Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2005

CO is only half the word

A logical implication of my rights-based approach to justifying war is that selective conscientious objection (CO) must be permitted. The challenge of this, though, is determining when a soldier is a legitimate conscientious objector and when he is just afraid and selfish.

In my limited experience, I’ve found that “CO” is only half the word. The other half is –“WARD”. As in coward. How do we distinguish CO’s who are legitimate (those with real, well thought-out moral convictions against the war) from those who are mere cowards?

My former unit in the 82nd found one way to address this challenge during the Gulf War in 1991. In the days of the air campaign before the ground campaign began, a soldier in an infantry battalion declared that he “could not kill his Muslim brothers” and fully expected to be sent to the rear or sent home. His battalion leadership, however, distrusted the soldier’s motive, and put him to a test. The commander took the soldier’s weapon away (so he wouldn’t ru…

More evidence of the MH "blind spot" on PTSD

A story in today's USA Today reveals that "1 in 4 Iraq vets ailing on return." As always, the Pentagon spokesperson and mental-health leaders attributed the mental health problems only to what happened to Soldiers, giving no attention to what Soldiers may have done.

“The (wartime) deployments do take a toll,” says Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “We send them to austere locations, places that are extremely hot, extremely cold, very wet, very dry … where they may also encounter an armed enemy.”As if feelings of suicide after a deployment were caused by the weather in Iraq.

The article also included this list from DoD:
Of servicemembers returning from the Iraq war this year:
47% saw someone wounded or killed, or saw a dead body.14% had an experience that left them easily startled.6% wanted help for stress, emotional, alcohol or family problems.2% had thoughts of hurting someone or losing control.1% had thoughts that they might be better off dead or could hurt th…

Remembering the Battle of Mogadishu

Today is the 12th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, when Task Force Ranger and the 10th MTN fought, killed, and died in what was arguably our first battle against Al Queda.

My thoughts and prayers go out to our brave Soldiers and their families. Battles as intense as that one leave a lifetime mark on those who are involved, for better or worse.

Developing a Coherent Moral Argument

The profession of arms talks about ‘morality and war’ using legal terms and concepts. For example, we justify our decision to deploy and fight when the President orders us because we signed a contract to obey the officers appointed over us. Similarly, we consider ourselves blameless when we kill enemy combatants as long as we do not violate the laws of war or the rules of engagement in doing so. These legal rules are so important to our professional identity that all soldiers receive instruction on the laws of war in basic combat training and then annually thereafter, and soldiers at war review the rules of engagement much more often, sometimes daily.

Not everyone in our society, however, accepts these legal answers to moral questions. War pacifists are people who believe that war is morally unjustifiable. They claim that soldiers are morally wrong to participate in war and to kill other human beings, regardless of what’s legally permissible at the time.

I am concerned that we in the pr…

Killing in War: a Rights-based Justification

Killing in War: a Rights-based Justification

Why killing enemy combatants is morally justified

BLUF: When we kill enemy combatants, we are not violating their rights to not be killed, because they have already forfeited that right by their free choice to violate the rights of others to not be killed.

Every person, by virtue of being a human being, possesses the right to not be killed by another person. This is commonly referred to as the “right to life,” but the term “right to not be killed” is more precise. Our rights, for example, are not violated when we die of heart disease, cancer, or a lightning strike. Our “right to life” is violated only when another person intentionally or negligently acts to kill us.

The term “right to not be killed” also makes clear that we possess rights only in relation to other human beings. If a dog bites us, the animal has not violated our rights. Perhaps the dog’s owner has, if she negligently allowed the dog to roam unleashed, but the dog itself cannot b…

Rejecting the Moral Equality of Soldiers

The Supposed “Moral Equality of Soldiers”

Traditional Notion of the Soldiers’ Moral Equality
BLUF: Those who defend rights do not forfeit their own rights.

My argument thus far has assumed that we are the “good guys” and enemy combatants are the “bad guys”; that we retain our right to not be killed while they have forfeited theirs. Believe it or not, the long tradition of just-war thought rejects this notion—instead claiming that all combatants, on both sides of a conflict, are “moral equals” (Walzer 1977; Christopher 1999).

Briefly, the argument for the “moral equality of soldiers” states that since combatants on both sides take up arms against each other, then all combatants are both threats to their enemy and threatened by their enemy. Combatants on both sides, by this account, are equally guilty of being threats, so they all forfeit their right to not be killed. Consequently, all combatants are also equally innocent of violating their enemy’s rights. Thus, soldiers on both sides…

What we owe our Soldiers

This week, I received an email from a friend who is attending the Army's Command & General Staff College, which is the intermediate level (rank of major) education for officers. He had been tasked to lead a seminar discussion based on my article, "Military Leaders' Obligation to Justify Killing in War," so he asked me some questions as he prepared. Below are his questions and my off-the-cuff responses.

1) What are our moral obligations as leaders to our soldiers?
There are probably tons, but here are some thoughts off the top of my head:

a. Train them to be proficient in their wartime tasks, so they have the best chance of accomplishing their mission and returning home alive.

b. Respect them as persons--this includes things such as recognizing their family obligations and not humiliating them and looking out for their long-term welfare (encourage GI Bill, financial counseling, etc). A part of respecting our soldiers as people is ensuring that they can integrate thei…

NPR Interviews

The audiofiles of the interviews are available online: Here and Now, a 15-minute interview and the Leonard Lopate show, a 35-minute discussion that included WSJ reporter Greg Jaffe.

I'll be interviewed today (Wed, 24Aug) on the syndicated radio show Here and Now at 12:10pm EDT, and tomorrow (Thur, 25Aug) on WNYC's Leonard Lopate show from 1:15-2pm EDT. Feel free to listen in and send me your feedback.

Are ROE sufficient?

A senior leader recently said to me that the LLW and ROE are all that Soldiers need; and, in fact, that introducing morality into the battlefield equation will only confuse Soldiers and undermine discipline.

I respectfully disagree. First of all, would you ever try to justify an action as moral by saying, "The lawyer said it was ok"? I think that we all know that what's legally permissible and what's morally permissible can be very different. In almost all cases, they do correspond with each other, but they may not always, and they come from different sources. Law and policy is contingent--written by a lawyer or commander; morality is necessary--it has a less flawed, more enduring Author. Thus, for a soldier who has killed someone in Fallujah, the knowledge that the JAG in Baghdad or Arlington would say that the killing wasn't illegal isn't going to be a great comfort to his conscience. He already knows that, since he acted IAW ROE, he won't be court…

Link to masters thesis

Soldiers, Self Defense, and Killing in War

Chapter 1 is a critique of Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars, which is used at West Point and is the best text on Just War Theory. Walzer understands warfare, but he implicitly relies on an account of killing in self defense that is much too permissive, one that claims that we are justified in killing anything or anyone that threatens us.

Chapter 2 is a critique of war-pacifism as laid out in Richard Norman's Ethics, Killing, and War. I argue that he presents a strong case for when killing is and is not justified, but--because he simply does not understand soldiers and warfare--he applies his criteria inaccurately to soldiers in war.

In Chapter 3, I show how Norman's account of justified killing can be combined with Walzer's more accurate understanding of warfare to produce a moral justification for killing in combat.

This was my first deep thinking on the subject, so I invite and welcome any critiques of the argument.

Warfighter or Security enforcer: the moral implications

Counterinsurgency operations (COIN) present tons of challenges, not the least of which is how they complicate the moral calculus of killing.

A Soldier who fights in a high-intensity war against a uniformed enemy can confidently assume that every enemy soldier is a combatant, a threat, someone whom it's morally permissible to kill. That's why Soldiers don't fire warning shots; instead, they aim to "put two in the chest." People downrange are to be killed unless they surrender or become incapcitated.

In contrast, a Soldier who is part of a security force in a situation where his mission is to protect the people and where a non-uniformed enemy hides among the people, such as the situation we face in the Iraq COIN, faces a calculus more like that of a police officer. He must assume that people are innocent civilians until evidence suggests otherwise. People downrange are to be protected unless they show hostile intent.

This puts Soldiers in a bind; it gives the bad guys…

Talking about this stuff "publicly"

Some of my fellow Soldiers have questioned whether I should be addressing this issue--the need to talk about the moral justification of killing and its possible linkage to PTSD/PITS--in such a public forum. There's a concern that this is our 'dirty laundry' that we shouldn't air out for everyone to see. It’s true, after all, that some anti-war groups have used some of my words (usually out of context) to further their agendas.

So, here's some thoughts on why I think we as Soldiers should talk publicly about this issue:Public discussion on killing will be good for the Army and its relationship with the people its serves because civilian readers will likely be pleasantly surprised-to-shocked to realize that: the Army actually educates and trains Airborne-Ranger types who care deeply about morality in war; that officers study morality and war; that West Point teaches it as part of a required class; that the Army encourages and rewards critical thinkers; that its leader…

"Back into the fight" vs "Back into civil society"

There have been a bunch of articles lately, especially in the Army Times, about actions the Army is taking to address the problem of PTSD among Soldiers. I'm a little concerned to hear the Army place so much emphasis on the role of combat-stress teams (CSTs), which are in-country teams of uniformed mental-health professionals who counsel Soldiers after critical events (e.g., firefights).

By many accounts, CSTs are very effective at getting Soldiers "back into the fight." So, it seems that CSTs address what's been called "shell shock" and "battle fatigue" in previous wars.

But, I wonder: is the treatment that gets Soldiers back to being Soldiers the same that's required to help Soldiers re-integrate as civilians? After all, PTSD isn't about not being able to get back into the fight; it's about not being able to leave the fight behind.

Recent reports indicate that symptoms of PTSD are more common in the follow-up screenings done 3-4 months …

Conceptual overview of required philosphy course I taught at West Point

Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to attempt to provide a conceptual overview of PY201, Philosophy.[I wrote this for my students, but it may interest others now, including my many former students who are leading Soldiers today in the war; course key terms are in bold.] Some of this is material that we have not covered this semester.I include it nevertheless because it will probably (hopefully?) make sense to you.

This addresses the three section of the course:
critical thinkingoverview of moral theoriesmorality and warPY201 addresses three areas of philosophy—critical thinking, moral philosophy, and morality in war.Your goal here at West Point should be to become a leader who will make the right decisions in war.To do so, you must be able to think critically in order to evaluate the various and competing theories of moral philosophy.Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what it means and entails to live morally.Once we better understand what morality is, we are able to app…

Systems thinking and preventing/treating PTSD

I'm reading Redesigning Society by Ackhof and Rovin (2003), and something occurred to me.

They describe four ways to address a problem:
absolve it--ignore it and hope it will go away.resolve it--employ behavior previously used in similar situations to get a good-enough outcome.solve it--discover or create a new behavior that yields a best-possible outcome.dissolve it--redesign the system or environment to eliminate the causes of the problem. Accordingly, IF moral guilt caused by killing in war is a cause of PTSD, then even unlimited post-combat medical screening and VA access will not take care of the problem for those afflicted. Those actions (currently being taken, with the best of intentions) treat the symptoms of PTSD, not the cause. DoD is setting itself up for long-term, resource-intensive care if it addresses only symptoms, not root causes.

We as a military profession need to "redesign" the way we think about killing. We need to recognize that it's an upsetti…

The Military Leader’s Role in Preventing and Treating Combat-related, Perpetration-Induced Psychological Trauma

Initially presented at JSCOPE 2005. This version substitutes "leaders" for "ethicists," because it's leaders at all levels who can make a difference on this issue for the Soldiers entrusted to them.

Abstract: I argue that military leaders have an important role to play in preventing and treating combat-related Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Syndrome (PITS), which is a particular form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).Recent research provides compelling evidence that guilt resulting from having killed in combat is a very significant factor in a veteran’s development of PITS/PTSD.However, the military’s medical community is not addressing this factor.This is not surprising, given that the medical community as a whole tends to focus on environmental conditions and what happens to a person, not on what a person does.Leaders, in contrast, do focus on their Soldiers’ actions and on the morality and repercussions of those actions.I propose that military leaders …