“Duty” above “Ethics”
A Look Inside the Thinking Behind the Latest Book Larry Nicholl is Writing
“[Good-bye] to officers who put ‘duty’ above ‘ethics,’ and to the troops who regularly complained that the Army’s Rules of Engagement were too strict—as if more brutality, bombing and firepower (with less concern for civilians) would have brought victory instead of stalemate.”
Words of Major Danny Sjursen, West Point graduate, who retired in 2018, after 18 years in the Army and 11 deployments, often to war zones. Words very unusual for a multi-medalist soldier who was teaching history at West Point. He had become a disillusioned pacifist after what he saw in his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan—and he gave up his once-promising career, in order to speak out.
But what if instead of Major Sjursen, Danny had been Major General Sjursen; and he had been serving in the Confederate Army during the Civil War? In all wars, there is a handful of soldiers—including high officers—who come to question what they are doing and what they are fighting for.
What if Major General Sjursen—a classmate of Robert E. Lee at West Point—had accompanied Lee to Washington before the war started and had listened to Lee’s explanation to Lincoln for not accepting command of the Union Army: “Duty, Sir. … It is my duty to Virginia.” … The question of ethics—the ethics of slavery—was never an issue for Lee.
What if Major General Sjursen had been at Gettysburg in 1863 under General Robert E. Lee, and as a result of what he saw there, came to recognize the senselessness of the slaughter for both sides? … With no end in sight.
What if Sjursen had been serving in the Army of Northern Virginia from the time Lee took command in 1862, and through the Siege of Petersburg in 1864-1865? Then in March 1865, after that Army’s final offensive action—and failure—in the Battle of Fort Stedman near Petersburg, Major General Sjursen—after sending a sealed letter of resignation to Lee—had surrendered.
Sjursen had become totally disillusioned. His life-long friend Lee was determined to break out of the Petersburg Siege, link up with the Confederate army in North Carolina under General Johnston, jointly defeat Sherman, and then go after Grant. And fight on and on … endlessly.
“Insanity!” Sjursen thought to himself, not daring to confront Lee. “I’m not sorry to leave behind the absurdity I witnessed.”
When taken to President Lincoln, who happened to be near Fort Stedman observing the Siege of Petersburg, my fictitious Major General Sjursen explained to Lincoln why he had surrendered:
“Maybe it’s hopeless for a former [Major General] to fight [both Southern and Union] militarism. Still, I plan to keep attacking in that lost cause. … I plan to keep explaining that we are engaged in Orwellian forever wars that professional foot soldiers make possible. …”
The real Major Danny Sjursen entitled his essay in the L.A. Times (March 31, 2019): “I was an obsequious Army grunt. But no longer.” This essay would serve as a perfect foreword to my coming novel: Colleen and the Statue—A Soldier’s Redemption.
The real Major Sjursen offers no solutions in his essay. He is proud to have become a pacifist and is proud to be speaking up against unbridled militarism. But he is hurting—undergoing treatment for PTSD, and he wonders: “I wonder whether something resembling an apology, rather than a statement of pride in who I’ve become, is the more appropriate valediction.”
The soldier in my coming novel is not unlike Major Sjursen. But my fictitious soldier faces directly the issue of “duty” versus “ethics.” He did his duty and valiantly served in the Confederate Army, but he came to see that he was in the wrong army and was fighting for the wrong cause. What can he do to redeem himself for this ethical failure? That is the underlying issue for the novel. … I plan to send a copy to Major Sjursen (retired).