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TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, celebrated film about the air war over Europe, shows barely any a justly high-altitude violence. Even so, director Henry King and his actors expertly illuminate the complex burden of commanding personnel engaged in the brutal grind of repeatedly flying into combat as the odds of survival shorten. The por trait they render of men under pressure achieves a timeless, unblinking clarity.

This is why, more than 60 years after its 1949 premiere, military educators still employ Twelve O’Clock High to talk about leadership. These conversations usually address such practicalities as command style, but the film offers insights on many other levels. During my two years as a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College, I showed my students—mostly colonels fresh from Afghanistan and Iraq—a key scene from the film in order to make them think and talk about how the ethical reasoning in its imaginary world informs real-world officership.

Twelve O’Clock High begins with the fictional 918th Bomb Group returning from a disastrous raid against German submarine pens in St. Nazaire, only to have Bomber Command order a low altitude run at the pens the very next day. Group commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) protests to Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck). “Those boys are flesh and blood. They’ll die for you but they gotta know they have a chance and they know they haven’t got one,” Davenport says. “They know a man’s chances run out in 15 missions. Somebody’s gotta give them a limit. A goal, some hope of living.” Savage reluctantly conveys Davenport’s misgivings to their superior, Major General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell), who with Savage confronts Davenport, an otherwise unimpeachable officer.

Here is where the film’s moral world comes into focus. The three officers, in the company of other men of the 918th, discuss the deadly raid, whose heavy losses they trace to a navigational error. Davenport tries to shield the man who made that mistake, the mission’s navigator, Lieutenant Zimmerman (Lee MacGregor). But Zimmerman steps forward. He forth rightly explains how his errors brought the 918th late to the target and into German antiaircraft gunners’ sights. As soon as Zimmerman is out of earshot, Pritchard pressures Davenport to relieve him. Davenport refuses. Pritchard relieves Davenport, ultimately replacing him with Savage. Within hours, Zimmerman, off-camera, commits suicide.

This brief sequence, I explained to my students, puts three ethical reasoning systems into opposition. Davenport rea sons deontologically; in his world certain actions are absolutely impermissible. To push his aircrews too far is to break faith with them. Anyone could have made the error Zimmerman did; Davenport will not sacrifice a man for that—though he can’t stop Zimmerman from literally sacrificing himself. Pritchard and Savage personify consequentialist reasoning; for them, ends justify means. If they must sacrifice entire aircrews to achieve a mission’s goal, so be it. As Savage will brutally tell the 918th, “Consider your selves already dead.”

The vocabulary may be unfamiliar, but we all know these lines of logic. My students overwhelmingly declared themselves consequentialists, but I find more grist for the discussion mill in Zimmerman’s reasoning. Refusing Davenport’s protection, the doomed navigator takes ownership of his awful mistake, based upon his character-based sense of right and wrong—what ethicists call aretaic reasoning.

You may not recognize this arcane term, but you do know aretaic reasoning: it is the selfless logic of leading by example. In 2009, General Carter Ham, a no-nonsense officer then commanding all U.S. Army forces in Europe, made public the fact that he was undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder arising from combat in Iraq. The army had been encouraging personnel with PTSD to seek treatment, but that campaign had run straight into a wall in the form of officers’ historic culture of stoicism. To break this cycle of denial, a high-ranking officer had to say out loud that he needed help and that he was getting it. Some attempted to dissuade Ham, but he would not—could not—remain silent. In making a personal stand, he helped shift the army’s culture.

When it comes to changing an organization, it is seldom enough to announce a new policy; for that policy to take practical hold, senior leadership must act on it and personally model the behavior implicit in that policy. In Twelve O’Clock High, Lieutenant Zimmerman’s display of moral courage quickly passes out of frame. But, as General Ham dramatically showed, we should not only recognize how much an example of such courage matters in a film but understand its importance in everyday life.

Zimmerman’s stand resonates with me. In the same way that General Ham chose to go public with having PTSD, I have for many years felt morally obligated to be public about my having bipolar disorder. I want “normal” people to see that most of us with mental illnesses are not broken, but can and do lead productive, fulfilling lives. This has not come without cost: an unscrupulous person once ruthlessly tried to exploit my candor. And like General Ham, I heard discouraging words from individuals who feared I placed myself at risk of exactly such exploitation. In contrast, my students at the Army War College accorded me respect and support.

Among some faculty, the affirmative response to my openness went even further. About 30 percent of officers returning from combat were expected to have symptoms of combat stress reaction, which if untreated could become PTSD. The hope was that these personnel would take advantage of the many forms of assistance available on campus.

True, combat stress reaction is a type of wound, while bipolar disorder is an ill ness, but both conditions carry a stigma that needs dispelling. So in some quarters I was seen as something of a role model. In Twelve O’Clock High, the tragic arc of Lieutenant Zimmerman’s moral courage functions within the plot as a sideshow. But, as in the case of General Ham—and, I hope, myself—sometimes a sideshow can exert the power of a main event.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.