When Lieutenant William Calley was found guilty of the killing of a village of innocent people at My Lai, he was seen by many on the left as the typical U.S. soldier in Vietnam–out of control, uncaring about civilians in a war zone and perhaps driven mad by the tension and brutality of combat.

Much later, Alexander Cockburn, then a columnist for The Nationmagazine, quoted journalist Ron Ridenhour, who was instrumental in bringing the massacre to light, as saying that the Calley trial showed the public an unsuspected heart of darkness in Vietnam: “A lot of Americans learned, a lot of middle-class people learned, ‘Gosh, these guys will do anything.’ I learned that. These [deleted] will do anything. There really are no limits.”

Apocalypse Now, the post-Vietnam movie with enough half-baked literary allusions to make it the perfect movie going experience for the half-educated, contains these epigrammatic words (uttered by a war-crazed American soldier: “S*#t… charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do?”)

I’ve resisted comparisons of the Iraq war to Vietnam. Nevertheless it is that popular image of the crazed Vietnam soldier that came to mind a few days ago when a damaging ethics survey on the military was released by the Pentagon, of all places. Yes, the Pentagon is reporting that our troops aren’t up to snuff morally. One of the findings was that fewer than half the Marines and slightly more than half U.S. Army soldiers said they would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian.

More than 40 percent of those surveyed said that torture would in some cases be justified to save the lives of fellow soldiers. One newspaper reported that the ethics of our troops in Iraq are “at variance” with the norms of the general population. This report was welcome ammo for the anti-war crowd, many of whom view war itself as immoral and corrupting, and, while there were genuinely disturbing findings (more on that in a second), I did not find one of the alleged shockers even remotely shocking.

Come on, do you really think that it would be immoral to torture somebody to save your buddy or buddies from certain death at the hands of a brutal and unprincipled enemy? I don’t. Our society as a whole has been too squeamish to engage in a calm discussion about torture–we’ve allowed the accusatory left to dominate this issue. But these young men and women on the front lines (you know, the ones who risk their live so we won’t have to) in a practical way engage the issue, and, I think, come out on the moral side.

Added to this is the question of what constitutes torture–is cuffing somebody torture? Making them stand too long in a cold room? I propose that considerably more than this is morally correct to save the lives of our soldiers. Most people do–they just flinch from talking about the matter. I am not, by the way, in favor of situational ethics. If I didn’t think a case could be made for these actions, I would side with the newspaper headline writer and grandly proclaim that these grunts in the field of combat have a moral system “at variance” from my own.

Quoted in a newspaper report, Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute had what–I consider a good answer: “I don’t want to, for a minute, second-guess the behavior of any person in the military– look at the kind of moral dilemma you are putting people in,” said Preble. “There’s a real tension between using too much force, which generally means using force to protect yourself, and using too little and therefore exposing yourself to greater risk.”

Soldiers and Marines are forced to make instant decisions. These are irrevocable moral decisions that will affect their own lives and perhaps take the life of another. Because of the underlying pacifist idea that war is intrinsically wrong, an idea that began to prevail starting in the 1920s, many in our society tend to regard all military actions as inherently suspect, all killing, even of an enemy, as murder. With these attitudes, and without an appreciation of a military code of ethics that must be honorable, we have a hard time with these issues.

Mostly, we simply refuse to talk about them-as we do with torture, which is only broached in hysterical tones. Without debates about these issues, the media, which loves snitches (they are called sources), then becomes our arbiter of morality. We also refuse to acknowledge that the great radical feminist triumph–putting women close to the front lines, where they can be killed or maimed–mentally breaks down the barrier between civilians and fighters.

The rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl by U.S. Marines and the abuses at Abu Ghraib are instances that should, without question, have been reported. For the notion that a soldier’s killing a civilian should not be reported, there is no defense. But the rest of the report did little to convince me that our military personnel in Iraq are descendants of Lt. Calley or the fictional fighters in Apocalypse Now. In fact, only ten percent said that they had behaved abusively towards an Iraqi civilian. This is not perfect but it is a far cry from a military composed of murderers.

Charlotte Hays is senior editor at the Independent Women’s Forum.