Why study the morality of killing in war?
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.