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.

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? 


2 Comments:

Blogger Eric said...

I would submit that many other options and considerations exist than those listed. Here are a few.

Is it necessary to shoot the enemy gunmen? Why not consider riot gas?

Could the building be cordoned-off and kept under seizure?

Is it necessary to employ crew served weapons - could we use a M-16 or a sniper instead?

Since we're focused on protecting the civilians inside the house, shouldn't we be concerned that the gunmen are a threat to them as well?

November 4, 2013 at 2:13 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Eric: Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I like the way you think.

Cordoning off the building and "waiting the bad guys out" isn't, however, a realistic option in most combat situations. Unlike police who can try to wait out a fugitive holed up in a building, soldiers incur significant additional risk when they are stationary for an extended period of time, especially without cover. We're talking about a small unit here, which could be maneuvered upon, mortared,etc.

I like the riot-gas option, but it's one that is prohibited by international law, which has declared that CS and other riot-control agents are "chemical weapons." As a results, soldiers don't carry them.

If a sniper or m-4/16 can do the job, of course that's a good option.

November 20, 2013 at 7:48 PM  

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