execution of someone convicted of rape/murder (a common combination)?

    What about when the French decided to execute some men for cowardice in order to stiffen up the rest and the men picked for conviction and execution were not necessarily guilty of anything but being in the wrong unit in the French military?

    A lot going on there.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — August 6, 2010 @ 8:33 am

  32. What if they were simply prisoners of war? Everyone seems to be assuming they were fellow soldiers convicted of some kind of misdeeds, but enemy combatants were captured and executed all the time.

    Comment by MCQ — August 6, 2010 @ 9:05 am

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI