Thursday, April 16, 2015

Observations about Soldiers' Experiences of Killing in War

by Pete Kilner (@combat_ethics)

Killing the enemies of our country in war is something that has to be done, but it’s not something that soldiers talk about much, especially with civilians. To help the next generation of soldiers prepare for combat as well as help the American people understand what soldiers experience, I offer these observations, which I have gleaned informally from hundreds of interviews and conversations with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as with veterans back home. (The list is not in any particular order.)

  1. Soldiers join the Army to defend our country. They kill in war to protect their buddies and accomplish their mission.
  2. The American soldier is much better at reacting to contact than at initiating contact. Maybe it’s our training, maybe it’s a cultural thing about not throwing the first punch. Yet once the enemy engages us and crosses that threshold, we are lethal. (This aversion to engaging before being engaged diminishes with combat experience.)
  3. Firefights are terrifying and exciting.  In the frightening kill-or-be-killed situation of close combat, it’s a thrilling relief to come out on top.
  4. It’s validating for a combat-arms soldier to kill an enemy combatant. Having trained for so long and heard so many war stories from our respected small-unit leaders, we feel proud to have demonstrated our professional competence under fire and thus joined the ranks of combat-proven soldiers.
  5. Once the personal threat has passed (e.g., the patrol is done, the deployment complete, or the war ends), soldiers’ attitudes toward killing become more subdued.  The cost in lives is weighed against what was accomplished by that mission, that deployment, that war.
  6. When talking about killing an enemy combatant, soldiers tend to avoid the term “killed.” Instead, we “took him out,” “took care of him,” “dropped him,” “eliminated” him--the list of euphemisms is long. On the other hand, we never describe the accidental battlefield killing of a noncombatant by anything other than “killed.”
  7. Leaders who issue orders that result in the deaths of enemy combatants feel a strong sense of responsibility for those deaths. As one lieutenant put it, “I never killed anyone with my personal weapon, but I killed people” [through his soldiers carrying out his orders]. Even leaders who merely authorized indirect fires or drops from fast movers can feel a strong sense of responsibility for the resulting deaths.
  8. We make judgments about the moral responsibility of the enemy we kill. The more that an enemy combatant is actively engaging in a threatening action (i.e., pointing a weapon, emplacing an IED) and is likely to understand what he is doing (i.e., isn’t a child), the better it feels to take them out.
  9. When one of our soldiers is killed, our determination to kill the enemy increases. Payback is a primal instinct.
  10. For units heading out on dangerous, enemy-focused missions, “Let’s go kill some bad guys” is a motivating mantra for overcoming the fear.
  11. Some soldiers, once they have killed in war, decide that they can’t/won’t kill again.  I came across this situation in several combat-arms battalions, and I found their commands to be remarkably understanding, moving them off the line into staff positions. As one infantry company commander told me, “Not everyone is cut out to be an infantryman, and some don’t realize it until they’ve killed.”
  12. Soldiers who are hunters seem to be less bothered by killing in war.
  13. It’s not uncommon for the faces of enemy combatants that soldiers killed to appear in their dreams. The deceased don’t condemn; they are merely present. Even when the soldier never saw the person’s face, he knows who it is.
  14. We don’t tell our family members and civilian friends that we killed in war. If they ask, we answer matter of factly and move on. When acquaintances and strangers ask if we killed anyone in war, we lie or ignore them; they have no right to know. Those who haven’t experienced combat couldn’t possibly understand what it means to kill another human being, and we want to be looked at for the purpose we achieved (protecting them) not for the means we used (killing others).
There may not be a single combat veteran who agrees with all of these observations; people process experiences differently. But I can assure you that each of these themes emerged from the voices of soldiers who have killed in defense of our country.

I invite you to comment with your own observations on this topic.

I am a former enlisted infantryman and infantry officer who interviewed more than 370 junior officers in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003-2011 about their combat-leadership experiences, which often included killing. I also maintain a military-ethics blog ( that has connected me to many more veterans, especially those who are reflecting on the morality of war. I never commanded troops in war and I’ve never killed anyone. I use “we” at times in the list because these observations reflect the collective experiences of many of my fellow soldiers.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this post are entirely my own and do not reflect the views or policy of West Point, the US Army, or the Department of Defense.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

War Needs a Better Tagline

Long before I ever read the classic On War by Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz, I was familiar with its most famous line--the one in which Clausewitz says, “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.”

Yes, I realize that Clausewitz offered dialectic arguments and his insights on war are profound and nuanced, but my concern is that many citizens--and more importantly, politicians--to the extent that they know anything about a theory of war, accept uncritically what they have heard--that “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.”  It’s not Clausewitz’s fault (nor anyone else’s) that his complex theory has been reduced in popular culture to a superficial tagline, but it has, and the result, I think, is morally problematic.

The German term that Clausewitz used, Politik, can mean “politics” or “policy.”  Both meanings of the term discount the importance of a war being morally justified.

Is war merely policy?  I think not. The decision to go to war is distinct from all other expressions of policy in that it forces people to kill and be killed on a large scale. Diplomatic statements are policy; tariffs and economic sanctions are policy. Although those types of policy affect people (and thus have an ethical component), they do not directly result in the intentional, large-scale killing of human beings, which wars inevitably do. War, then, should not be viewed as one tool among many in international policymaking; rather, war should be viewed as a last resort, to be utilized only when all other policies have failed to protect the people’s fundamental human rights.

Is war merely politics? Listening to our politicians, many of whom appear to base their war-authorization votes on the whims of poll results and the election cycle, one wonders if they do indeed view war as mere politics--as a means to help them and their party increase their political power. That wouldn't mean that they are necessarily bad people; they might be good people who know little about the moral reality of war and thus treat it as they do any other issue with political implications.

So, what might be a better, more ethical tagline for war? One that keeps at the forefront of everyone’s minds the fact that any decision to go to war must overcome a high moral hurdle? My first cut is:

“War is a last-resort defense of collective human rights.”

What do you think of this tagline? What do you think war’s tagline should be? I invite and welcome your critique and suggestions.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Excellent article on Moral Injury in ARMY magazine

Written by an active-duty Army officer, this article concisely describes the problems created when military forces lose sight of addressing the deep moral issues that are inherent in war.

"Moral Injury: What leaders don't mention when they talk of war" by LTC Douglas A. Pryer.
Army magazine (September 2014), 34-36. 

I tip my cap to Doug and to Army Magazine for such an important contribution.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Ethical Failures in the GWOT

3 policy-based ethical failures by the US in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

I’ve had the privilege to observe and interview hundreds of Soldiers at their combat outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. As someone who cares deeply about ethical conduct in war, I can assure you that the conduct of the overwhelming majority of US Soldiers over the past decade has been nothing short of inspiring. Despite very challenging conditions, American Soldiers consistently maintain their humanity and act with justice and compassion. On numerous occasions, Iraqis and Afghans have told me they wish that their own security forces would treat them as well as US forces do.

Although our rank-and-file Soldiers on the ground have acted honorably, our senior decision makers have a more checkered record.  There have been moral failings that we ought to acknowledge, learn from, and never repeat.

1. Torture (aka, enhanced interrogation procedures). This was perpetrated by non-military OGAs (other government agencies such as the CIA) and contractors, but the practice tarnished the reputation of our nation and military (by association). It also set a terrible example and precedent. The temptation for Soldiers to mistreat a detainee who, for example, may have just killed one of their friends is very difficult to resist; it feels like every cell in your body demands payback.  Time and again, however, our Soldiers overcame temptation, exercised restraint, and chose the harder (moral) right over the easier (emotional) wrong. It’s a shame that the laudable ethical conduct of the uniformed many has been overshadowed by the unprofessional conduct of the non-uniformed few.

2. Contractors using lethal force.  It’s acceptable for contractors on secure bases to provide logistical support in war--to wash the clothes, repair the vehicles, etc. But contractors have NO PLACE on the battlefield. They should not be providing personal security to officials who travel outside the wire. They should not be running convoys, flying helicopters, or doing anything else where they are armed and likely to use their weapons. US Army Soldiers are professionals of arms--serving the nation, accountable to the people through their chain of command, trained in and committed to the ethical use of force.  Armed contractors, on the other hand, are mercenaries--serving their commercial enterprises, accountable to no one except their supervisors, and trained in the use of force, but not necessarily in its ethical use. Permitting contractors to perform warfighting tasks on the battlefield is an insult to the profession of arms and has proven harmful to US interests and moral standing. Only trained, accountable, ethical, professional Soldiers should be engaging in combat operations.

3. Senior military leaders being transported around the battlespace in armed, unmarked vehicles. A fundamental principle of the morality and legality of war is “discrimination” (or noncombatant immunity). In war, all combatants have the duty to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants: enemy combatants may be targeted, but noncombatants may not. This is why  international law requires military personnel in a war zone to wear distinctive uniforms and to travel in distinctive, marked vehicles. The uniforms and markings enable combatants to know who is a legitimate target and who isn’t. The law protects noncombatants.

Regrettably, senior U.S. military leaders routinely travel around Afghanistan in custom-built, armored, unmarked SUVs, as they  have since the start of the war. To an observer (such as an IED triggerman atop a mountain), these armored vehicles look like any other SUV used by a well-funded governmental, commercial, or NGO official. A case could be made that the customized SUVs are more maneuverable and practical on city streets, and that is true.  But there’s no excuse for not marking the vehicles clearly as military transport.

In 2009 I took a civilian airline flight out of Kabul. In the plane, a European who worked for an NGO recognized me as an American and complained bitterly to me bitterly her NGO’s workers were being killed in attacks by insurgents because of the US military’s practice of transporting senior military leaders in unmarked, civilian-looking vehicles. Her food-aid colleagues routinely traveled in caravans of large SUVs to transport supplies to remote villages. However, because senior US and Afghan leaders also traveled in convoys of large SUVs, insurgents sometimes mistook a food-aid NGO convoy as a US military convoy and attacked it.  According to the woman, our disregard for international military law indirectly resulted in the deaths of noncombatants.

Back in the US, I asked a JAG Colonel who was familiar with the practice how senior leaders could flaunt the law like this.  
“A memo was written giving a legal opinion that authorized it,” he said.
“On what legal basis? What’s the argument?” I asked him. “How does military personnel traveling in unmarked, armed vehicles not constitute a violation of the laws of war?”
He shrugged his shoulders and repeated without conviction, “A memo was written that authorized it. That’s all I can say about the situation.”

The United States can and must do better. We should not make exceptions for ourselves.  Wars are moral endeavors--battles by good against evil.  We should not undermine our moral authority by violating laws of war.  We are good enough at our profession to win with honor.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Double Effect at the Soldier Level

I've been working with the Army HQ to develop training modules that increase Soldiers' resilience during and after combat.  Specifically, I'm an SME on the "Resilience on the Battlefield" modules that address the moral justification of killing, the psychological effects of killing, and moral injury. The Army is adopting and will be teaching my "bubble theory" approach to explaining the moral justification of killing in war, which is pretty exciting and a big step forward in empowering Soldiers to fight morally and live well psychologically.

One cool aspect of these modules, which are being developed under the leadership of CH (LTC) Stephen Austin, is that they integrate philosophical ethics into practical training for Soldiers. I was asked to explain the concept of the Doctrine of Double Effect, which is so essential to helping Soldiers navigate the crappy, morally troubling situations in combat when their actions will foreseeably lead to harm to noncombatants.  Here's my first draft, and I welcome your feedback.

You are a squad leader on a dismounted patrol.  Vehicles with heavy machineguns and automatic grenade launchers are in overwatch.  While crossing an open field with limited cover, your lead fire team comes under effective enemy machinegun fire from a building that appears to be house.  Based on intel and your observations, you estimate 4-6 enemy personnel in the building. You see five women and children run for cover into the same building that the MG fire is coming from. Based on your knowledge of the area, you think it’s likely that up to 4 more noncombatants may be in the building. You are able to identify the location of the machinegun position, on the second (top) floor on the north side of the house.  What should you do?  You want to kill or capture the enemy (that is your commander’s intent) without harming the noncombatants.
As you consider your options, you realize that there’s a high likelihood of collateral damage—mortal or serious injury to the noncombatants trapped in the building.  Your action will likely have two effects—the good one that you intend (destroying the enemy), and a bad one that you don’t intend yet realize is likely (harming noncombatants).  In such a situation, a thought process known as the Doctrine of Double Effect can help you choose a morally justifiable course of action.
Given that your commander’s intent is to gain and maintain enemy contact in order to kill or capture enemy personnel, you identify three possible courses of action:
A. call for indirect fires to destroy the house
B. call the vehicles to come forward to provide heavier direct fires
C. maneuver your trail fire team to gain a better position to provide more effective  fire
To assess the morality of each COA, you should give it a 5-part “test.”
1. Is the nature of the action I’m considering legal and moral? This shouldn’t be an issue, because all the weapons that the Army provides its soldiers are legal and moral to use. However, if one of your soldiers were to have created his own poison grenade, for example, such a weapon by its nature is prohibited by the laws of warfare, and consequently that COA would be immoral and you should reject it.
2. Do you really intend only the good effect?  This is a self check, to examine your own motives. If you are angry at the residents of that household from a previous incident and really want to see them be killed, then you ought to think hard to discern your true motivation as you choose a COA. On the other hand, if you really hope only to kill the enemy without harm to the noncombatants, then you pass this step.
3. Is the bad effect the means to the good effect? It shouldn’t be. If a COA you are considering uses the collateral damage to achieve destruction of the enemy—for example, involves shooting children to draw the enemy out to retrieve the wounded children—then the COA is immoral and illegal.
4. Is the expected good effect worth the expected bad effect?  In this case, is the destruction of the enemy and the safety of your soldiers “worth” harming noncombatants who have not forfeited their right not to be killed?  The larger situation plays a role here.  Is it a COIN fight where the people are the center of gravity?  Or is it a high-intensity war where its swift resolution will save lives in the long run? How important is this mission; can I withdraw and allow everyone to live to fight another day?
5. Finally, does my COA accept some reasonable risk to my soldiers in order to minimize risk to noncombatants?  This can be tough to do, but when we consider that our ultimate purpose as soldiers is to protect human rights (which are the moral foundation of the US Constitution to which we swear allegiance), and that we volunteered to risk our lives to do so, then our actions on the battlefield should reflect those values.
With this test in mind, let’s consider COA’s A, B, and C.
Test#1: All COAs are legal in themselves—indirect, heavy-weapon, and small-arms fires are all legal means to wage battle.
Test#2: Only you know the answer, but as a good person we will assume that you genuinely wish that the women and children and other noncombatants will not be harmed by your actions.
Test#3: In none of the COA’s is harm to the noncombatants the means to destroying the enemy combatants.
Test #4: Each COA will produce a different expected outcome. 
COA-A, employing indirect fires, will likely kill or seriously wound everyone in the building—estimated at 4-6 enemy and 5-9 civilians. Your soldiers face minimal risk with this COA.
COA-B, using the heavy weapons from the trucks, will provide more precise effects that should still accomplish the good effect but will likely cause some collateral damage, although less than the artillery would. Maneuvering the trucks closer puts the soldiers in them at more risk.
COA-C, maneuvering your own fire team to attempt to gain fire superiority with weapons that are most precise is least likely to cause collateral damage, but puts your own soldiers at highest risk among  the COAs.
Test #5 demands that you minimize the risk of the bad effect by putting some risk on your own combatants.  COA-A fails that test.  COA-C may (not necessarily) fail that test if the maneuver puts your fire team at great risk.

Ok, thoughtful readers: what's missing from this explanation? 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Pre-deployment Ethics Seminars

October 16-18, I had one of my most meaningful experiences as a military ethicist.  I travelled to Ft. Campbell, KY, and conducted a series of three one-day leader-development seminars for soldiers who will be deploying to Afghanistan in the upcoming weeks.
Several months ago, the commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, who happens to be a West Point classmate of mine, called me and asked if I would help his soldiers (about 4,000 in his brigade) prepare ethically and psychologically for their deployment.  This is COL JP McGee’s eighth combat deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan over the past decade, and over the course of his experiences he has become convinced that restrained, ethical conduct in war is vitally important, for several reasons:
1. Ethical conduct provides a huge operational advantage.  Being “the good guys” in societies that lack legitimate institutions wins us public support and sets the conditions for even our enemies to reconcile and partner with us.  He points out that the Anbar Awakening/Sons of Iraq movement, in which Iraq’s tribal Sunni insurgents (not Al-Qaeda in Iraq or other inherently murderous insurgents) partnered with us in 2006-07 and began to participate peacefully in Iraqi governance, would have been impossible if we’d had a history of mistreating Sunni detainees or civilians.  Being “good” when other parties weren’t set the conditions that later allowed us to win an unexpected victory.
2. Ethical conduct protects our soldiers’ psyches/souls.  In the craziness of a combat deployment, our soldiers will do what we ask them to do; they trust their leaders. After a deployment, they will reflect on their actions.  People know right from wrong. If they have acted immorally during the deployment, they will be wracked with guilt and shame.  If their leaders led them to act immorally, they will feel used and betrayed.  If, on the other hand, they conducted themselves with honor under the stresses of combat, they will feel great pride in themselves and gratitude to their leaders.
3. Ethical conduct maintains a unit’s honor. Soldiers are entrusted to maintain their unit’s honor.  In the case of that brigade (327th Infantry Regiment), American soldiers have been fighting honorably under its colors since World War I.  The brigade’s nickname, “Bastogne,” was earned in its heroic defense of that town during WWII’s Battle of the Bulge.  COL McGee pointed out that every “Bastogne” soldier has the privilege and responsibility to live up to and to carry forward the unit’s honor.  The unit’s honor is bigger than any one soldier; it has been earned by the ethical and courageous conduct of thousands of soldiers before them over almost 100 years.  Yet, the unit’s honor can be sullied by unethical conduct by even one of its members.  He pointed out that, in his study of war crimes, three factors are almost always present: a “bad actor” with a criminal/sociopathic flaw; weak leaders supervising them; and others who had concerns but didn’t intervene.  He told his soldiers to be alert—to identify and remove morally-flawed soldiers; not to tolerate weak leaders; and to trust their guts and intervene if they see either of the first two factors.
4. Being good is good in itself.  We should always act morally and in accordance with our personal and national values, especially when they are tested by adversity.
COL McGee and I put together a 6-hour, one-day professional-development seminar, which we ran on three consecutive days for different battalions.  Each session was attended by 60-120 leaders, and about 220 leaders in all participated.
Each seminar consisted of five events, which roughly followed this timeline:
0900-1015: “A moral justification for killing in war.”  I presented my explanation on the morality of killing, which I’ve written about in this blog. For almost all the soldiers, this was the first time they’d heard the subject addressed, and it was well received.
1025-1130: “Ethics and mentoring Afghan Security Forces.” The purpose of this session was to practice ethical decision making skills, especially as they apply to advising Afghan forces.  We used the Leader Challenge Method developed by the Center for the Advancement of Leader Development & Organizational Learning (CALDOL) at West Point.  Participants were seated at tables in groups of four.  We all watched a video in which a US soldier who was partnered with ANSF describes an actual situation he faced in which one of the Afghan police on a joint patrol was acting unethically. In their small groups, the soldiers addressed three questions: “If you were in this situation, what are all the factors that you should consider?”  “What are different courses of action you could take?”  Then, after moving to different tables/groups, each answered the question, “What would you actually do?” I had one leader come forward and we role-played his course of action. We then repeated the process with another real, recent scenario on this topic.
1145-1245: COL M shared his “Thoughts on Ethics,” which included three topics: Why Ethics Matter; Ethics when dealing with local national forces; and Dealing with casualties.  He convincingly made the case that ethical conduct is absolutely essential—for the reasons cited above.  As one noncommissioned officer commented to me afterwards, “The commander has a way of making you see things different and changing your mind. He’s one smart guy.” COL McGee recognized that his leaders would have to exercise judgment in working with the Afghans, but he also clearly defined the boundaries of ANSF conduct that the BCT would not tolerate.
The brigade commander provides guidance on ethics to his subordinate leaders
1400-1500: “Dealing with casualties.” How a unit deals with the casualties it sustains has a large impact on its conduct.  COL McGee told his leaders to expect casualties, to be prepared to lead their soldiers through the experience, and to carry on and complete the mission our country has called on them to accomplish.  We showed a gut-wrenching video of a leader describing the day that one of his soldiers was killed, another paralyzed, and two others wounded. Then, at their tables, the participants discussed:  “What emotions should we expect to experience when one of our Soldiers is killed?” “For each emotion, what can leaders do to channel that emotion productively?” Then we showed a video of a commander describing how her unit in Afghanistan responded to a catastrophic event in which four of their own were killed by an IED.  In small groups, the leaders discussed their response to her unit’s courses of action. Many, if not most, of the soldiers in attendance have experienced casualties, so they brought their own experiences into the small-group discussions.
1515-1600: We ended the day by addressing a topic that was on everyone’s minds—the threat of green-on-blue (ANSF on US/coalition) attacks.  We showed a video of a leader in AFG describing a situation in which ANA and US soldiers raised weapons at each other. Once again, using the LC methodology, in their small groups the soldiers shared their ideas on: “If you were in this situation, what are all the factors that you should consider?”  “What are different courses of action you could take?”  Then, after moving to different tables/groups, each answered the question, “What would you actually do?”  Participants who had experienced similar situations on previous deployments had the opportunity to share their experiences with the entire group. Then, we watched a video clip on how the situation actually worked out.  A clear consensus emerged on the merits of de-escalating such situations, as well as ttps on how to accomplish that.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

After the Yellow Ribbon Conference

This weekend I attended the After the Yellow Ribbon conference at the Duke Divinity School. 

Put together by OIF-vet, conscientious objector, and Duke Divinity student Logan Mehl-Laituri and fellow Divinity student Alaina Kleinbeck, it was an interdisciplinary event that included ecclesial, medical (mental health) and military perspectives in conversation devoted to helping veterans make sense of the moral reality of war.

I learned something from everyone there. The speakers who inspired me the most were Dr Warren Kinghorn (from the Veterans Admin and Duke) and Dr David Miller, a fair-minded and well-spoken pacifist.  I was privileged to give the keynote address and later have the opportunity to give my presentaton on "the moral justification for killing in war" to the majority-pacifist audience.

The goal of the event was to come together, talk honestly and listen openly, and find common ground so we all can help heal those vets who experienced moral injury in war. IMHO, it succeeded beautifully.  This conference showed me that just warists and war pacifists can come together productively.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

BBC article and my upcoming deployment

Life is funny.  On the day that I leave my regular work (at a desk) and begin the process of deploying to Afghanistan, the BBC runs an article that quotes me, resulting in a deluge of emails and comments at a time when I have little opportunity to engage online.

I spoke with the BBC correspondent, Stephen Evans, more than four years ago when he visited West Point.

So, I ask that those who write me to have patience; my internet connectivity will be limited for the next couple months at least.  I will reply to each of you as I am able.  In fact, next year (summer 12-spring 13) I plan on taking a sabbatical to write a book on ethics in war, so I will (finally) have time to focus, think and write, and I will re-read all the good ideas I've received over the years on this blog.

Here at the replacement center at Ft Benning, GA, I've already enjoyed great conversations with an Army lawyer and an Army doctor about moral decisionmaking.  (The doc even shares my interest in exploring complexity theory and ethics.) Within 10 days, I'll be privileged to hear the stories, experiences, and perspectives of our soldiers who are engaged in the fight.  I am blessed to have such opportunities, and I will do my best to use tleverage my experiences to contribute to the wider conversation on war and morality.

Yours in the search for Truth,


Saturday, July 03, 2010

Unspoken ethical norms in war

I've had the privilege to interview more than 300 junior officers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have been very impressed and inspired by their deep commitment to leading their soldiers to fight morally.  Combat requires  moral decisionmaking--there's no getting around it--and our leaders overwhelmingly mean well.

However, I have also observed that many leaders and soldiers feel unprepared for the life-or-death decisions they have had to make in "gray" circumstances.  Their pre-deployment training consisted too often of black-or-white scenarios written by Army lawyers who've never had to make decisions in the fog of war. So, our soldiers learn by doing, trusting their gut instincts and character, and they generally do remarkably well.

The soldiers I interview describe their most uselful preparation for combat moral decisionmaking as being their reading of memoirs or other accounts of battle, and movies.  Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, With the Old Breed, etc gave them a sense of the decisions they would have to make.

Of course, real accounts of battle are descriptive, not prescriptive...and real descriptions of war are full of events that would be war crimes by legal, media, and other dominant but uninformed-about-war parties.

In my interviews, which are one-on-one, confidential conversations in the war zone, I've noticed that soldiers who are doing the fighting have their own set of ethical standards.  In most cases and most situations, their ethical norms are consistent with what is expected publicly of them--be gentle with detainees, do not discriminate against local national civilians even if you know they support (not materially) the enemy, use gov't funds IAW all the regulations, leave interrogations to the trained interrogators, put the mission first, etc. 

Yet there are times and situations in which soldiers judge "what's right" on the ground to be much different than the public ethics.  Sometimes, soldiers "interrogate" detainees whom they are authorized only to tactically question; sometimes they use funds for purposes not authorized; sometimes they put more risk on civilians whom they know support the enemy; on occasion, they insure that someone they've detained will never able to kill the innocent again.

Each of these action violates the "public ethics" of the US military (and some the Laws of Land Warfare)...yet I've heard well reasoned, convincing moral arguments for them.  The problem is, our soldiers cannot ever say publicly what they did, much less offer their reasons, without making themselves liable to legal proceedings.  As a result, the next generations of soldiers will continue to be unprepared for the complex, difficult moral decisions they will face in war. It's a catch-22.

So, the profession of arms has two moral codes--the public one, based on black-and-white legal rules, that work much of the time; and a private code, known only by those who have to do the messy work of war.

It's not healthy psychologically to have made difficult moral decisions that you cannot talk about publicly for fear of being punished.

It's also dangerous to have such "unspoken" rules of war that differ from what soldiers are taught in formal training.  For example,inexperienced young leaders (2LT platoon leaders) can have trouble enforcing standards when they are not confident that they know the true standards.

I am going to develop a paper on this topic that I'll present at the New Mexico Military Institute in October, and I plan to refine it and present it again at the American Society of Military Ethics meeting in January.

More to follow, but I thought I'd put the ideas out there and solicit your feedback.  You can always write me privately at  if you want to share your experiences and ideas on this or any topic related to moral decisionmaking in the military context.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Diminished moral responsibility of many enemy combatants

The straightforward examples used in my baseline argument for the moral justification for killing in war are not representative of many of the enemy combatants that we kill in the current wars. Many of those attackingIndigenous Security Forces or Coalition Forces (the good guys) are doing so solely to pay the bills, to put food on the table; others are uneducated and misinformed about the goals of each side in the wars. In other words, many of the attackers are not fully morally responsible for their actions. In terms of domestic self defense, they are more like: a drug addict who commits armed robbery and murder to finance his addiction; or a mentally disabled person who watched a violent movie, came across a loaded weapons, and is now “living the fantasy” by shooting innocent people; or like a man who mistakenly thinks that you raped and killed his mother and is coming to kill you.

In such cases, I think, we would say that using lethal force to stop the attack and protect the lives of innocent people is indeed still morally justified…but it is not satisfying, and is even tragic. When an attacker is not completely responsible for his life-threatening actions, it is sad—but nonetheless necessary and morally justified—to use lethal force in defense of the innocent.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Justice of the War does matter

The editors cut a couple important paragraphs from the Army Magazine article. The paragraps address the effect that the justice of the war has on the morality of actions within the war.

"As you likely realized while reading the bubble theory, its approach to justifying killing in war requires that the soldier be fighting for a war that is just. This is a stumbling block for many military professionals. The bubble theory rejects the long-held tenet of the Just-War Tradition that soldiers on both sides of a war are “moral equals”—equally innocent of responsibility for the war but equally guilty of threatening each other. This claim of moral equality between unjust aggressor and just defender treats all soldiers as “innocent aggressors,” and thus reduces the “justification” of killing in war to the moral equivalent of gang warfare—no one is wrong because all are wrong, i.e., all soldiers have lost their bubbles. This waiver on soldiers’ responsibility for fighting may have had merit when feudal lords rounded up their serfs and led them into battle, but it does not reflect the educated, informed, morally autonomous citizen-soldiers of today.

We and our Soldiers cannot simply abdicate our responsibility to respect others’ human rights simply because we took an oath. Granted, given the huge responsibility we bear to protect the innocent, I do think that American Soldiers are morally obligated to fight unless they are convinced that a war is unjust. But I also think that an option should exist for selective conscientious objection. I doubt this would undermine good order and discipline. The patriots who volunteer to defend freedom will not abandon their fellow Soldiers without good cause. I have found most conscientious objectors to be woefully misinformed about morality in war. A healthy, ongoing conversation on the subject might actually enhance not only our Soldiers’ well being, but also recruiting and retention."

Ethics of Killing seminar at West Point

Department of English and Philosophy Seminar on “The Ethics of Killing”

Last Friday, 22 Jan, Dr. Richard Schoonhoven led a very interesting discussion on the ethics of killing, especially as it applies to war. This was the first of a series of Departmental seminars on the Army’s Professional Military Ethic. About 60 staff and faculty attended the 55-minute seminar.

Here are a few of my take-aways from the seminar:

First, it was validating. Richard didn’t put forth a theory or an answer to the question of the moral justification for killing in war; that wasn’t his intent. Instead, he laid out the many aspects related to the question—e.g., the problem of the innocent attacker, moral responsibility, “invincible ignorance,” the relationship of citizen and state, the connection (or not) of Jus in Bellum and Jus in Bello, noncombatant immunity. Yet, in almost every area of discussion, I felt confident that my approach to the morality of killing could coherently address the issues.

Second, I realized that much of the difficulty in making moral judgment in war is not a matter of developing a coherent set of moral principles; rather, it’s a problem of information. A soldier in combat rarely has complete situational awareness of the moral situation—the justice of the cause, the motives and intent of enemy combatants, etc. In contrast, we generally have much better information while making our everyday moral decisions. So, my insight was that we can develop a coherent combat ethics that assumes full information, yet we’ll have to deal with the complicating reality that soldiers will often act on incomplete or incorrect information. The category of morally excusable actions—those that are objectively wrong but not worthy of moral blame—is a BIG one in war.

Third, I was reminded of something that I’ve often talked about yet never written about—namely, that the justice of a war (jus ad bellum) is something that must be continuously evaluated. Whether or not a war was morally right to engage in in 2003, for example, is really unrelated to what we should be doing in 2010. A war might be just at its inception yet, as conditions change, become unjust to continue; and vice versa. The question is, “Given the feasible alternatives, should we (continue to) engage in the war?” Moral decisions are necessarily made with the information and circumstances of the moment; we can’t change the past, but we can and should resolve to do what’s morally right now and into the future.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why study the morality of killing in war?

Why talk with our soldiers about the morality of killing?

1. Helping our soldiers understand the moral justification of killing is a leadership issue. Many soldiers who have killed in war are wracked by guilt when they should not be. When our soldiers kill justly, they ought to be able to live at peace with themselves. We, their leaders, are responsible for them killing; we ought to do our part to help them live fully afterwards.

2. Our soldiers arrive in the Army without any personal experience of killing another human being. As their leaders, we need to help them prepare for and make sense of the first-in-a-lifetime experience of killing a fellow human being. This contrasts with other, more frequent moral decisions. For example, by the time I turned 18 and joined the Army, I knew that stealing was immoral. Why? Well, when I was an 11-year-old boy, I shoplifted some candy. Almost immediately afterwards, I felt guilty and ashamed of myself. A year later, someone stole my bicycle, and I experienced anger and a sense of violation. So, by the time I became a soldier, I had a well-developed sense of morality about stealing. On the other hand, I had no experience with the morality of killing.

3. When it comes to killing another human being, our soldiers cannot trust their feelings. We human beings appear to be hardwired to feel guilty after being involved in the death of another person. For example, if you are driving a car under the speed limit and paying attention to the road, yet a pedestrian negligently darts in front of your car and is struck and killed, you will feel terribly guilty, despite the fact that you know you did nothing wrong. Apparently, playing a role in another’s death elicits guilt even without any wrongdoing. Sharing this observation alone is comforting to soldiers, who often wonder why they feel a sense of guilt even though they know cognitively that it was right to kill the enemy combatant.

4. Understanding the morality of killing in war empowers our soldiers to talk confidently with family, neighbors, acquaintances, etc., about the things the Army does. Within our military communities, we take for granted that wartime killing is morally acceptable. Other communities, however, do not necessarily share that assumption. All of our soldiers will one day retire or ETS. They will likely be challenged by the ignorant, indolent, and downright hateful towards the military. If we have not prepared our soldiers to respond to questions about wartime killing, we have left them defenseless.

Moral justification for killing in war

This is my latest version of laying out the argument. Feedback is welcomed!

A moral justification for killing in war
By Pete Kilner, 2009

The Army performs many of the same functions as civilian organizations, yet there is one absolutely unique and defining characteristic of our profession—we are organized, equipped and trained to kill people. As company-level leaders, we recruit patriotic young Americans to kill; equip them to kill; train them to kill; develop and issue orders for them to kill; issue fire commands for them to kill; and commend them for killing enemies of our country. We perform our duties well, and the American people sleep safely at night. However, we as a profession generally do not provide our soldiers with an explanation for why it is morally right for them to kill in combat. Consequently, many of the soldiers entrusted to our care suffer needless guilt after killing in war.

The purpose of this article is to offer you a tool—an explanation for the morality of killing in war that you can adapt for use in your units. This is a presentation I have given to units in the 82nd, 101st, 25th, and the Marines, as well as at West Point and ROTC programs. This explanation may not be the answer, but it is an answer to this difficult and oft-overlooked issue. Perhaps the most important outcome of having this conversation with your unit is a command climate in which your soldiers feel comfortable talking about killing and about the thoughts and feelings that killing provokes.

My story
Leader note: I have found it helpful to open the conversation by sharing my personal journey of thinking about the morality of killing. Every soldier thinks about this subject sometime, but relatively few talk publicly about it. If we want to open a healthy professional dialogue on a topic that is still somewhat taboo, we ought to set the example. Your story may be more grounded in personal experience and less academic (after all, I have never killed anyone), and that is probably more effective.

My personal interest in the morality of killing in war was sparked one night years ago when I was a pre-command captain in the 82nd. Rigged for a combat jump, I was waiting to load into a plane that would unload me and thousands of other paratroopers 400 feet above the ground. (The jump was later cancelled.) Amid the nervous chatter, one young trooper’s sincere question to a chaplain caught my attention.

“Chaplain,” he asked. “We’re gonna kill a lot of people tonight. Is that alright?”

“Of course it’s the right thing to do,” responded the chaplain with confidence. “We’re soldiers. The President told us to do it. That makes it right.”

I remember feeling profoundly disappointed in that response. I knew there had to be a better answer than that.

Two years later, I had the opportunity to re-visit the question when the Army sent me to graduate school to study philosophy. To my surprise and dismay, I could not find the answer. No one—not the chaplaincy, the SJA, the Army, the DoD, academia, not even my religion—provided a satisfactory moral justification for looking down my sights and placing two rounds into the head of an insurgent. Having enlisted as an infantryman out of high school and subsequently becoming an infantry officer, I had always assumed that what I was training myself and others to do was a morally justified action. I realized that I needed either to discover the answer or to find another line of work.

What I discovered in my subsequent research was that those who justify killing in war and those who condemn it approach the topic from very different perspectives. The Just-War Tradition justifies the moral permissibility of war at the international, state-to-state level. Although the tradition includes principles for individual soldiers’ conduct in war, it does not provide a moral justification for the combatant-on-combatant killing that characterizes war. In contrast, the War-Pacifist Tradition focuses its lens down at the level of the individual soldier. It argues that killing another human being in the context of war is morally unjustified and therefore wars among states are morally unjustified. I found both approaches to be inadequate. While the top-down justification did not go far enough in explaining why killing in war can be a morally right choice for the individual soldier, the pacifists’ condemnation of wartime killing was based on fundamental misunderstandings about war and soldiers. In my thesis, I combined a war-pacifist framework for justifiable killing with my own understanding of the nature of war to produce a moral justification for killing in war.

While writing my thesis, I happened to read Dave Grossman’s On Killing, which contains numerous anecdotes of soldiers reflecting on killing. Grossman, who has a background in psychology, makes sense of soldiers’ post-killing psychological problems by examining what happened to them in the experience. As an ethicist, however, I read the anecdotes with a different lens—focusing on what the soldiers had done, not on what had happened to them. I realized then that there might be a link between soldiers being able to justify to themselves the morality of killing in war and their post-combat psychological welfare.

Others' stories
Not everyone who kills in war is troubled by the experience, but many are. Because I have written about this topic, I receive many emails from veterans who have killed in war and from their families (more so from the latter). Their pain is palpable; listen in to these excerpts from a few emails.

From a soldier: “The last guy I killed was in a vehicle that came up to my checkpoint during an HVT raid. He tried to evade, I opened up as per ROE at the time, and shortly thereafter a couple soldiers with me began to shoot at the vehicle. I zeroed 28 rounds of a 30-round magazine into the passenger and driver. The driver was hit but not killed immediately, and he managed to back his car back into his driveway 300 meters away. What I’ll never forget about that engagement was listening to the family react when they saw the inside of the car and their loved one without a chest. I saw a counselor for about 6 months when I got back. I quit when I could start sleeping through the night without having to drink a six-pack beforehand.”

From a soldier’s mom: “My son is wrestling with what he did during his deployment. He was raised Catholic and was taught morality and values and we are big on the right to life. I am now trying to help him settle his conscience by explaining that killing in war is not the same as abortion. We, as a family, have been very active in pro-life activities and rhetoric. Now our son is really grappling with the fact that he took a human life, and I don't know exactly how to explain it, excuse it, or justify it. I want him to feel okay with what he did and about himself. I am avoiding the word forgiven, because I don't feel there is anything to forgive. We are supportive of his decision to join the military and are very proud of his accomplishments and ability to do his job effectively. I don't know how to impress upon him that killing in war is justified and not the same as murder and that he did what he was trained to do, and did a good job. Any words of wisdom would be appreciated.”

From a soldier’s wife: “My husband was in active combat in Somalia, Honduras, and Iraq. I think Somalia was the hardest for him. Yesterday I came into our room and saw him staring at the wall. He was pale, diaphoretic, and clenching his fists. I have never seen him like this. I asked if he was ok. This startled him and sort of "woke" him. He said he was fine and didn’t want to talk about it. Later he told me he has been starting to have dreams again and has had a few episodes of feeling charged/panicked, but he is able to regain composure and be fine. We talked at length for the first time about his dreams and his feelings about the people he killed while in combat. He carries so much guilt. He said at the time there was a moving target and he reacted. Now he remembers those same incidences and sees their faces. He is haunted by them. He didn’t want to talk to me or anyone else about it because he didn’t want to be looked at for what he had done instead of who he is. Is there anything you can recommend that I can do or he can do to help deal with his guilt? I love him dearly; he is amazing. I want him to be free. He has carried this for so long. He has been out of the service for 8 years now and it is still with him every day."

Stories like these are a call to arms to improve the way we train our soldiers. We teach our soldiers to kill effectively, so we should also teach them how to live with clear consciences after they have killed morally.

A moral justification for killing enemy combatants in war
Without further ado, here is a rights-based justification for killing. It does not rely on any particular religious belief, but it is consistent with Judeo-Christian assumptions about human rights as well as with principles of American civil law. I refer to it informally as the “bubble theory,” for reasons that will soon be obvious.

Our starting point in justifying wartime killing is the conviction that every person possesses the “right not to be killed.” Some would call this a “right to life,” but we really do not have such a right. If we are struck and killed by lightning or die of cancer, after all, our rights have not been violated. Why not? Because a rights claim is made vis-à-vis another person. No one has wronged us when we are stuck by lightning or develop cancer. Similarly, we do not have a right to speech; instead, we have a right that others not prevent us from speaking on certain topics. In this way, rights claims say something about what others should not do to us.

The ultimate source of our human rights is arguable. Some would say God, others cite human reason, still others refer to implicit social contracts or even man-made laws. But I hope we can agree that all persons do possess rights—whatever their source—and that the most fundamental and basic right is the right not to be killed, followed closely by the right not to be enslaved. Our system of government is premised on the belief that all people are endowed with the rights to life and liberty.

Rights are intangible, so it helps to use a concrete “visual” when we think about them. Imagine, if you will, the “right not to be killed” as a bubble that surrounds each person (see Figure 1). Each of us possesses the right that no one else “violate our bubble” and harm us. By virtue of being human, every person possesses a bubble. This is consistent with our moral intuitions. When we are walking down the street, for example, it would be morally wrong to physically assault a person walking past us. Why? In terms of this explanation, we would be violating that person’s bubble. He possessed the fundamental human right not to be physically harmed.

Yet we also know that someone can forfeit that right—can “burst his own bubble.” A right is a right as long as it does not violate the more fundamental right of another. Thus, we recognize that if a person intentionally violates (or threatens to violate) the bubble of another, he forfeits his own bubble (see Figure 2).

For example, if we are walking down the street and someone confronts us with a gun, we are morally permitted to use violence against the man to protect ourselves. Why? Because by consciously choosing to violate the bubble of another, the man had forfeited his own bubble of rights. The concept of forfeiting rights also applies to situations of coming to the defense of another. For example, if we witness a man pull a woman into an alley and continue assaulting her, we are morally permitted to use violence against that man to protect the victim, just as the victim herself is morally right to fight back against her attacker. Why? Because the attacker, by virtue of violating the bubble of someone who possessed it, had forfeited his own bubble, so our use of violence against him violated no right (see Figure 3).

It’s important to note that a just defender does not forfeit his rights when he attacks an unjust aggressor, as in the scenario above. The following scenario helps to clarify the rights of a defender. An armed bank robber has taken a hostage at gunpoint. By threatening the life of the hostage, the robber has forfeited his right not to be killed. A police officer then arrives at the scene and aims her firearm at the robber. Has the officer done anything wrong? No. Not only has the robber already forfeited his right not to be killed, but also the police officer has an obligation to protect innocent people, including the hostage. Would we say that the police officer, by virtue of “threatening” the robber, forfeits her own right not to be killed? Would the robber be justified in shooting the officer in “self defense”? Of course not, on both counts. The officer cannot violate the rights of someone who has already forfeited them. The moral inequality between the robber and police officer makes it morally acceptable for the officer to kill the robber, but not vice versa.
When fighting in a just war, a soldier is a defender. Soldiers continue to possess their bubbles as long as they direct violence only at those who have already forfeited their right not to be killed. Enemy combatants are the ones who have “lost their bubbles” by threatening the rights of those who possess them—non-combatants and/or our soldiers. Even if they are not personally threatening anyone at the time we engage them, combatants for an unjust cause are still morally permissible targets because they are operating as part of a larger organism—the unjust threat. There is a good reason why military uniforms include both the individual’s name and the organization/state in whose name he acts; soldiers act as both individuals and as elements of a collective.

Consistent with the rules of war, an aggressor’s forfeiture of rights is not permanent. The default setting for a human being is to possess the right not to be killed, so when a person is no longer a threat, he regains his right, his bubble. What constitutes a “threat”? A threat is someone who possesses both the intent and the capability to violate someone’s right not to be killed (see Figure 4). As soon as a person no longer has the intent or the capability to violate the bubble of another, he regains his own bubble and should not be killed. This is why it is morally wrong to kill a detainee or an incapacitated insurgent.

That, in a nutshell, is the bubble theory of the morality of killing in war. I’ll be the first to acknowledge its shortcoming as a purely logical approach to an intensely emotional experience. Even soldiers who internalize this theory may still experience sadness, guilt, or shame after they kill in war. I doubt we would want it any other way; killing another human being is not something to be taken lightly or celebrated. Maybe the best we can hope for is that good soldiers’ bad feelings will be tempered by the knowledge that they did nothing morally wrong.
It’s also a fair criticism to say that the killing that takes place in war is often much more complicated than the situations described in this article. As one combat vet said to me, “It is almost never this simple. Very rarely is it a case of a white-hatted good guy shooting down the black-hatted villain who's been terrorizing the town. There are almost always shades of gray.” I agree, but we have to start somewhere. This article is intended to provide a “starter pack” of basic principles that you can utilize to initiate a deeper conversation in your units.

Perhaps the most tragic situations in war occur when well-intentioned soldiers mistakenly kill non-combatants. When unjust combatants refuse to wear uniforms, just soldiers bear the burden of identifying those who have forfeited their bubbles. Determining “hostile intent” is a big challenge for our soldiers, who often have to make split-second, life-or-death judgments with incomplete information. Good rules of engagement provide guidelines to assist that decision-making process. Nevertheless, given the complexity of combat, mistakes happen. The ROE will likely permit some immoral killing and condemn some morally justified killing, and soldiers will make well-intentioned, good-faith errors in distinguishing between non-combatants and combatants. It is critical that our soldiers understand that they are not morally blameworthy when they kill someone whom they thought had forfeited their bubble but in fact had not. Perhaps no argument will assuage their regret, but looking into their eyes and telling them, “You made the right moral decision with the information you had at hand” can only help. The vocabulary of rights and “bubbles” can help our soldiers make and justify their judgment calls, not only to 15-6 investigators but more importantly to their own consciences.

As you likely realized while reading the bubble theory, its approach to justifying killing in war requires that the soldier be fighting for a war that is just. This is a stumbling block for many military professionals. The bubble theory rejects the long-held tenet of the Just-War Tradition that soldiers on both sides of a war are “moral equals”—equally innocent of responsibility for the war but equally guilty of threatening each other. This claim of moral equality between unjust aggressor and just defender treats all soldiers as “innocent aggressors,” and thus reduces the “justification” of killing in war to the moral equivalent of gang warfare—no one is wrong because all are wrong, i.e., all soldiers have lost their bubbles. This waiver on soldiers’ responsibility for fighting may have had merit when feudal lords rounded up their serfs and led them into battle, but it does not reflect the educated, informed, morally autonomous citizen-soldiers of today.
We and our Soldiers cannot simply abdicate our responsibility to respect others’ human rights simply because we took an oath. Granted, given the huge responsibility we bear to protect the innocent, I do think that American Soldiers are morally obligated to fight unless they are convinced that a war is unjust. But I also think that an option should exist for selective conscientious objection. I doubt this would undermine good order and discipline. The patriots who volunteer to defend freedom will not abandon their fellow Soldiers without good cause. I have found most conscientious objectors to be woefully misinformed about morality in war. A healthy, ongoing conversation on the subject might actually enhance not only our Soldiers’ well being, but also recruiting and retention.

If the argument presented here makes sense, then we ought to do something about it. In addition to opening the conversation in our units, we can embed the ideas in our training. In AARs, we routinely ask questions like, “Why did you flank left?” and “Why did you decide to detain that person?” We can also ask, “Why was it morally right to kill that person?” As with anything else, our soldiers will become proficient through training. Killing is central to our profession, and it is a huge moral issue. We already train our soldiers to kill effectively; let’s train them to live effectively after they kill.

Take-aways for our soldiers
· Professionals of arms are entrusted to defend the innocent by using force.
· Every act of killing is a very serious, permanent action that requires moral justification.
· We kill only those who, by their own rights-threatening actions, have temporarily forfeited their own right not to be killed.
· Killing someone, even justifiably, is upsetting at some level. That’s normal and healthy. If the killing is morally unjustified, the psychological impact will likely be much greater.

Opening the conversation about the morality of killing in your unit
A lot more could be said, but this article covers the basics for launching a conversation in our units around the moral justification for killing in war and the natural feelings that killing stirs. A commander-initiated conversation will make your soldiers comfortable with the topic and provide them a shared vocabulary for talking about it. As Grossman says, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” A professional dialogue among you and your soldiers will be a lot healthier than the tortured internal monologues that so many soldiers are currently experiencing.

If you would like a copy of the full presentation, email me at I may be overseas for a few weeks in February with limited connectivity, so please be patient.
A final thought: It’s helpful to think of killing in war as akin to a doctor amputating the infected limb of a wounded warrior—it’s sad and painful, and it takes training and courage to do right, but is the morally right choice among lousy alternatives and therefore ought to be done.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Some important distinctions

It occured to me recently (while showering, when most good ideas emerge) that much of the discussion about the morality of killing in war is ineffective because important distinctions aren't made clear.

First, there's the essential question. Is it ever morally justified to kill enemy combatants? If killing the bad guys is not morally justifiable, then all participation in war is immoral. I feel very confident that killing combatants who fight for an unjust cause is morally permissible and perhaps obligatory for soldiers waging a just war. In fact, I find that many people who oppose war on moral grounds don't have a problem with killing enemy combatants of an unjust aggressor.

What they they have a problem with is believing that the unjust enemy combatants can be held responsible for their actions. This leads to the question, Does it matter (morally) if the enemy combatants have been coerced (to some extent) into fighting? And what, after all, constitutes sufficient coercion to absolve a person of his moral responsibility?

Finally, there's the question of the unintentional killing of noncombatants. Even if it's morally permissible to kill the enemy combatants (free and coerced), should you do so if you can reasonably foresee that non-combatants will be killed as well?

In short, the issues of moral responsibility and collateral damage are central to almost all discussions about the morality of killing in war, although too often we don't make these distinctions explicit. I think that I make a good case for the morality of killing unjust enemy combatants, given that I hold myself (and others) to a high standard of autonomy and moral responsibility. The collateral damage piece I'm still trying to think, through. Our enemy in the current war uses noncombatants as tools to gain an advantage, so we cannot hope to avoid the issue.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Good Samaritan arrives early

Among my statements that were included in the film "Soldiers of Conscience," my thought experiment about the Good Samaritan has evoked the most passionate feedback.

Some people have found it very helpful as a metaphor that expresses their moral sense that even good Christians must sometimes engage in violent acts in defense of themselves or others.

Conversely, some have taken offense. A person I'll refer to as TJ, a Methodist pastor, expressed his reaction in an email to me:

"First, please do not continue insult the story of the good samaritan by your interpretation. ...You are as ill-equipped to discuss theology, and especially in such a repulsive way, as I am to discuss military combat strategy...Your profile lists your interests to include faith and ethics. That, sir, may look good on your profile, but you and I both know that ethics and morals go out the window in war. To say otherwise... is insulting to the intelligence of all people who have ethics and morals in their lives...You should be ashamed. I will assume you are not."

For the record, all my work is based on my conviction that ethics and morals do NOT "go out the window in war." They are challenged by war's difficult circumstances, of course, but we must not respond to that challenge by quitting and giving in to evil; rather, we should redouble our efforts to prepare ourselves and create systems that empower moral behavior in combat. But I digress.

My insight on the Good Samaritan emerged from a conversation with a pacifist who was arguing that Jesus calls us to love, not to fight; that He calls us "to be like the Good Samaritan." The pacifist was assuming that someone who would kill someone who was attemping to kill the innocent is not someone who would help a beaten victim along the street, as it it were an either/or proposition.

I responded, "If I found a person left for dead along the road, I like to think that I would stop and render aid, just like the Good Samaritan. But if I found someone being beaten by robbers, I like to think that I would protect him by stopping the attack, even if I had to beat the hell out of the robbers. And I think the Good Samaritan would have done the same."

So, here's the thought experiment. What would the Good Samaritan--an exemplar given to us by Christ of a person who loves his neighbor--do if he had arrived at the scene earlier, while the robbers were assaulting the man?

1. Would the Good Samaritan walk on by?
2. Would the Good Samaritan stop and wait, allowing the beating to continue, and hope that the victim survived?
3. Would the Good Samaritan rush to find someone else to stop the beating?
4. Or, would the Good Samaritan risk his own safety to stop the attack and protect the victim, using violence as necessary?

When we look at it this way, I think it's pretty clear that the loving, decent, honorable, courageous, and Christian thing to do is to stop the attack.

After all, Jesus calls on us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I know that if I were ever being beaten mercilessly, I would fight back, and I would want any passerby to join in my defense. So, I will do the same for others.

I welcome and invite any feedback that focuses on the merits of the argument.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

On Conscientious Objectors, Soldiers, and Courage

I posted this on the blog in response to viewers of Soldiers of Conscience praising the featured conscientious objectors' courage.

A consistent--and, in fact, necessary--assumption of war pacifists is that the soldiers on both sides of a war are not fully autonomous human beings. Aiden reveals that assumption when he states, "the vast majority of Iraqi soldiers and insurgents are really poor, uneducated men with no prospects, forced into a life of violence not by belief, but by economics." I'm sure he would say the same thing about American Soldiers--that we are "forced or fooled" into choosing to serve their country in uniform.

I cannot tell you how many times, during my masters and doctoral work at civilian universities, and at professional conferences on both ethics and education (my fields of study), people have said to me, "Why would someone as intelligent as you ever join the military?" They are dumbfounded when an actual encounter with a Soldier reveals their assumptions to be false.

I have been inside the pacifist, anti-military movement, and it is characterized by a paternalistic disdain for those who choose to serve in the military. This assumption is so foundational, so shared, that anti-military pacifists take it for granted. They simply go about their work of "saving" those "poor, no-other-options-in-life" patriotic Americans from defending the freedoms we all enjoy.

The other point I would like to make concerns the (mis)use of the word "courage." The film and its media outreach present the CO's as courageous. Let's take a minute to examine the nature of the courage they demonstrated.

If courage is defined as overcoming fear, what is the CO afraid of? People thinking of him as a coward? Fear of social rejection by the peer group? Although this is undeniably a form of courage, it's the civilian equivalent to not drinking when your underage peers do, or of telling someone that you didn't appreciate their racist joke. The primary risk is social rejection.

So, a CO's courage is a legitimate form of courage (a type of moral courage), but it hardly compares with the the moral and physical courage exhibited by Soldiers who sign up to fight and then actually risk their lives in battle.

What does a Soldier fear? Death. Dismemberment. Things that are a bit more serious and permanent than social rejection. The civilian equivalent of a Soldier's courage is a fireman who rushes into a burning building to save someone trapped inside, or of a lifeguard who braves a rip tide to rescue swimmers.

Who's the hero--the kid who resists peer pressure or the one who risks his own life and limb to save someone else? Both are heroes, but the latter one deserves greater admiration.

For every 1 conscientious objector who shows courage in the face of peer pressure, there are more than 1,000 Soldiers who show courage in the face of violent death. We should all be thankful for that unseen, courageous majority. No one gives them book deals.