Thoughts of a Soldier-Ethicist

I am a Soldier who believes in the moral standing of my profession, yet knows that we could improve and is committed to serving that cause. I have served as an enlisted infantryman, as an infantry officer in the 1st AD and 82nd ABN, and as a philosophy instructor at West Point. Please engage with me in an online conversation about morality and the profession of arms. Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the position of USMA, DA, or DOD.

My Photo
Name:
Location: West Point, New York, United States

Army officer; two short deployments to Iraq (03, 07), three to Afghanistan (09, 10, 11); Ph.D in Education (Penn State); M.A. in Philosophy (Virginia Tech); B.S. in Political Science (West Point); married, father of four sons.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Radio Interview on KQED San Francisco

Wow, I just endured a frustrating interview. The anti-military assumptions and leading questions of the host, Michael Krasny, were the most biased I've ever encountered.

I was just waiting for him to begin a question with, "Given that killing in war is immoral and the war in Iraq is wrong and that the only psychologically healthy people in the military are those who apply for conscientious objection, a process that the military makes unnecessarily difficult, what do you think about...."

Is he that biased on every topic?

The other people on the program were:

Gary Weimberg, the co-director of Soldiers of Conscience, who in the beginning of the interview played along with Krasny's line of questioning but later on challenged some of the host's assumptions;

Aiden Delgado, who is marvelously articulate and a genuine, Buddhist conscientious objector (CO). I'd want to talk war and morality with him over a beer, except that his Buddhist views are ulimately irreconcilable with my core values. He'd let someone be killed, even if he could stop it, so as not to diminish his own life. To the Judeo-Christian worldview, that's plain selfish. To a Buddhist, that makes sense.

J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, a CO advocacy group. She thinks she knows a lot more about war than she does. Her knowledge of warfare comes from conscientious objectors she helps and mass-market books, yet she claims to know what it's like in combat units in war. Ignorance+bias = a waste of the listener's time.

My favorite caller was a psycotherapist who treats veterans with PTSD. She says that EVERY patient she has suffers from the effects of war. From that, she generalized that EVERY veteran of war suffers. Talk about generalizing from a skewed sample. Healthy veterans would have no reason to see her.

I hope my participation did some good; if nothing else, I interrupted a left-wing chatfest against the military.

4 Comments:

Blogger tophe said...

Generally I would say Buddhists avoid killing not just for karma points for themselves--would be worth a chat over a beer :-) You could make the same argument over Christians who turn the other cheek just to get themselves into heaven. Frankly it seems more like an issue of where people weigh certain moral tradeoffs than which religion they belong to. Although that Aiden guy made it sound more like a 'I can't handle that for myself' point at one point.

My biggest complaint about the interview isn't slant, but that it jumps around too much--the discussion doesn't really explore key issues that everybody touched on because it feels like it's switching topics every few minutes. I didn't hear McNeil act like she knows about warfare itself, but more about law and policy. But I did hear Krasny randomly throw out questions he was pulling out of his ass. He was up for the talk of the nation host slot, but didn't get it, and I think that's good. He doesn't get to depth on any one topic.

One thing I wish had come through more in the discussion is what people are willing to accept as responsible consequences of their actions. For instance, going to jail rather than violating your most sacred beliefs, or being shot to death rather than violating your most sacred beliefs, or committing what might be legally treated as murder, but for which you are impelled by your sacred beliefs--that could be an Al Quaeda person, or it could be a US soldier fighting a commanding officer trying to start a coup. (Nobody really talked about what are the conscientious obligations as the flip side of conscientious objections.)

One thing I think that was a weakness of how your own participation was cast is you often got slotted into 'defender of all wars' when in fact the selective conscientious objection argument you raise is sort of the opposite of that. I think that made the whole panel less useful. Also the typical issue of whether it's safe to generalize from examples. Wish you had numerical data to refute the 'all units are the same' generalization. And of course the confusing mixture between academic quality data and academic quality generalizations vs. personal stories and journalistic quality generalizations.

I actually thought they would have been more receptive to your points if you had more chance to persuade and were less defensive in tone. It might have been really helpful if there were some clear stories that could be told of people who really felt compelled to kill, and not in some bloodthirsty way but in a moral rationale way. I wonder if that would be a way to really open up the dialogue and perhaps even do training on the different ethical theories underlying the decision to kill or not to kill.

October 16, 2008 at 6:12 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Tophe:

Great insights, as usual! I couldn't agree with you more on your analysis of the interview.

That said, I will dispute your "turn the other cheek" comment by saying that mainstream Christianity has a long tradition of recognizing the moral justification (and in some cases, obligation) of using force.

Of course, some literalist Christians could say that victims of violance should "turn the other cheek." Personally, I question the consistency of such literalists when I never see them cutting out their own lustful eyes, nor cutting off their own tongues after speaking sinful words, nor castrating themselves after masturbating. My point is, Christianity does have a strong core of interpretation that rejects the pluck-a-line exegesis inherent in "turn the other cheek" pacifism.

Re: the interview. You really hit the hail on the head with the point about random questions...or at least questions that didn't build on earlier points. I didn't realize that until you said it.

You should have seen me here in the office yesterday during the interview, taking notes on what the other people had said, looking for the opportunity to dig deeper on some points, only to then hear a question that was totally unrelated. I didn't handle it well, as my disjointed responses revealed.

Anyway, it's an amazing world when you're listening and commenting from...where? Nepal? India? Keep doing great things for the world, which include keeping me honest.

Pete

October 17, 2008 at 12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did not hear the interview.
I did watch the broadcast of the film Thursday night.

You justify killing in order to save lives, which you base on what you call Judeo-Christian tradition.

I think that you are conflating the teachings of Jesus (as recorded in the Bible) with how Christianity has in fact been practiced since His death.

Can you name a single instance in the New Testament in which Jesus justifies killing?

The only violent thing Jesus is reported to have done was to chase the money changers from temple.

Jesus, in fact, does say that one should turn the other cheek when someone strikes you.

Do most people who call themselves Christians follow the teachings of Jesus?

In my opinion, one can really only claim to be a Christian if one strives to follow all the teachings of Jesus, particularly this one, difficult as it is.

The teachings of Jesus set themselves apart from the traditions of Judaism up to this point.

As you probably know, in spite of the Ten Commandments injunction "Thou Shalt Not Kill," there are all sorts of wars the ancient Hebrews fight against their enemies. The Old Testament is somewhat contradictory in this.

But, the teachings of Jesus were a huge break from that tradition.

Don't confuse the teachings of Jesus with the claims of his followers that they were waging war in His name. (Here I always think of the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers.") Most people cannot follow Christianity. They simply want to use it as a cloak for their own interests.

How different is this from radical Islamicists who claim to be Muslims while committing atrocities?

War and Christianity cannot be reconciled.

I have no problem personally with the idea of protecting the life of someone by killing.

But, wars are, all too frequently, not fought under these black and white circumstances, but as a result of policy decisions that have nothing to do with saving people. They are ultimately too often fought to improve the flow of trade and our influence and provide needed natural resources. Here I am particularly thinking of every war from Vietnam on that the United States has fought (Granada, Panama, Iraq).

Using these wars as examples, your argument has no basis. In fact, we became the aggressors towards nations that had not attacked us nor planned to attack us.

We interfere in the internal affairs of other countries whose goverments we don't like (like Chile, where the CIA helped in deposing and murdering Allende, a democratically elected president).

Looking at your slides, as one person commented, these could be seen from the viewpoint of Iraqi insurgents, who feel they are protecting their country from invaders and occupiers and who, therefore, have every right to do what they do.

To conclude, your arguments are fine regarding killing if one assumes that the military will be used only in defensive situations. It fails, in my opinion, when the military is used to advance American interests instead.

October 18, 2008 at 12:58 AM  
Blogger Pete said...

"I have no problem personally with the idea of protecting the life of someone by killing...To conclude, your arguments are fine regarding killing if one assumes that the military will be used only in defensive situations." -Anonymous

Dean Anonymous:

It appears to me that we agree on the principles for the moral justification of killing--namely, killing is morally right when it is done to protect the innocent against an aggressor.

So, we agree that killing an attacker to protect innocent life is morally right, and that wars to defend rights are morally right.

And, while slides without their explanations can be vague, my argument does justify killing only in a war where the cause is just, i.e., defensive.

So, where do we disagree? Two areas: on the facts of the current war; and on "What Would Jesus Say" about war, as indicated solely by Scripture, as apparently you interpret Scripture for yourself without recourse to the revealed 2000-year Tradition of the Christian Church (e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, Pope John Paul II).

As for the facts of this or any war, it's hardly worth arguing, since minds are so closed. I have researched small-unit leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars' inceptions; I have interviewed literally hundreds of Soldiers in combat; I continue to have near-daily communication with small-unit leaders in both wars; BUT, I have yet to talk with any committed anti-war activists who will listen to any facts I offer that don't agree with theirs. Time and again, I have found that trying to argue about the morality of any particular war when there is no possibility for a common ground on the facts is a pointless exercise.

Finally, let's talk the revelation of Christianity on the subject of war. While it is true that Jesus never endorsed war, neither did he condemn it. Jesus pulled no punches (verbally) with sinners--prostitutes, tax collectors, hypocritical religious leaders, etc.--yet he had nothing but praise for the faith of soldiers, whom he noticably did not condemn nor tell to "sin no more." In Acts, Cornelius is celebrated as an early convert, yet never does it say that he had to stop serving as a soldier.

What was Peter doing with a sword in Gethsemene anyway?

If someone wants to pull verses from Scripture without taking into the account their entire context, he or she will immediately find Scripture "full of contradictions."

I don't think that God contradicts Himself. That's why I'll bet my soul on the 2,000-year, systematic, holistic exegesis of the Catholic Church. Some aspects of faith are mysteries--we're trying to understand God, after all--but there need not be contradictions without explanation.

So, you say, "War and Christianity cannot be reconciled." I ask for your evidence to support that claim, especially when you say that defensive war is justified.

This is healthy discussion. Thank you for engaging. Too often, people on both "sides" merely preach to their own choirs, which leads to division, not unity, and which hardens the status quo rather than contributes to moral progress.

Pete

October 18, 2008 at 10:14 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home