I’ve taken some time off from posting because of our move, a writing deadline, and the beginning of spring semester. In addition to teaching history I’m also serving as an instructor for an ethics course called Ethics and Moral Reasoning for the Naval Leader. Last week we discussed constitutional ethics and I was a little dismayed to find out that the vast majority of my students, who all swore an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, had never even read it. It’s hard for me to be too judgmental. In almost eighteen years as a naval officer I have never had a training session on our nation’s foundational law, even though we have annual training for things as banal as computer security. I have read the Constitution, several times. But the experience with my midshipmen in class reminds me that there may be other important documents that we should know but don’t.
It reminds me of John Kerry’s 1971 debate with John O’Neill on the Dick Cavett Show during the Vietnam War. (I was far too young to watch it or care if I had, but I saw a re-run many years after the fact.) Kerry was a Vietnam War veteran who came to oppose the war. O’Neill was a Vietnam War vet recruited by the Nixon administration to serve as a counterfoil to Kerry. The high point of the debate came in the following exchange.
Kerry asks O’Neill, “Did you serve in a free fire zone?”
“I certainly did serve in a free fire zone,” O’Neill replies.
Kerry then reads, “Free fire zone, in which we kill anything that moves—man, woman or child. This practice suspends the distinction between combatant and non-combatant and contravenes Geneva Convention Article 3.1.”
O’Neill asks, “Where is that from, John?”
Deadpan, Kerry replies, “Geneva Conventions. You’ve heard about the Geneva Conventions.” Ouch!
Now, I have to admit something. In almost eighteen years as a naval officer, including a combat tour in Iraq, I’ve never read or been asked to read the Geneva Conventions. I’m reading them now. Good stuff.
It’s not that I didn’t know the Geneva Conventions were important or have an idea of what’s in them; it’s just, well, who has the time? It’s like that with many Christians and the Bible. We know it’s an important book. There’s good stuff in there, but who has time to actually read it?