Skip to main content

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 a huge advantage. The bad guys usually get to initiate fires, forcing Soldiers to transform from cops to killers in an instant.

I worry that this too easily creates an over-reaction. Our Soldiers are doing a remarkable job overall of limiting collateral damage, but one area I worry about is some units' "react-to-contact drills" that include firing every weapons system, immediately in all directions, as suppressive fire, with or without targets. Doing this, of course, often leads to harm to innocents, which can be traumatic to the Soldiers who did the firing. Needless to say, it also furthers the insurgents' cause, "proving" that we don't care about the lives of Iraqis.

Like I said, this is a huge challenge for leaders on the ground. With very few exceptions, we ARE adhering to the laws of war, while the insurgents and terrorists are violating just about EVERY law of war (e.g., steal an ambulance, execute the driver, pack the ambulance with explosives, and intentionally kill children; does it get any worse than that?), to include not wearing uniforms.

But we have to find and share effective ways to help Soldiers transition seamlessly and continuously between their roles as warfighters and security forces. Soldiers who kill innocent people because of TTPs that privilege "force protection" over "moral justification" will one day pay the price of PTSD. Leaders need to be proactive and continuously seek ways to train their Soldiers to make justifiable moral calculations, even in the most difficult circumstances.

note: Thanks to LTC Tony Pfaff, whose ideas in this area have sparked my thinking. He has written a chapter (one I've heard about but not read) on this topic in a forthcoming book on the Army Profession.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Moral justification for killing in war

This is my latest version of laying out the argument. Feedback is welcomed!


A moral justification for killing in war
By Pete Kilner, 2009


Introduction:
The Army performs many of the same functions as civilian organizations, yet there is one absolutely unique and defining characteristic of our profession—we are organized, equipped and trained to kill people. As company-level leaders, we recruit patriotic young Americans to kill; equip them to kill; train them to kill; develop and issue orders for them to kill; issue fire commands for them to kill; and commend them for killing enemies of our country. We perform our duties well, and the American people sleep safely at night. However, we as a profession generally do not provide our soldiers with an explanation for why it is morally right for them to kill in combat. Consequently, many of the soldiers entrusted to our care suffer needless guilt after killing in war.
The purpose of this article is to offer you a tool—an explanation for the morali…

War can be an Experience of both Heaven and Hell

Many combat veterans have a love/hate relationship with their wartime experiences. They love the profound sense of purpose that their lives had; they hate the senseless evil that necessitated the war. They love the unity they experienced with their fellow soldiers; they hate the destruction they witnessed and sometimes unleashed.
Wars are visible, political conflicts that spawn invisible, moral conflicts within those who fight them.What combat veteran doesn’t feel pride and exhilaration, disgust and anger?That’s a volatile brew of emotions—a cauldron that veterans must recognize and reconcile in order to integrate their wartime experiences into their personal life narratives.
I am a career Army officer who embedded with combat units and interviewed hundreds of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan over multiple deployments. I am also a Christian. In the course of my own struggle to integrate my identity as a soldier with my larger identity as a Christian, I gained an insight—one informed by …

Killing enemy combatants--a justification

Introduction
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.

Currently, we milita…