Moral Courage at Abu Ghraib

The first court-martial of an American soldier responsible for abuse at Abu Ghraib prison might not even have taken place Wednesday, were it not for the moral courage of Army Reserve Spc. Joseph Darby.

Specialist Darby, after seeing photographs of naked Iraqis, tipped off military investigators in January, setting off a chain reaction that resulted in Wednesday's maximum sentence for Spc. Jeremy Sivits, who photographed the naked prisoners. Darby's initial communication was anonymous, slipped under a door. But he later came forward, testifying that he thought the treatment of Iraqi prisoners was "very wrong."

Combat courage is what comes to mind when one thinks of bravery and war. Those acts are rewarded with Purple Hearts, and the recognition of peers. Moral courage is different. It requires a person to take a stand for principle, usually against the current of group dynamics, and to be willing to endure ridicule, resentment, and other negative consequences that might result from sticking up for one's values.

That ridicule characterizes the sentiment in Darby's town of Corriganville, in the Allegheny mountains of western Maryland. There, according to a report in the Washington Post, he's been called "a rat" for turning on his colleagues, and is even considered responsible for the death of Nicholas Berg, the American civilian in Iraq who was recently beheaded by terrorists. Darby's family is worried for his safety, perhaps a rational fear given that the mechanic reservist is on leave in the US and his home region is studded with families with someone in the military.

Moral courage derives its strength from the ability to not just have values, but to practice and live them. When values get turned into action, mountains can be moved. Luminaries such as Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel have proven that, but so have everyday individuals like Darby, as well as three soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison who actually refused to go along with the abuse, or tried to stop it, despite the threat of ridicule and court-martial.

Moral courage has its place in war, right alongside bravery in battle. Remember Hugh Thompson, who reported to his commanders what later became known as the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.

But courage obviously has a place outside the theater of war, too. In this era of creature comforts, Americans face few physical demands (we shop for groceries on the Internet, not grow them on a homestead) - let alone demands for physical courage. But as Enron and other scandals prove, our complex society provides ample opportunity for moral courage. May there be many more Darbys among us.

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