When Joseph Comes Marching Home
In 12th-grade history, "Problems of Democracy," teacher Robert Ewing introduced his students to war. Ewing is a Vietnam vet, earnest and thoughtful, spends his afternoons cutting grass at the church. He coached Darby in football and wrestling, and sometimes drove him home after practice.
Lately he's been thinking about the lessons he gave the class on Vietnam. Ewing tried to convey to the class "what combat is really like" and how "no one knows how they'll really react once they experience it." He told them he'd been raised on John Wayne, "but the first time I shot at people I peed myself."
He recalls how "Darby quizzed me" after that lesson. Darby was an average B or C student, and he was not the eager-to-please type. "If Joe believed in something, he had no problems challenging me." Ewing admits that perhaps his memory is tainted by current events, but he definitely recalls Darby as "passionate and committed," he says. "When he believed in something, he defended it."
Ewing talked to the class about My Lai, and he was of two minds about it: "I said what they did was wrong, but that I'd been there and I understood why My Lai happened. Nineteen-, 20-year-old boys aren't ready to handle combat," he said. "I was 20 and I certainly wasn't ready to handle that."
Such are his instincts about what happened at Abu Ghraib. "Being a vet I can understand why young men and women who aren't properly trained do what they did, but that doesn't justify it," he says. "Joe did the right thing."
Like the handful of people who've spoken publicly about Darby, Ewing has been inundated with media requests for comment: ABC News's Peter Jennings called, a filmmaker wants him to consult. Most he turns down. He accepted one from Swiss TV because the producer said talking about Darby would help Europeans understand that the typical American soldier was not like those guards, that some acted heroically.
The sentiment is not universal among his colleagues. Often the school will find ways to honor former students who've served. But one teacher has a husband in the National Guard, one ex-teacher is in Iraq, "and they feel what Joe did might jeopardize them," says Ewing.
Last week Ewing's students discussed Darby in a current events section. They, too, expressed ambivalence. "They feel what he did might endanger their families," Ewing recalls.
"Some people are upset with what he did -- ratting them out -- and also because of what happened to those contractors, the beheading. They might say what the guards did pales in comparison," says Ewing. "But . . . if we as a country, as a culture, believe certain values then you can't excuse that behavior. If I ever do see him again, I'll tell him I'm very proud. And as time goes on, most Americans are going to realize that, too."
Ewing brings up the name of a universally accepted local hero, Cpl. Clark R. Kaltenbaugh, grandfather of a senior currently at the school. But Kaltenbaugh's story is in most ways the opposite of Darby's. It's recalled in "The 100 Best True Stories of World War II" -- a book long out of print. After his Marine detachment was ambushed by the Japanese in the battle for Guadalcanal, Kaltenbaugh dedicated himself to killing an equal number of the enemy: "I swore to God I'd kill seventeen of them with my own hands," and then, with giddy abandon, he does.
Friends who knew Darby before he enlisted in the Army all agree on one thing: "I'll give him this, he had a temper on him," said Norm Manges, a friend from high school. "He got in a lot of fights."
Manges remembers Darby once bragging that he would do better than Manges on a test. Manges tapped him on the head with a pencil, "and he got up and punched me twice, right in this cheek. He had a flash temper."
Darby was one of the handful of new kids in a school where everyone had known each other since kindergarten. And something about him provoked others. For most boys on the football team, hazing stopped after their sophomore year. But with Darby, the boys kept it up well into his junior year.
"He was arrogant," recalls Manges. "He seemed to want to fight you for some reason. We had to bring him down a notch."
When the news broke, Manges' girlfriend called and told him to look in the paper. "And it was strange, because he's the one who used to get picked on in football. I didn't think about it being courageous, it was just strange. I couldn't imagine the guy I knew was the guy who did this."
What Makes a Hero
In his book "On Killing," Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a military psychologist, reports on a classified Air Force study conducted after World War II. The study looked for factors common to ace fliers who weren't reluctant to shoot and found one: Those who got into a lot of fights as kids made better fighters, because they weren't timid about confronting other people.
Standard Air Force heroes, says Grossman, are not the bullies but the people who were picked on by bullies and fought back. "Most of us would be paralyzed by what other people think, but they wouldn't care. This gives them a certain freedom to stand up for something."
Manges theorizes that Darby's action had something to do with the bullying. "Maybe he felt sorry for them, because he got picked on, too."
Manges is talking from the Ford body shop where he works as a mechanic. He's 25, about to get married, and in some ways high school seems fresh to him. There he and Darby were linked by a singular fierce competition, two of the poorest kids in the class fighting for a future. Now his friend is a million miles away, out there in history, and Manges is still trying to make sense of it.
"I would say it's not really a good thing or a bad thing," he says. "It's kind of bad because we're still over there and now Iraqis are revolting and that guy in Philly got his head chopped off, but it's kind of good because people should not be doing stuff like that.
"It all depends," he says, "how you look at it."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company