On page 307 of President Nixon: Alone in the White House, Richard Reeves states:
“[President Richard Nixon] ordered Admiral Moorer to have Calley released from the stockade at Fort Brenning and allowed to live in his apartment at the base, given the freedom of the base, while the trial and verdict were under appeal. When he hung up the phone, he said, ‘That’s the only place where they say, ‘Yes, Sir,’ instead of ‘Yes, but…””
The context here is the trial of Lt. William Calley, who was on trial for the My Lai massacre, in which American soldiers in Vietnam massacred unarmed Vietnamese civilians, including elderly people, women, and children. Nixon pushed for Calley to be moved from the stockade to his apartment during the appeal of Calley’s trial.
While I have reservations about Nixon’s decision in this case, I somewhat identify with how he liked the military because it told him “Yes, Sir” rather than “Yes, but…” I myself don’t like being questioned and nitpicked all of the time. Yet, come to think of it, there are plenty of times when I don’t mind questioning and nitpicking others! But, sometimes, I would just like things to be simple, without someone coming along and muddying the waters.
But maybe this was a case in which someone should have said to Nixon “Yes, but” rather than “Yes sir.” Come to think of it, the American soldiers in My Lai would have done well to tell Calley “Yes, but”, or even “no.” There are times when we need confrontation. But there are also times when a decision has to be made, even if it’s imperfect, when “Yes, but” has to come to an end and we have to make a decision about what we will do. And then there are times when a decision has been made, and we may choose not to obey the authorities because we believe they are asking us to do something immoral.