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.

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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.

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."

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8 Comments:

Anonymous greg cryns said...

I like your effort but I think you need to rethink the word "Patriot."

Some people who sign up just love to shoot guns, gulp, at people.

I personally know a few of them.

But keep up the good work. Let's discuss why few are commenting? You certainly are radical enough, thank you.

February 1, 2010 at 9:37 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Greg:

...and "some people" who post on blogs are child molestors.

My point? Don't fall prey to hasty generalizations.

February 2, 2010 at 9:17 AM  
Anonymous Gabe said...

Pete,

You said: "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."

When you say 'an option' are you suggesting that soldiers should have the option of selective conscientious objection (SCO) while remaining in the armed forces? If so, it seems that a military operation would then require the civilian and military leadership to work to convince the soldier it is "just." Right? If you're speaking about SCO as a way to leave the armed forces, then this already exists -- so you're not making a unique claim at all.

March 10, 2010 at 2:24 AM  
Blogger Pete said...

Gabe:
US military personnel do not have the option of selective conscientious objection. To make a claim to CO, a soldier has to argue that he's had a "crystallizing experience" that leaves him morally or philosophically opposed to ALL war. In terms of CO, an American does not have the right to pick and choose his wars.

As for your first point, that political leaders would have to justify a war to their military personnel, I say "Yes, of course they should!" I don't think that anyone should kill another on blind faith (unless he trusts the source and there is no time to hear an explanation); we should be given a good argument on why killing others is the right thing to do, i.e., why a particular war is just.

March 12, 2010 at 11:30 PM  
Anonymous Gabe said...

Pete,

To follow up on my question and your response I want to try to better understand your position by asking:

(1) You said that "an option should exist for selective conscientious objection." Would this mean, on your proposal, that a soldier who is facing a deployment to Iraq, for example, who has not been persuaded by his Commanding Officer that Iraq is in fact a just war, would have the option of staying in the Army, but refusing to participate in that particular war? (I think this would be great, but one might wonder what this would look like in practice.)

(2) As a member of the military, I have perceived a general attitude that whatever America does is just. In fact, probably since Vietnam, criticisms are seen by many as weakening the cause. (Or, worse, it could ruin your career. Are you familiar with the AF Chaplain Lt Col Garland Robertson who criticized the Persian Gulf War?) Since you're in favor of open discussions about the morality of killing in a given war, let me ask you directly, do you believe that Iraq is a just war -- in the sense that it meets the jus ad bellum criteria? If not, if you had to go, would you refuse and be discharged, or would you participate in an unjust war?

Thanks fostering conversations like this one!

March 17, 2010 at 10:50 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Gabe:
I do think that every Army officer should be capable of explaining to his/her Soldiers why a particular war is arguably morally justified.

The burden of proof I think would be appropriate is:

1. If you are in the military, you should serve in a war unless you are very confident that the war is unjust;i.e., serve unless proven otherwise.
2. If you are a civilian, you should demand that your political leaders explain why a war is just; i.e., oppose a war unless a persuasive argument is offered.

The biggest challenge with this approach is that very few, inside or outside of the military, possess the knowledge to judge the morality of a war. As a nation, our understanding of and facility with ethics is low; it's even worse when it comes to morality in war. So, there's a large education hurdle to overcome, and there would be culture wars over the moral objectivism/relativism debate.

Re: the Iraq war. When I served there in 2003, I thought that it was a just war, although I argued even then that it should have been treated as an armed humanitarian intervention, which would have required us to prepare to serve the people's humanitarian needs. Given that we later learned that the WMD threat was less than claimed, I think it was stupid to invade on the grounds that we did, but not unjust. The Hussein regime had long ago forfeited its rights to exercise authority over its people--it had no right to territorial integrity or political sovereignty; those rights are derived by a gov't from respecting the rights of the people it serves. Hussein's gang did the opposite.

It's important to keep in mind that moral decisions are always made with the conditions at hand and the information at hand. All that talk in 2005-6 that "It was wrong to invde, pull out now" was the babble of folks clueless about ethics and the situation in Iraq. By analogy, a man shouldn't abandone a woman and child two years after he promiscuously/immorally got her pregnant; what's done is done, and now he has to do what is right given the situation he created.
Back to Iraq: As soon as we took down the Hussein regime, everything changed. We no longer could "undo" that. So, while it may have been stupid to invade as we did, it would have been morally wrong to destroy a gov't and then abandon the people to even more evil forces. IMHO, since May 2003 our cause has been just, but we've had periods in which our methods were so stupid and counterproductive to border on being unethical. Our "saving grace" in Iraq has been that our opponent--AQI and others--are so utterly evil that we are clearly the good guys in comparison.

I was also in Iraq in 2007, and I served alongside my fellow Soldiers with great pride. We were the Iraqi people's hope and (temporal) salvation, and we paid a huge price to give them a future.

As for Afghanistan, I was there last year and last month on short deployments out to combat units. I think that it also is a just war, being fought justly for a just cause.

March 18, 2010 at 8:20 AM  
Anonymous Gabe said...

The ‘burden of proof’ paradigm seems to make sense, but I see a couple practical problems with it given the other comments you’ve made.
(1) Serve unless proven otherwise –- Suppose an Army officer is considering the advice of MAJ Kilner that he ought to explain the morality of a particular war. However, he believes (probably rightly) that critical thinking and discussion about the morality (or potential immorality!) of a war the US wages could actually create doubts in the mind of some of his men. In fact, he realizes that there might be a few who would decide leave the service given the necessary conditions of Just War Theory. Given this, he decides that it’s better to avoid the topic and just talk as though whatever our country does is right. You know, give ‘em the ol’ Hooah stuff with a pejorative epithet about the enemy to reinforce that we’re the good guys. How would you respond to this concern?
(2) Given your justification of Iraq, it almost sounds like you’re saying, “If a war is unjust, I’ll get out of the military. But, phew, it’s a good thing that it turns out that every war America has ever waged is just.” I know you only addressed Iraq and Afghanistan, so would you say that Desert Storm, Vietnam, Korea, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, etc. are “just”? As for Iraq, can you really say that waging war there was a last resort? Some studies show that 90% of the total Iraqis killed in the war have been civilian. How does this square with the distinction condition? If we should have gone in there for humanitarian reasons, why didn’t we go into Darfur or Rwanda? Plus, remember we’re still being told that this is part of the GWOT! The reason we went in is because there were links between 9/11 and Iraq and there is an imminent threat because they have WMDs. It was a pre-emptive war, which is contrary JWT by definition. All this said, I agree that what’s done is done, and we have to make the best of the situation (basically Obama’s position).

Let me also say that I agree that the level of moral discourse in the military and in America is abysmal. I know I have had to do LOAC courses every so often; surely they could include a segment on jus ad bellum during this and even talk about JWT in Basic Training. Wouldn’t this help a little? In my opinion, I don’t think we need to debate objectivism/relativism (or any other metaethical matter) when considering the justice of a particular war; if someone disagrees with JWT, for example, then one might simply ask them for a set of criteria by which they might judge the morality of a war (and the dialogue can proceed from there) . It seems to me that the general culture of the military is not one that highly esteems critical thinking and debate. You’re involved in educating the next wave of Army leaders. In general, does West Point’s educational philosophy put a high premium on critical thinking, moral reasoning, and even the possibility that America is wrong (unjust) in a certain circumstance (now or in the future)?

Lastly, I also appreciate the fact that the motives of the soldier are different from the motives of the politician. Even if Bush went into Iraq unjustly primarily motivated by geopolitical considerations (the ability to govern, loosely speaking, the Middle East by proxy if we establish a democracy there) (as I believe he did), the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who have served there were most likely motivated by a self-sacrificial desire to protect others (Americans and Iraqis).

March 21, 2010 at 5:20 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Dang, Gabe, I'm sorry that I lost the bubble on this thread. I get OBE of life at times. I'll respond now to several of your points and hope that you're still interested.

1. If we were to adopt selective conscientious objection in the Army, what would we do with SCO's about a particular war? I think we'd have to discharge them with a category of honorable discharge that stated "Honorable discharge as selective conscientious objector." We couldn't keep them around as malingerers as their buddies were off at war, but neither should we punish them with a discharge that is other than honorable.

2. Do I think all US wars and actions have been just?
No.
--The intentional targeting of civilians in our use of atomic bombs in Japan was morally wrong.

--I'm still not sure of all the facts regarding Vietnam, but given the illegitimacy of the SVN Gov't I lean toward the war being unjust. There was no legitimate political community to defend.

--Grenada was a pure power play that was morally unjust in its cause but waged justly at the operational level.

Keep in mind that we humans are morally blameworthy only if we know something to be wrong yet do it willingly. I disagree with Just War Theory's traditional split between Jus ad bellum and Jus in bello, but I do think that soldiers can always always be held responsible for their actions in bello, whereas in more cases than not, they are not in a position to make good judgements on the justice of their war.


September 3, 2012 at 9:00 PM  

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