The telling of lies is a fine subgenre within any discussion of situational ethics. Is lying always wrong? Is lying always a bad idea? Before long any sensible person comes to the conclusion that lying is often a kindness, it is often the right thing to do.
Consider this: a wife asks her husband, “honey, does this dress make me look fat?” Only one answer will occur to any husband worth his salt. “No, baby,” he’ll say, “that dress looks great on you!” He’ll say that with enthusiasm, too, regardless of the facts. That’s if he knows what’s good for him.
There are even times when lying can actually save your life. This is a story from The Fall of Japan, the last such excerpt that I will risk boring you with. It describes the exploits of one of our pilots who had been shot down over Japan. A man with a name that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Boy, he must have gotten a lot of grief from it for his entire life, I’ll bet that high school was a particular torment to him.
His name was Marcus Edward McDilda, Lieutenant Marcus McDilda of the United States Air Force.
Lt. McDilda was a P-51 Mustang pilot, and he was shot down at the very tail end of the conflict. He was taken to a POW camp rather to the south of Tokyo and was imprisoned there with over fifty other fliers. The camp was run by the Japanese Army, but the interrogations were done by members of the Japanese Secret Police, the Kempei Tai. They were not gentle about it. Beatings and torture were involved. Most of the questions were the sort that the Japanese already had the answers for. Where did you fly from on this mission ? (Iwo Jima.) How many planes at the base, what types? (They knew those things, too.) Then the atomic bomb was dropped, and boy, the Japanese didn’t know anything about that. That was the original, big time Bolt from the Blue. They were curious.
They were very curious. The beatings and the torture got more intense. No mention was made of how the others responded to this treatment, for reasons that will soon become obvious. McDilda, though, got tired of being knocked around and he decided to give them what they wanted. Tell us about the atomic bomb! He didn’t really know anything about the atomic bomb, none of those men did. So he made stuff up. He told them sure, the atomic bomb, we’ve got lots of them. He told them how big it was, and what it looked like, how much it weighed. All of this was spun from whole cloth. He told them that there was a list of cities that would be blown up soon. He even told them how it worked, in a manner of speaking. He made up a great story about positive atoms and negative atoms, and how we had figured out how to separate them and build a bomb around them, and how when they were allowed to come into contact the explosion was the result. What’s the next target? Tokyo, he said, and then Kyoto, in a couple of days. Those low-level secret policemen ate it up. They packed McDilda off to Kempei Tai headquarters in Tokyo for further questioning.
The guys in Tokyo brought in scientists from the big Japanese universities, and McDilda told them all about it as well. As all this is happening, the war was ending. The scientists figured out pretty soon that everything McDilda told them was wrong, they weren’t dummies and they weren’t uninformed of such things like the Kempei Tai guys were. McDilda stayed at that headquarters until the war was over, and he was still there when McArthur and his minions arrived. He was, in fact, released to the American occupation forces, alive and well.
His fellows back at the POW camp were, to say the very least, not so lucky. They were all beheaded, more than fifty of them, to try to hide the facts of their captivity from the American forces. That was a fairly common occurrence at the time. Some combination of revenge and evidence elimination.
Lt. McDilda’s preposterous lies had saved his life.
He looks like such a nice young man in his photograph. Big, winning smile, very handsome. A Southerner, it seems, with a pleasant southern drawl. It would almost be a nice story, a charming young man lying his way out of a bad situation. Danny Kaye could have played him in the movie. The surrounding facts are too dark, though.
I don’t recommend that people make a habit of lying. It’s usually a bad idea, and not very nice. “Trapped in a web of lies” is a cliché that very often happens just that way. But sometimes, if the shoe is obviously a good fit, wear it.