The DIGNITY Series: War Stories

by Editors

This is the fifth of a 10-part series examining the loss and possible recapture of dignity in our public lives and political discourse. (Read the series from the beginning here.)


By Stanley Baran

5. War Stories: Knowing Dignity When We See It and When We Don’t

Physicians regularly debate the value of dignity as a guide for their work, often with little success. American medical ethicist Ruth Macklin, in an essay entitled “Dignity is a Useless Concept,” argued “in the absence of criteria that can enable us to know just when dignity is violated, the concept remains hopelessly vague.” Dignity, she concluded, “is nothing more than a capacity for rational thought and action.” Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the British medical journal The Lancet, reached for a more instructive definition by combining the ideas of two philosophers, the eighteenth century’s Immanuel Kant and the nineteenth century’s Thomas Hill. Horton produced an argument for the I-Thou definition of dignity, writing, “Kant identified dignity as the absolute inner worth of a person, ‘by which he exacts respect for himself from all other rational beings in the world.’ Dignity and self-respect were instruments for asserting the equality of each person. . .Human dignity is an unconditional and incalculable value, admitting no trade-offs. Hill argues that the choices we make should be decided upon according to the view that no one is a mere means, that human dignity is priceless, and that our decisions can and must be made on the basis of mutual respect, seeing every human being as a source of value.” Nonetheless, Horton eventually had to admit defeat, conceding, “Human dignity is a linguistic currency that will buy a basketful of extraordinary meanings. It is not surprising, perhaps, that some critics describe dignity as a meaningless slogan.”

Still, one solution to defining dignity might reside in Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s strategy for evaluating sexual media content: “I may not be able to come up with a definition of pornography, but I certainly know it when I see it.” So it may be with dignity—difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. We preserve the stories of Joan of Arc, Sir Thomas More, Anne Frank, and Oskar Schindler because they define for us lives lived in dignity. But can dignity be demonstrated only in extraordinary times and circumstances (the Hundred Years War, Henry VIII’s break from the Catholic Church, World War II and the Holocaust)? Thurber believed so. “That which is only sporadically realized can scarcely be called a characteristic,” he wrote. “It is impossible to think of it as innate; it could never be defined as normal. Nothing is more depressing than the realization that nobility, courage, mercy, and almost all the other virtues which go to make up the ideal of Human Dignity are, at their clearest and realist, the outgrowth of Man’s inhumanity to Man, the fruit of his unending interspecific struggle. The pattern is easily traceable, from Christ to Cavell.” The story of Jesus Christ, divine proponent of the I-Thou life (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” both from the Book of Matthew; “That which you do unto the least of mine you do unto me,” from the Sermon on the Mount), is a familiar one; but who is Cavell?

A British nurse serving in Belgium during World War I, Edith Cavell is commemorated by a statue in London’s Trafalgar Square. She helped more than 200 wounded Allied soldiers escape to neutral Holland from the Brussels hospital where their German captors had taken them. For this act she was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 9 weeks and executed by firing squad. And as Aristotle wrote that “dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them,” it’s proper that Edith Cavell both possesses (her statue) and deserves her honors.

Today we can recognize dignity in another, more contemporary armed conflict, the war in Iraq. One of its true heroes is a young woman who defines dignity, not because she possesses honors (in fact, she rejected them), but because she deserves them (more so because, feeling others more deserving, she did in fact reject those honors). Private Jessica Lynch’s story may or may not be familiar, although had she behaved as her superiors had wished, she would now be a national heroine, famous and rich. Instead, Ms. Lynch chose dignity.

In the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Pvt. Lynch’s convoy was attacked in the town of Nassiriya. Eleven of her comrades were killed. The Pentagon’s official story had the 19-year-old supply clerk wounded, emptying her weapon at the enemy. Knocked unconscious, she was captured, tortured, and sexually assaulted. Only a daring late-night raid by commandoes representing all branches of our military freed her from her captors. Although there was no video or audio record of the attack in which she had been captured, it was America’s good fortune that the rescue was chronicled on green-tinged night camera video. Almost immediately upon its official telling, non-U.S. media outlets challenged the military’s account. Nevertheless, the American press ran with the story of the “little girl Rambo from the hills of West Virginia who went down fighting.”

But Lynch herself was soon telling all who would listen—network news shows and Congressional committees—that this was all a lie. She never fired a shot; her gun had jammed. She had been treated kindly by civilian Iraqi doctors and nurses caring for her. Her armed rescuers faced no opposition and, in fact, turned back emissaries who offered to bring Lynch to them. “I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were, in fact, legendary,” she said. In another interview she added, “That wasn’t me. I’m not about to take credit for something I didn’t do.” And later, what did Ms. Lynch do with her time in the public eye? After disavowing a network made-for-TV-movie hewing closely to the Pentagon’s disinformation, she convinced the television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to build a new house for a fallen comrade’s orphaned children.

Lynch’s reward for these acts of dignity? Hate mail instead of plaudits. Obscurity instead of fame. A seat at West Virginia University in Parkersburg instead of fortune. “I want people to remember me as being a soldier who went over there and did my job. Nothing special. I’m just a country girl at heart,” she said three years after her capture. How many of us remember her?

Read Part 6: Protecting Ourselves from Dignity’s Demands


Stanley Baran is Professor of Communication at Bryant University. A Fulbright Scholar, he is the author of Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture and Mass Communication Theories: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. He writes frequently on the media, popular culture, and our understanding of ourselves and our world. He will happily provide citations for this series’ quotations and statistics. Simply e-mail him at

Image: Public domain photograph of Edith Cavell (Wikipedia)

Text copyright 2009 Stanley Baran