Thursday, July 28, 2005

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 thinking
  • overview of moral theories
  • morality and war

PY201 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 apply personal moral decision making to the challenging arena of war.

Critical Thinking

Leadership is the art of persuasion. In order to be able to consistently persuade diverse people, we must appeal to their reason. All healthy human beings share in reason, whereas their emotions are unique to themselves. In order to be effective leaders, then, we must be able to make good arguments that appeal to reason.

An argument is a collection of claims, one of which is the conclusion whose truth the argument attempts to establish; the other claims are called the premises, which are supposed to lead to, or support, or convince that the conclusion is true.

A claim is any declarative sentence that we can view as either true or false. An objective claim is one whose truth value is independent of what anyone thinks or feels (e.g., Virginia Tech is ranked #2 in the BCS poll). On the other hand, a subjective claim is a claim whose truth value does depend on thoughts or feelings (e.g., I love Virginia Tech football). Because the truth value of objective claims can be shared and verified, they are more convincing than subjective claims.

A claim in an argument should not be too vague or ambiguous. A claim is too vague when it is unclear what the speaker intended (e.g., “Cadets are more conservative than other people). A claim is ambiguous if there are at least two clear ways to understand it (e.g., Dogs smell better than horses).

Good arguments, ones which should convince a rational person to accept the conclusion, are comprised of claims that are plausible (true or likely to be true) that lead to conclusions. If plausible claims lead to a conclusion that must be true, then the argument is sound (valid form + plausible premises). If plausible claims lead to a conclusion that is likely true, then the argument is nondeductively successful.

Complex arguments are comprised of sub-arguments, whose conclusions (intermediate conclusions) serve as the premises to the main argument. In a typical argumentative essay, particular points of evidence (premises) support ideas that are expressed in topic sentences (intermediate conclusions/main premises) which, in turn, support the essay’s thesis statement. A good thesis statement is usually comprised of the arguer’s position on an issue and her reasons for that position (final conclusion + main premises).

For example, the thesis statement, “Officers are morally obligated to serve in wars that they believe are unjust, because they are not responsible for the decision to go to war, they lack the information to make informed judgments, and the best way to realistically achieve objective justice is to follow the procedures of formal justice,” is really an argument that in standard form appears as:

P1. Officers are not responsible for the decision to go to war.

P2. Officers lack the information to make informed judgments on the justice of a wars.

P3. The best way for officers to realistically achieve objective justice is to follow the procedures of formal justice.________________________________________________________

C. Officers are morally obligated to serve in wars that they believe are unjust.

Moral Philosophy

Everyone has a sense of right and wrong, and it is usually very easy to distinguish right from wrong in most everyday situations. We may not always do what we know to be right, but at least we know that what we are doing is wrong. What is wrong is usually frowned upon by society, illegal, disrespectful to others, and harmful to everyone overall. Take, for example, stealing. No one likes a thief, police arrest thieves, victims of theft feel “wronged,” and, in general, stealing creates a net unhappiness in the short and long-term. Because most everyday moral decisions are no-brainers, we do not have to think often about what morality is, about what it really means to say that something is immoral, about what it is that makes right “right” and wrong “wrong.”

Professional soldiers do not have the luxury of being morally unreflective. Officers fight and lead others into wars, and in wars the everyday moral rules are turned upside down. Outside of war, killing another person is the ultimate evil. In war, killing other people is the moral norm. This can be terribly morally troubling unless the officer understands what morality is.

In this course, we expose you to different theories of morality, explaining and critiquing them so that you can use your critical thinking skills to gain a deeper understanding of what you think morality is. Each of the moral theories that we study has some claim on truth, yet all of them have some apparent problems, and many of them contradict each other. You must discern your own sense of right and using, using your argumentative skills and theoretical understanding of the moral theories to arrive at some coherent explanation of why the activities of war are morally permissible.

Here is a brief overview of the moral theories that we studied:

Ethical relativism claims that there are no universal moral truths (except, of course, the universal claim that there are no universal claims). Ethical conventionalism is the relativistic position that morality is whatever a culture decides that it is. If the culture changes its opinion, then what is moral changes. Ethical subjectivism is the viewpoint that each person determines his or her own morality, so no one can judge anyone else. Everyone has his or her own standard of morality. An appeal of ethical relativism is that it limits moral judgment against us. A problem with ethical relativism is that it negates our authority to make moral judgments on others. For example, the conventionalist cannot logically contend that the holocaust was wrong or that slavery was wrong; whatever society held was right was, by definition, right. Likewise, the ethical subjectivist cannot logically make any moral claims against anyone else. If someone were to brutally kill the little sister of a subjectivist, all the subjectivist could fairly say was, “I wouldn’t have done that. That would be wrong for me to do, because I think that brutally killing children is wrong. Still, I respect that your morality may say that such killing is right.”

The next four moral theories that we cover are objectivist—they recognize that at least some moral principles are objectively valid, which means that they are binding on all people.

The Divine Command Theory of morality holds that it is the will of God, expressed through revelation, that makes right things right and wrong things wrong. We must do what God commands. An appeal of this theory is that it integrates our spiritual and moral selves. A problem with this theory is that it, unless we are prepared to accept that God’s will is arbitrary (i.e., rape would be moral if God declared it so), it seems that God would have to refer to a pre-existing standard in order to do what is right. Therefore, we could make use of that standard independent of God’s decrees.

Ethical egoism and utilitarianism are consequentialist theories. The moral worth of an action lies in its consequences; intentions are morally irrelevant.

Ethical egoism holds that what is morally right is whatever serves our own interests. What makes something right is the fact that it furthers our interest; what makes a decision wrong is that it harms our serf-interest. An appeal of ethical egoism is that it recognizes our selfishness. Many of us have, to various extents and at different times, the desire to take care of ourselves, even at the expense of others. A problem with ethical egoism is that it contradicts many of our moral intuitions. For example, most of us would not kill someone even if we knew we could get away with it and doing so would benefit us (say, insurance money).

Utilitarianism holds that what is good is happiness, so morality consists of maximizing net happiness in the world (the greatest happiness principle). Act utilitarians contend that we are morally bound to always choose the option among available alternatives that will produce the most net (short- and long-term, direct and indirect) happiness. An appeal of act utilitarianism (AU) is that it maximizes happiness. Some problems with act utilitarianism are that it rejects rules of behavior (which we tend to support, such as don’t steal) , that predicting consequences in very difficult to do, and that it can demand choices that violate our conceptions of rights and justice. Rule utilitarians attempt to solve the problems of AU by arguing that, rather than making decisions for each situation, we should simply follow those rules of behavior that tend to maximize happiness, even if they don’t do so in every case. Problems with this theory include its basic justification—if increasing happiness is what grounds morality, then by what criteria does RU follow rules even when doing so will not maximize happiness?

Kantian ethics (KE) holds the viewpoint that morality is unrelated to capricious, nebulous factors such as “happiness.” Instead, what is morally right is a function of reason, so it is the same for all persons, and it is morally binding no matter how one feels. Kant calls this dictate of reason, this Moral Law, the Categorical Imperative. Kant contends that all persons share in reason, which is the capacity to transcend the physical laws of this world and to choose freely. He holds that reason chooses unreasonably—wrongly—when it contradicts its very nature, which is when it violates the freedom (the “reason”) of other rational beings. Therefore, the categorical imperative demands that we respect reason by respecting other persons. In practical terms, we fail to respect other persons as persons when we use them merely as means or when we violate their autonomy. An appeal of Kantianism is that it promotes the dignity and rights of every person. A problem of Kantianism is that it is unyielding; feelings and outcomes are irrelevant. All that matters is that persons always base their choices upon maxims (self-given principles for action: what they are doing and why they are doing it) that do not violate the categorical imperative.

Whereas AU, RU, and KE are very systematic theories which provide “answers” almost by formula, Virtue Ethics and the Ethics of Care are more particular.

Virtue ethics does not focus, as the systematic theories do, on making the right decision. Instead, it focuses on developing the kind of person who will make the right decision, whatever that may be. Virtue ethics emphasizes the development of the nonrational part of ourselves by developing right habits. VE champions the development of personal traits—such as courage, justice, temperance, generosity, honesty-- which lead to a well-lived life for the individual within society. To the VE, right training creates right habits, and right education promotes right thoughts, so that people who have been raised well will make the right choices and achieve a good life. An appeal of VE is that it recognizes that no one has yet found a principle that seems to apply well in every circumstance; that is why it focuses on developing good virtuous people who have good habits and judgment who can make the right decision in each circumstance. A problem with VE is that it is circular. How do we know that a person is good? He does good things. What are good things? Whatever a good person does.

The Ethics of Care assumes that women view moral issues differently than men do. Whereas men tend to act according to abstract principles, the EC holds that women act according to relationships. Women develop morally from a state of selfishness, to a state of selflessness, and finally to a mature understanding that morality is a complex web of obligations and rights borne of relationships in which they must care for both themselves and the other. The ethics of care emphasizes the particularity of morality. The appeal of EC is that it recognizes the unique moral voice of women, who (studies claim) reject abstract principles when they conflict with real persons and real relationships. A problem of EC is that its adherents must still make use of moral principles in order to decide how to act within relationships. It is not a stand-alone theory of morality.

Now that we have some theoretical basis from which to make and understand our moral judgment, let us apply them to war.

Morality and War.

War happens. If it’s true—as it has been said--that the only inevitable events in life are death and taxes, then war can take a lot of credit for bringing about both of them. Anyway, that wars are fought is an undisputed, descriptive fact. On the other hand, whether or not we can make moral judgments about both those wars and the actions that occur in them is open to some discussion.

Those who deny that actions of war (by politicians and/or soldiers) are subject to moral judgment are military realists. There are two “schools” of realist thought. One school holds that morality does not apply at all to the realm of international relations. They argue that states act in their self-interest, which is defined in practical terms as power and security. Thucydides’ description of the Athenian generals’ argument at Melos is considered an example of this type of realist attitude. The other school of realist thought concedes that morality applies to international relations, but it contends that moral judgment applies (jus ad bellum) only to the state that starts a war. The aggressor state is immoral; the defender state is moral. Therefore, any action taken by the state that has a moral end (the defender state) is free from moral judgment. The ends justify the means for the state that is “in the right.” General Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” which he justified by arguing that the Confederates’ were morally responsible for the hell that he was unleashing, is an example of this type of thinking.

As we have seen, the morality of war is judged at two levels. Every state that is at war has an end, a goal that it hopes to achieve. It also employs means to achieve that end. The moral judgment of a states end is termed jus ad bellum; literally, this means “the justice of a war.” Jus ad bellum is examined by examining the reasons why a nation goes to war and continues to fight a war. The traditional criteria used to judged jus ad bellum are: (with my editorial comment, of course)

1. Just Cause. The state must be fighting for a morally justified end.

2. Right intention. The state must not only have a must cause, but also it must actually be fighting for it. For example, the US had a just cause for liberating Kuwait; the Iraqi invasion was a violation of Kuwaiti territorial integrity and political sovereignty. Consequently, it was a violation of the right of all those who valued the Kuwaiti political community. However, if the actual intention of the US was to keep the price of oil down, then the US would not have actually been fighting (and dying and killing) for a just cause.

3. Legitimate authority. Only the leaders of a political community have the moral authority to commit its people to war.

4. Formal declaration. You can’t sucker-punch another nation. See FM 27-10, para.20.

5. Chance of Success. Don’t waste human lives in a hopeless cause. This is always a judgment call for the political leaders. In the history of war, some underdogs have won. Appeasement is a tough pill for a nation to swallow; it’s the forfeiture of those rights which bound that people of that nation together in the first place.

6. Last resort. War should not be the first option for resolving disputes. If it’s possible to accomplish an end without resort to war, then it’s morally obligatory for political leaders to do so. Walzer, however, rejects this condition as impractical. There is, he argues, always something else you can try. Instead, Walzer argues that aggression always justifies a forceful defense of rights.

7. Proportional. When political leaders commit their nation to war, what they expect to gain must be proportional to what they expect to lose. This ties in closely with criterion #5. It might, for example, be immoral to fight to defend Easter Island if the expected loss of life is two million soldiers. However, it is hard to put a price on concepts such as human rights and national sovereignty.

In Walzer’s discussion of jus ad bellum, he focuses on the first criterion, just cause. He uses the Legalist Paradigm to clarify his discussion of what is a just cause. See notes, chapter 4.

The fundamental form of Walzer’s theory of aggression is the Legalist Paradigm, which has six basic points.

1. There exists an international society of independent states. The dominant value of this society is the survival and independence of its separate political communities.

2. This international society has a law that establishes the rights of its members—above all, the rights of territorial integrity and political sovereignty. States rights depend on the common life of their members; since societies are often in-flux, so are these rights.

3. Any use of force or imminent threat of force by one state against the political sovereignty of another constitutes aggression and is a criminal act.

4. Aggression justifies two kinds of violent response: a war of self-defense by the victim and a war of law enforcement by the victim and by any other member of international society. This is analogous to a person’s right to defend herself and a third-party’s right to intervene on her behalf.

5. Nothing but aggression can justify war. Principle of non-intervention. Just as we must respect a person’s autonomy, we must respect a state’s sovereignty.

6. Once the aggressor state has been militarily repulsed, it can also be punished.

The legalist paradigm allows that the only moral ends in war are the 3 R’s:

1. Resist the aggression

2. Restore the ante-bellum status quo.

3. Reasonably prevent a recurrence of the aggression.

The other level of moral judgment in war considers the means that the soldiers of a nation employ to achieve the desired national end. Traditionally, this is referred to as jus in bello; literally, this means “justice in war.” It addressed whom soldiers can kill, and how they can kill them.

1. The “whom” soldiers can kill is the addressed by the principle of non-combatant immunity. Non-combatants are those who are not combatants (that helps!). Who are combatants? Morally, combatants are those who—through some choice of their own—have forfeited their rights to not be killed by choosing to engage in an activity that is threatening to their enemy. As such, all soldiers are combatants. “Soldiers as a class are set apart from the world of peaceful activity; they are trained to fight, provided with weapons, required to fight on command…[It] is the enterprise of their class, and this fact radically distinguishes the individual soldier from the civilians he leaves behind” (JUW, 144). Munitions factory workers are combatants, too, but “they can be attacked only in their factory (not in their homes), when they are actually engaged in activities threatening and harmful to their enemies. Non-combatants, then are those who have done nothing, and are doing nothing, that entails the loss of their rights.

All of this talk of rights brings us to the Moral Equality of Soldiers (see notes, chapter 3). All soldiers are moral equals. They all possess war rights: they have forfeited their right to life vis-à-vis enemy soldiers, and they have gained the right to kill enemy soldiers. Since non-combatants have not forfeited their rights, then soldiers may not (morally and legally) kill them. Neither can non-combatants kill soldiers. If they do, then they are (legally and morally) murderers.

The moral difficulties of war arise because not all of the fighting is done by fighter aircraft and naval ships at sea. If is were, then non-combatants would not get harmed. As it is, the fact remains that wars are fought over territory, and that is almost always land. And non-combatants live on land. Therefore, soldiers must keep in mind the principle of discrimination. They must be discriminatory in their choice of targets. They must never target non-combatants, and they must take actions to limit collateral damage that affects non-combatants.

When soldiers face the tough decisions that involve attacking legitimate military targets that foreseeably could cause collateral damage, they must resort to the doctrine of double effect for guidance.

When a proposed action has an intended good effect and an unintended but foreseeable bad effect (i.e., collateral damage), then it is morally permissible to take that action if and only if:

1. The action itself is morally permissible.

2. The direct effect is morally permissible.

3. The actor’s intent is good; he/she aims only at the good effect; the bad effect is not the means to the good effect.

-Double intention; the actor must accept some risks to himself to minimize the foreseeable bad effects.

4. The good effect is expected to be proportional to the bad. (It’s worth it.)

Now let’s discuss the Law of War. The purposes of the law of war are to limit unnecessary suffering, safeguard certain fundamental human rights, and facilitate the restoration of peace (FM 27-20, para.2). Since wars should only be fought over very important issues, it is presumably important to the belligerents that they win. The principle of military necessity “justifies those measure not forbidden by international law which are indispensable for securing the complete submission of the enemy as soon as possible” (FM 27-10, para.3). Military necessity does not override the law of war.

Any violation of the law of war, by either a combatant or non-combatant, is a war crime (FM 27-20, para.3b).

The only legal way to violate the law of war is a reprisal. Reprisals are acts of retaliation in the form of conduct which would otherwise be unlawful, resorted to by one belligerent against enemy personnel or property for acts of warfare committed by the other belligerent in violation of the law of war, for the purpose of enforcing future compliance with the recognized rules of civilized warfare” (FM 27-10, para.497). Reprisals can be conducted only against combatants. Walzer argues that reprisals are moral only if they are limited, proportional, directed against combatants, and truly in response to a transgression (JUW, 221).

Walzer argues that a nation is morally permitted to violate the law of war and the principle of non-combatant immunity if and when it faces a “supreme emergency,” which is when it faces an imminent, grave threat to its very existence and it has no other means available to it to preserve its existence. He justifies this concept by referring to the near-absolute right of a political community to not be “blotted out.” He employs this concept to defend Great Britain’s bombing of German population centers in 1941.

A commander’s responsibility in war encompasses everything that his or her unit does or fails to do. Commanders are responsible for issuing only moral orders and for ensuring the moral action of their subordinates by training them in the law of war, conducting inspections, and by punishing violators. Read FM 27-10, paras. 501and 509.

Christopher argues in Ethics of War & Peace that military officers have a moral obligation to serve in wars, even those that they believe to be unjust. He gives three arguments to support his position. First, he argues that the decision to go to war is a political decision, so the soldier has no business even worrying about it. Secondly, he argues that the principle of civilian control of the military demands officers service in even unjust wars. Just as military personnel would be wrong to go to war without orders from the political authority, they would be just as wrong to not go to war when ordered to do so by the political authority. Finally, Christopher argues that military personnel should not be so arrogant as to assume that they have sufficient information to make a better moral judgment than those who are better informed.

Finally, Pacifism. Pacifists reject violence as a means to ends. Absolute pacifists reject violence in all its forms, in all aspects of life. Ghandi was an absolute pacifist. War-Pacifists are people who accept the legitimate use of violence in defense of rights under certain conditions (such as self- or other-defense against a rapist), but they do not think that soldiers in wars actually face the conditions that justify violent means of self-defense. Their main reasons are that the enemy soldiers did not freely chose their threatening actions and that the moral agents “put themselves into the situation of danger” by becoming soldiers. Selective-pacifists are those who accept the possibility of justified killing in some wars (such as WWII), yet reject the morality of killing in other (“unjustified”) wars (such as Vietnam).

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 upsetting experience--if not initially then later upon reflection--and empower our Soldiers to understand that what they did was morally right. Or, if they killed unjustly, call a spade a spade and help the Soldier come to terms with that. We can't forgive ourselves if we haven't first come to terms with the offense. As LTC Grossman says, we are only as sick as our secrets.

What would a redesign look like? Here are some initial ideas:
  • FMs would use the words kill, killed, and killing (vice "targets destroyed").
  • EMs at BCT would be assured that there is a moral justification for killing in war.
  • NCOs and officers would talk about the moral justification of killing as part of OES and NCOES.
  • Leaders would talk with their Soldiers about the moral justifications of killing.
  • Chaplains would be fluent in religious and secular justifications for killing.
  • Chaplains would assist justifiably guilt-ridden Soldiers to gain forgiveness.
  • All Soldiers would know that feelings of guilt about killing do not necessarily indicate a moral wrongdoing. Doing a necessary, morally permissible evil can still feel wrong, even when it's right.
  • Guilt would be talked about the way fear is among Soldiers. It's part of the harsh reality of war that it's really hard to prepare ourselves for, but being informed is nonelessless a good start.

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 take a leading role in generating an organizational dialogue on the morality of killing in order to prevent and treat psychological trauma that is caused by the guilt of having killed in combat and not being able to make sense of the experience.

Five years ago at this conference and two years ago in Military Review, I argued that military leaders have an obligation to explain to their soldiers the moral justification for killing in combat. The argument was: since we recruit soldiers to kill, train them to kill, develop plans for them to kill, and order them to kill, we also owe it to them to explain why killing in war is morally justified, because we don’t do this, and there is a lot of evidence that many soldiers cannot live with having killed. At the time, my evidence was qualitative and largely anecdotal. Although research at the time did indicate overwhelmingly that combat exposure and participation in atrocities predicted PTSD, the interpretation of this evidence focused on what had happened to the soldiers (e.g., experienced fear, witnessed dead bodies), not on what the soldiers had done (i.e., killed).

I. Killing in combat can lead to PITS/PTSD

Led by the seminal work of Rachel MacNair, there is now a growing body of research that indicates that what soldiers do—not only what happens to them—can lead to psychological trauma. Using data from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS), MacNair compared veterans who reported that they had killed in Vietnam to those who reported that they had not killed. She discovered that those who had killed in combat scored higher on most indicators of PTSD, as measured by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). The NVRRS data indicated that veterans who had been directly involved in atrocities were much more likely to report symptoms of PTSD than were veterans who merely witnessed atrocities.[3] Also, while combat exposure and PTSD are correlated, veterans who reported that they had killed during an overall tour of light combat were more likely to show PTSD symptoms than were those who reported that they had not killed during a tour characterized by heavy exposure to combat.[4] In other words, killing—much more so than exposure to atrocities or combat—is a major factor leading to PTSD.

The symptoms of those who have killed in combat—as part of an atrocity or legitimate activity—are significantly different from those who have not killed. MacNair found that those who reported they had killed were much more likely to report having done something in the military that they will never tell, to have violent outbursts, to have intrusive nightmares, and to abuse alcohol.[5]

A review of the literature finds other studies that support a link between killing in combat, guilt, and PTSD among Vietnam veterans. Breslau and Davis (1987) found that the experience of participation in atrocities increased by 42% the probability that a veteran would be diagnosed with PTSD, even when the number of combat stressors was controlled. Vargolias (1997) found that combat and atrocity exposure predicted guilt and PTSD. Nelson-Pechota (2003) found that alienation from God and difficulty reconciling one’s faith with Vietnam experiences were related to higher levels of guilt and PTSD symptomology, and that religious worship is a mediator between combat severity and affective guilt.

II. The Army is addressing PTSD, but not killing as one of PTSD’s main causal factors.

American Soldiers and Marines are doing a lot of killing in the Global War on Terror, so we should not be surprised that an Army study found that almost 17% of Iraq veterans and 11% of Afghanistan veterans reported symptoms of major depression, severe anxiety, or PTSD soon after returning from their combat deployments.6] Those numbers will likely increase as soldiers experience multiple combat deployments. Moreover, there is evidence that veterans who show little sign of PTSD over their working lives start showing signs of it at retirement.

The Army medical community “is trying to take a proactive approach to mental health,”[7] said Dr. Charles W. Hoge, chief of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Deploying soldiers are given pre- and post-deployment health questionnaires, and 7 of the 17 questions seek signs of depression, anxiety and PTSD.[8] The problem is, the post-deployment questionnaire asks only what happened to the soldiers (e.g., Did you see a dead body?), not whether they killed someone.

A recent New York Times article that quoted military psychologists extensively reported:

Psychiatrists say the kind of fighting seen in the recent retaking of Falluja—spooky urban settings with unlimited hiding places; the impossibility of telling Iraqi friend from Iraqi foe; the knowledge that every stretch of road may conceal an explosive device—is tailored to produce the adrenaline-gone-haywire reactions that leave lasting emotional scars.[9]

This and every other statement I have seen in media reports indicate that the military medical community is still looking at the PTSD problem exclusively from the perspective of what soldiers endure, not what they do. In contrast, these words of a battalion chaplain in Iraq express well the concerns of soldiers.

Capt. Tim Wilson, an Army chaplain serving outside Mosul, said he counseled 8 to 10 soldiers a week for combat stress…”There are usually two things they are dealing with,” said Captain Wilson, a Southern Baptist from South Carolina. “Either being shot at and not wanting to get shot at again, or after shooting someone, asking, ‘Did I commit murder?’ or “Is God going to forgive me?’ or ‘How am I going to be when I get home?’”[10]

How is it that the medical community can study the psychological trauma of soldiers in combat yet not pay attention to whether they have killed anyone? After all, as one OIF-vet lieutenant said in a PlatoonLeader forum discussion on the psychological impact of killing, “Frankly, anyone who says that they are perfectly fine after killing another human would scare the hell out of me.” McNair offers an explanation for this blind spot. She argues that sympathy for soldiers has made researchers and others unwilling to “blame the victim.” It is much more pleasant to believe that PTSD results from what an unknown enemy did, not what your nation’s soldier did.[11]

Even if the psychiatric profession did decide to address soldiers’ guilt about killing in war, there are doubts about its ability to effectively engage the problem. Mental health professionals tend to treat guilt as a symptom of a condition to be treated, not as a healthy moral response to a perceived moral transgression. Psychologist James Story put it this way:

The guilt of combat veterans resulting from acts of commission during wartime has been associated with chronic and persistent life problems. Traditional psychological treatments that respond to guilt primarily as a symptom are not well suited for the profound existential issues faced by veterans who acknowledge, or attempt to acknowledge, that their acts have caused great harm to others.[12]

Research indicates that therapists become less sympathetic to and have difficulty listening to patients with PTSD who talk about killing.[13] That is not surprising; mental health professionals and combat soldiers live in different worlds. Several officers in Iraq have told me that they and their soldiers do not talk with the Combat Stress Teams who sometimes arrive after battle, because “they don’t understand.”

In a sense, then, veterans themselves must bear some of the blame for the lack of understanding about combat-related psychological trauma. Due to fear of judgment by non-veterans who “don’t understand” and might judge them harshly, they do not express their experiences. This only perpetuates the problem, as veterans keep silent about their symptoms so as not to appear crazy, which in turn makes those with symptoms feel crazy and alone because no one else seems to have their symptoms.[14]

III. What to do? Break the Taboo

It makes sense that the veterans in the NVVRS who killed in combat were more likely to report both that they did things in the military that they will not talk about and that they are more likely to suffer from intrusive dreams. Perhaps they are suffering from nightmares precisely because they feel unable to talk about things they did, like kill another human being.[15]

As long as there is war, there will be killing. The solution to preventing and treating perpetration-induced trauma, then, lies in enabling soldiers to deal with having killed. As LTC (ret) Dave Grossman put it, “You are only as sick as your secrets.”[16] We must end the taboo on talking about killing and the troubling feelings that killing gives rise to.

We must help our brothers and sisters in the military to understand that feelings of guilt about killing in combat are more likely a sign of moral strength than of mental weakness. The current practice of having re-deploying units identify “high-risk soldiers” to receive counseling sends a terrible message. In one Army study, more than half of the soldiers who met criteria for PTSD reported that they had not sought help due to fear they would be stigmatized and held back in their career.[17] It’s no wonder that redeploying soldiers have shown an “abysmal” level of candor in screening. “We still have a long way to go,” admitted one Pentagon medical officer. “The warrior ethos is that they are no imperfections." [18]

One way to break the taboo is to speak publicly about how feelings of guilt associated with killing in combat are normal, healthy, common, and not indicators of moral culpability. There is such thing as misguided guilt. For example, someone who is driving a car, under the speed limit and paying attention, who happens to fatally hit a child who darts out into the road, will likely feel terrible guilt. He or she will have participated directly in the death of another person, even though he did nothing morally wrong. So it is with justified killing in war. Soldiers need to hear the message that feelings of guilt are not necessarily tied to doing anything morally wrong and are normal in a healthy person.

McNair finds that veterans respond very positively to her talking about the normal feelings of guilt for killing.

They are grateful, because the conclusion they draw is that they are in fact having a normal response, that symptoms they had not told others for fear of appearing crazy were in fact typical and prevalent responses to the circumstances they had undergone. Even if their symptoms were mild enough that they did not seek therapy and could not be said to have a disorder, it was a relief for them to have the knowledge of natural, explainable, common psychological consequence.[19]

A second way to prevent and treat PTSD is to enable those who have killed to talk about their experiences with those who understand. Grossman contends that

[P]ain shared is pain divided. And the means by which this ‘sharing’ can occur is in a group critical incident debriefing, shortly after the trauma, in which each individual completely works through what occurred and receives the acceptance, forgiveness and support of their fellow victims.

I asked an infantry company commander in Iraq what his soldiers needed most from him in combat. “After a fight they need me to pat them on the back and tell them they did the right thing,” he said. “They just need that assurance.” His response happened in the context of an interview on tactical issues, not one about morality.


The psychological well being of our combat veterans requires a cultural shift within the armed forces. They need a military that recognizes what they know all too well—that killing, even justified killing, exacts a psychological toll. As military leaders, we are best able to start and lead dialogues—in our services, our units, one-on-one—that replace the taboo on killing-related trauma with an honest conversation about it.

[1] Peter G. Kilner, “Military Leaders’ Obligation to Justify Killing in War,” Military Review, vol 72, no 2, Mar-Apr 2004, pp. 24-31.

[2] Rachel M. MacNair, Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002; and, Symptom pattern differences for Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress in veterans: Probing the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Kansas, MI, 1999.

[3] See also Jack A. Schapiro, Trait dissociation among Vietnam veterans with combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Doctoral Dissertation, Pepperdine University, 1999.

[4] MacNair, Perpetration, 174.

[5] Ibid., 18, 178.

[6] Anahad O’Connor, “1 in 6 Iraq Veterans Is Found to Suffer Stress-Related Disorder,” New York Times, July 1, 2004.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Scott Shane, “A Flood of Troubled Soldiers Is in the Offing, Experts Predict,” New York Times, December 16, 2004.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] MacNair, Perpetration, 162.

[12] James E. Story, Therapist countertransference where combat-related guilt is a central factor involved in psychological treatment of combat veterans, Doctoral Dissertation, University of New Mexico, 1997.

[13] MacNair, 91.

[14] Ibid., 163.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Dave Grossman,

[17] Shane.

[18] O’Connor.

[19] MacNair, 165.

Military Leaders' Obligation to Justify Killing in War to their Soldiers

This is the unedited version. The edited version appeared in Military Review in March-April 2002.

Abstract: The methods that the military currently uses to train and execute combat operations enable soldiers to kill the enemy effectively, but they leave the soldiers liable to post-combat psychological trauma caused by guilt. This is a leadership issue. I argue that combat training should be augmented by explaining to soldiers the moral justification for killing in combat, in order to reduce post-combat guilt. Soldiers deserve to understand whom they can kill morally and why those actions are indeed moral. I outline an explanation for that moral justification.


Military leaders are charged with two primary tasks—to train and lead units to fight effectively in combat in accordance with the war convention, and to care for the soldiers under their command. Military professionals generally hold these two tasks to be complementary, accepting General Rommel’s statement that “the best form of ‘welfare’ for troops is first class training.”

American military leaders have been very successful in their task to create combat-effective units. In response to the War Department’s World War II research that indicated that less than half of riflemen fired their weapons at the enemy in combat, the military instituted training techniques—such as fire commands, battle drills, and realistic marksmanship ranges—that resulted in much improved combat firing rates. [1]

Unfortunately, this improved combat effectiveness has come at a cost to soldiers’ welfare. The training techniques that leaders have employed to generate the advances in combat firing rates have resulted in increased rates of post-combat psychological trauma among combat veterans.

In this respect, “first class training” has actually been detrimental to soldiers’ welfare. Training which drills soldiers on how to kill without explaining to them why it is morally permissible for them to do so is harmful to them, yet that is the current norm. Modern combat training conditions soldiers to act reflexively to stimuli—such as fire commands, enemy contact, or the sudden appearance of a “target”—and this maximizes soldiers’ lethality, but it does so by bypassing their moral autonomy. Soldiers are conditioned to act without considering the moral repercussions of their actions; they are enabled to kill without making the conscious decision to do so. In and of itself, such training is appropriate and morally permissible. Battles are won by killing the enemy, so military leaders should strive to produce the most efficient killers. The problem, however, is that soldiers who kill reflexively in combat will likely one day reconsider their actions reflectively. If they are unable to justify to themselves the fact that they killed another human being, they will likely—and understandably—suffer enormous guilt. This guilt manifests itself as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it has damaged the lives of thousands of men who performed their duty in combat.[2]

In this article, I argue that military leaders’ important and legitimate role—that of transforming civilians into combat soldiers who are able to kill in defense of their country—carries with it the obligation to help their soldiers cope with the moral repercussions of their actions. Since military leaders train their soldiers in the skills required to kill others in combat, they owe it to them to educate them as well in the knowledge required to live with themselves in the years after combat. I contend that military leaders should augment current training by explaining to their soldiers the moral justification of killing in combat, and I outline such an explanation.[3] I also suggest that this education would improve the Army’s mission effectiveness.

Section 1. Why Soldiers Deserve a Moral Justification for Killing

In this section, I offer a four-part argument that explains why military leaders should be concerned with the moral justification for killing in combat. It stems from their duty to care for their troops. First, their soldiers are human beings who naturally deem it morally wrong to kill other human beings who happen to be enemy soldiers. As a result, absent training that overcomes that moral aversion, most soldiers in combat would choose not to kill the enemy. Second, military leaders enable their soldiers to kill by utilizing training techniques—such as pop-up marksmanship ranges, fire commands, and battle drills—that emphasize reflexive (as opposed to reflective) action. Such techniques create a bypass around the normal moral decision-making process of an individual, so that soldiers act without first making the decision to do so. Third, while these techniques have greatly increased combat effectiveness, they have exacted a psychological cost on many of our soldiers. Many soldiers who have killed in combat—yet are unable to justify to themselves what they did—suffer from PTSD. Fourth, and finally, this problem can be solved by proactive leadership. Military leaders do not need to abandon proven training techniques. What they do have to do, however, is prepare their soldiers’ consciences for their post-battle reflections. They must help them understand that what they have taught them to do reflexively would be the same choice that they themselves would have made reflectively, because it is the morally right choice. They must also enable soldiers to make morally justified decisions in morally ambiguous circumstances. By doing so, military leaders can empower their soldiers to be able to live with clear consciences after they have justifiably killed for their country as their leaders expected them to do.

1.1 Most Soldiers Do Not Want to Kill the Enemy’s Soldiers

The starting point of my argument is an insight that should be banal, but it isn’t. It is that soldiers are people, too. And people are taught from their earliest days that it is wrong to kill another human being. “Thou Shalt Not Murder” is arguably the closest thing there is to a universally accepted moral norm. Yet, for some reason, military leaders expect those young men and women who become their soldiers to ignore their well-learned moral codes and to kill whenever they are ordered to. We should know better than that.

After all, research conducted on American soldiers in the Second World War suggested that most infantry soldiers chose not to engage the enemy, for primarily moral reasons. In Men Against Fire, Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, the official historian of the Central Pacific and European Theaters of Operations, described the problem in this way:

[The American soldier] is what his home, his religion, his schooling, and the moral code and ideals of his society have made him. The Army cannot unmake him. It must reckon with the fact that he comes from a civilization in which aggression, connected with the taking of life, is prohibited and unacceptable. The teaching and ideals of that civilization are against killing, against taking advantage. The fear of aggression has been expressed to him so strongly and absorbed by him so deeply and pervadingly—practically with his mother’s milk—that it is part of a normal man’s emotional make-up. This is his great handicap when he enters combat. It stays his finger even though he is hardly conscious that it is a constraint upon him.[4]

Marshall claimed that his extensive post-combat interviews of World War II combat soldiers revealed that most of them were unable to overcome their moral reservations about killing. [5] He asserted that less than 25% of the rifleman in combat fired their weapons, and “that fear of killing, rather than fear of being killed, was the most common cause of battle failure.”[6] Many subsequent researchers have criticized Marshall’s research methods and have disputed his precise claim about firing rates,[7] yet all serious students of World War II do recognize that a significant number of WWII soldiers were non-firers. In The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath, the authoritative study of WWII soldiers, Samuel Stouffer and his associates do not directly address firing ratios, but they do make this understated observation about soldiers’ moral reservations about killing:

Combat required a sharp break with many moral prescriptions of peacetime society. As easy as it seems to be for men to kill when their immediate group sanctions it, and as ambivalent as normal people often are about killing, it is still true that to kill another human being requires of most men from our culture an effort to overcome an initial moral repugnance. Under the requirements of the situation, men in combat were careful to hide this feeling, and it was not a subject of much discussion among soldiers. Killing is the business of the combat soldier, and if he is to function at all he must accept its necessity. Yet the acceptance of killing did not prevent the ambivalence revealed by such comments as that of a veteran rifleman who said, “I’ll tell you a man sure feels funny inside the first time he squeezes down on a Kraut.”[8]

Lest we think that people are somehow fundamentally different today than they were in World War II, consider the experience of this Army officer in the 1991 Gulf War.

Well, later that evening, the battalion that I was supporting (as Engineers) hit four T-72s and a multitude of dismounts in trenches. The action lasted approximately ½ hour. Take note of this. The only soldiers who fired during that entire period were the tankers. They fired both main gun and coax. Not even [the engineer unit’s] .50 cals engaged the enemy. I have since often wondered what it would take to get a U.S. soldier to fire in combat. Although we had rounds flying by our heads, we failed to engage the enemy. I think it merits mentioning that the main gun rounds were fired using thermal sights and you know how a coax works [again, thermal sights]. Did the gunner ever really see the people he was shooting at? Why didn’t my soldiers fire? Did they not see enemy whom they could engage? I doubt that. I could see them from my track without the use of NVGs. Were we confident that the tanks could take out all resistance? A possibility, but shouldn’t we have returned fire when fired upon? Hard to say what went through our minds. I’m not so sure that I would have the courage to fire a round if I knew that it was going to result in the death of another human being. Sure, I can fire on a range and score expert. I can fire a round blindly. Then I can justify to myself that I wasn’t responsible for any deaths that occurred. I would say that long distance killing is easier than facing an enemy face to face. They say that artillery is the King of Battle. No doubt considering that they don’t actually see who they are killing.[9]

While some may find the idea of military professionals being unwilling to kill in battle a bit embarrassing, we should instead think of it as encouraging. We want soldiers who choose to do only what is morally right, who kill enemy combatants yet protect all non-combatants, who can reintegrate into civil society after the war. What military leaders have to do, then, is explain to their soldiers why what they train them to do is the morally right thing to do.

1.2 Military Leaders Train Soldiers to Kill Reflexively

Still, despite this Gulf War platoon’s unwillingness to fire in combat, the military has made great strides in improving its soldiers’ firing rates since World War II.[10] Whether or not Marshall’s research was rigorous, the Army responded to it as if it were. Marshall’s claim about non-firing rates lifted the taboo surrounding the issue, and the Army took action to increase them. By adopting Marshall’s recommendations and incorporating lessons from psychological research, the American military improved its riflemen’s firing rates to 55% in the Korean War and to 90% in the Vietnam War.[11]

Marshall had noted that “at the vital moment, [the rifleman] becomes a conscientious objector.”[12] To help soldiers overcome their aversion to killing, Marshall offered two recommendations: that military leaders give fire commands, and that they train on more realistic marksmanship ranges.[13]

Marshall had noted that soldiers who otherwise would not fire their weapons did do so when their officers were watching them and when they fired crew-served weapons.[14] He therefore recommended that junior leaders give specific firing orders to their troops.[15] Subsequent civilian research on obedience and aggression demonstrated that people are much more capable of aggression when ordered by an authority figure.[16] As the military instituted the doctrinal use of fire commands down to squad-level, firing rates increased. In fact, in a 1973 study, Vietnam War combat veterans listed “being told to fire” as the most critical factor in making them fire, even more important than “being fired upon.”[17]

Marshall also had noted that soldiers have great difficulty shooting at another human being, so he recommended that they be trained to fire at locations rather than at persons. “We need to free the rifleman’s mind with respect to the nature of targets…The proper educating of group fire requires constant insistence on the principle of spontaneous action developing out of a fresh and unexpected situation.”[18]

The modern day transitional (pop-up target) marksmanship ranges follow this advice. They enable soldiers to overcome their aversion to killing by conditioning them to act spontaneously to conditions that are combat-like yet morally benign. Retired infantry officer and psychologist Dave Grossman explains the process this way:

What is being taught in this environment is the ability to shoot reflexively and instantly and a precise mimicry of the act of killing on the modern battlefield. In behavioral terms, the man shape popping up [E-type silhouette] in the soldier’s field of fire is the “conditioned stimulus,” the immediate engaging of the target is the “target behavior.” “Positive reinforcement” is given in the form of immediate feedback when the target drops if it is hit. In the form of “token economy” these hits are then exchanged for marksmanship badges that usually have some form of privilege or reward (praise, public recognition, three-day passes, and so on) associated with them.[19]

This conditioning, this training on pop-up marksmanship ranges, does enable soldiers to kill on the battlefield, and the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu provides great evidence of that.[20] In that 17-hour fight, a few hundred soldiers from Task Force Ranger and the 10th Mountain Division battled thousands of Somalis in fierce, urban combat. The Americans suffered only eighteen dead, while they killed an estimated 300-1000 Somalis. They achieved this extraordinary casualty ratio by being well trained. Based on extensive interviews with the soldiers involved, journalist Mark Bowden wrote a best-selling account of the battle, Black Hawk Down,[21] which includes these revealing comments:

[Ranger Sergeant Scott] Galentine just pointed his M16 at someone down the street, aimed at center mass, and squeezed off rounds. The man would drop.

Just like target practice, only cooler.[22]

[Specialist John] Waddel shot the man. In books and movies when a soldier shot a man for the first time he went through a moment of soul searching. He didn’t give it a second thought. He just reacted.[23]

In an interview with CNN/Frontline, Ranger Private First Class Jason Moore described his willingness to kill in these words:

I just started picking them out as they were running across the intersection two blocks away, and it was weird because it was so much easier than you would think. You hear all these stories about "the first time you kill somebody is very hard." And it was so much like basic training, they were just targets out there, and I don't know if it was the training that we had ingrained in us, but it seemed to me it was just like a moving target range, and you could just hit the target and watch it fall and hit the target and watch it fall, and it wasn't real. They were far enough away so that you didn't see, or I didn't see, all the guts and the gore and things like that, but you would just see this target running across in your sight picture, you pull the trigger and the target would fall, so it was a lot easier then than it is now, as far as that goes.[24]

Clearly, modern military leaders are doing half of our duty—we are training our Soldiers to fight effectively on the battlefield. We are doing so by utilizing techniques that enable soldiers to fire their weapons at the enemy despite the natural moral reservations that they may harbor. By conditioning combat soldiers to reflexively engage targets and by giving them leaders who issue fire commands, military leaders greatly reduce moral deliberation for the soldier in combat.

At one level, this training accomplishes both aspects of military leaders’ duty—it accomplishes the mission, and it takes care of soldiers by keeping them alive. At a deeper level, however, this approach is inadequate. It makes soldiers able to kill, even if they are not willing to do so. It prepares soldiers to deal with the enemy, but it does not prepare them to deal with their own consciences. It keeps them alive, but it leaves them in a life that may be less worth living.

1.3 This Training Has Been Harmful to Combat-Veteran Soldiers’ Psyches

Training soldiers to kill efficiently is good for them because it helps them survive on the battlefield. However, training soldiers to kill without explaining to them why it is morally permissible to kill in combat is harmful to them because it can lead to psychological trauma. When soldiers kill reflexively—when soldiers kill because of military training that has effectively undermined their moral decision-making processes—they conduct their personal moral deliberation of their actions only after the fact. If they are unable to justify what they have done, they often suffer guilt and psychological trauma.

Many combat soldiers experience feelings of guilt in the months and years after their wartime actions. Listen to the words of some combat veterans who performed their wartime duties as their leaders had trained them to do.

First, reflections from a young soldier who fought in Somalia:

Well, that day, I had absolutely no ethical or moral problems with pulling the trigger and taking out as many people as I could. And being back here, years later, I think that they had wives, children, mothers, sons, just like I have a mother and a dog, and all these things. Our government sent us there to do a mission, and I'm sure somebody was paying him to do a mission. [I just] reali[zed] that he was another human being, just like I am. And so that's hard to deal with, but that day it was too easy. That upsets me more than anything else, how easy it was to pull the trigger over and over again…It took a long time to wear off, a real long time, because we were still there for a little while, and then when we came back you were still sort of riding the waves of what happened. And I know for me, the hardest thing to live with is knowing that you took another human life, for no other reason than your government told you to. That's hard. I mean, I'm sure it's been said before but here I would have [gone] to jail for exactly what I did over there and got medals for.[25]

At least one senior enlisted soldier who killed in the Gulf War may have found his actions to have been too much to live with. An officer in his unit described the situation:

Let me give you the results of one person who did kill. His name was 1SG

Doe.[26] He was a 12B, combat engineer first sergeant. Known as hard charging and didn’t put up with much bullshit. While in Desert Storm, he was assigned to my unit. He volunteered for a bunker searching mission. Upon coming to one particular bunker, he heard movement inside. Without bothering to clear the bunker, he yelled at the people inside to come out. When they failed to respond, 1SG Doe fired three rounds from his .45 pistol into the bunker. The noises ceased. They then entered the bunker. 1SG Doe seemed okay with the fact that he had killed two Iraqis at the time. It was a very disturbing experience for everyone else. Note this. He is now at the psychiatric ward at Walter Reed. The pressures of his actions during Desert Storm and Somalia led him to two suicide attempts in the past few months. He is a great guy and I consider him a good friend. However, I believe that in the heat of battle he did something contrary to his (and possibly human) nature. I don’t believe that there really is a moral justification to killing in combat.[27]

I will address that rather disturbing final sentence in upcoming paragraphs, but first listen to one more recent example of a soldier who struggled to justify his combat actions.

Ray, a veteran of close combat in the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, told [LTC Grossman] of a recurring dream in which he would talk with the young Panamanian soldier he had killed in close combat. “Why did you kill me?” asked the soldier each time. And in his dreams Ray would attempt to explain to his victim, but in reality he was explaining and rationalizing the act of killing to himself: “Well, if you were in my place, wouldn’t you have done the same?…It was either you or us.” [28]

These soldiers were “good” soldiers who effectively killed the enemy when their nation and its leaders asked them to do so, only to later suffer guilt. Their experiences are not exceptional. In fact, one non-commissioned officer who fought in the Battle of Mogadishu acknowledges that many of the veterans of Mogadishu suffer from PTSD. “I have come to terms with what I did,” he said. “I talked to my priest. I have religious faith and a supportive family. The guys that don’t have these [tools] are pretty torn up.” [29] The psychological toll of the battle fell most heavily on the junior enlisted Rangers. Nearly all of them left the military at their first opportunity, and at least one committed suicide.[30]

1.4 This is a Leadership Issue

We should not be surprised that soldiers—such as 1SG Doe—suffer debilitating guilt over killing in combat when even their own leaders believe that their actions were unjustified. Soldiers who perform their duty in combat deserve better from their leaders.

If killing another person were never morally justified, then the military profession would be an evil one. Because, however, at least some killing in war is morally justifiable, military leaders have a duty to understand that justification, to explain to their soldiers why it is justified, and to train their soldiers to kill only when it is justified.

Military leaders who train their soldiers to kill in combat without explaining to them the justification for that killing are treating their soldiers as commodities to be used, not as persons to be respected. A values-based Army can and must do better than that.

Section 2. A Proposed Justification for Killing in War.

In this section, I offer a moral justification for killing in combat that is based on the principle of self-defense. This justification is consistent both with legal judgments made in civilian society and with Judeo-Christian moral teaching, so it should be understandable and acceptable to the great majority of American military personnel.

2.1 Refuting a Concern about Offering a Moral Argument

Before explicating the justification, though, I will address the reasonable concern that teaching soldiers the morality of killing would actually harm them by fostering hesitancy on the battlefield. Soldiers who are morally aware of their actions, after all, may be less willing to respond immediately to orders to kill. Such delay could, in turn, cost them their lives and compromise the mission.

In fact, the opposite is more likely true. Soldiers who are confident that killing in war is justifiable and that their leaders are morally informed would be more likely to respond quickly to orders and combat stimuli. Akin to religious crusaders, they would fight with the assurance of moral rightness. Moreover, warfare is becoming increasingly decentralized and ambiguous, so military leaders must move beyond reflexive training. We require of our soldiers that they make life-or-death decisions in the absence of fire commands or obvious stimuli. In operations other than war, soldiers have to make judgment calls that cannot be “trained” in the traditional sense. If we want to maximize our military effectiveness, we must empower our soldiers to make morally informed decisions about when and whom to kill.

The words of an infantry battalion commander during OPERATION JUST CAUSE in Panama should serve as a wake-up call to improve the moral element of combat training. He recognized that the nature of the battlefield—urban, full of civilians, with enemy soldiers of uncertain loyalties—could lead to morally ambiguous situations, and he gave these final instructions to his combat troops before launching an attack:

“Let me tell you the bottom line on our rules of engagement, your conscience…your moral conscience is going to carry it. I don’t want you shot; I don’t want your buddies shot…you don’t have time to call me to clear fires. Make your best call.” [31]

That was an enormous burden to place on soldiers whose “moral consciences” had not been prepared for the moral complexities of combat. It is, I think, soldiers who do not understand the justification of killing who would be more likely to hesitate on the modern, low-intensity, “make your best call” battlefield.

2.2 Justified Killing in Self-Defense

At long last, I will now offer an outline for a moral justification of killing in combat. I developed this by examining the elements that provide legal and moral justification to killing in self-defense in civilian circumstances.[32] I do not have the space here to provide a theoretical discussion of what morality is, but my justification does presume a rights-based morality that is consistent with Judeo-Christian and Kantian moral thought.

Here is the bottom line. It is morally permissible to kill another person when these certain conditions are met: that other person has made a conscious decision to threaten your life or liberty; that person is imminently executing that threat; and you have no other reasonable way to avoid the threat.[33] Moreover, it is morally obligatory to use the force necessary to protect an innocent person from such an attacker as long as you have the means to do so, and especially when you have voluntarily assumed the obligation of protecting that innocent person.

For example, if a person intentionally attacks you with a lethal weapon and you have no reasonable way to escape, then you are justified in using lethal force to protect yourself. Likewise, if you are a police officer, then you are morally obligated to use the force necessary to defend the life of an innocent person against an attacker.

All four conditions—a conscious choice, a threat to a value comparable to human life, an imminent threat, and no life-saving option—must be met to ensure that the killing is morally justified by self-defense.

For example, if the “attacker” were a two-year old child or a sleepwalker, then she probably would not have made the choice to cause the threat and thus would not be morally responsible for it, so killing her in self-defense would not be justified (although it might be excusable). The “conscious choice’ condition would not have been met.

If, likewise, the attacker were a robber who only wanted your or someone else’s wallet, then the value at stake would not justify killing him.[34] The “value comparable to human life” condition would not have been met. We should not kill a human being to prevent mere monetary inconvenience and loss.

If, for example, someone threatened to kill you or someone else next week, then you would not be justified in killing him today. The threat must be imminent. The choice to kill in self-defense must be in response to the attacker’s intentional actions, not merely his intentions.

Lastly, if the attacker were a knife-wielding person confined to a wheelchair and you were fully mobile with access to a staircase, then you would not be justified in killing him. Instead, you should simply escape up the stairs. There must be a “forced choice” between fundamental values. If there is a way to escape the situation without compromising life or liberty, then you are obligated to choose that way and are thus prohibited from using lethal force in self-defense.

These examples illuminate the four necessary elements of justified killing in self-defense:

1) a morally responsible attacker;

2) a threat to a value worth killing for (life or liberty);

3) an imminent threat;

4) no other option to avoid the threat.

Significantly, these conditions also apply to justify killing an accomplice of an attacker. For example, if a gang member were chasing you with a knife with the intent to kill you, and you had to escape from the room, and another (unarmed) gang member were consciously blocking your escape, then you would be justified in using lethal force against your attacker’s unarmed accomplice. In legal terms, that person would be a conspirator to attempted murder. Morally, that accomplice would have made the choice to threaten your life, and you would have had no other way to avoid the imminent threat.

These conditions are more stringent than those required for legally justified homicide in self defense, yet they are met when soldiers kill enemy soldiers in combat.

2.3. Justified Killing Applied to War

When soldiers kill enemy soldiers in war, they meet the conditions of justified killing in self-defense.

The enemy soldiers are morally responsible for the threat that they pose. At some level, they chose to be soldiers, and they must know that they are at war against other people. Fully informed volunteers, of course, are more responsible than poorly informed conscripts, yet the fact remains that even conscripts chose to become soldiers. They had other options, however unpleasant they may have been. Human beings, after all, are not responsible for circumstances beyond their control, such as whether their nation goes to war. They are, however, responsible for the choices they make within those circumstances. People who make the choice to be soldiers in war are morally responsible for the threat they pose to their enemy’s soldiers.

Soldiers do fight to defend values that are worth killing and dying for.[35] At least, they hope so. In a just war, that is the case. Because the moral responsibility for going to war lies with political authorities, and because the intentions of political authorities are often opaque, then soldiers should be largely immune from judgments about the just ends of a war. Therefore, unless soldiers have strong reason to be convinced that their war is being fought for values other than the defense of life and liberty, then they can justifiably assume that they are fighting in defense of those fundamental values.

Soldiers also do face an imminent threat from enemy soldiers. All enemy soldiers are either direct threats or accomplices to direct threats. They all act for the same end—to deny the soldier and/or those he is defending their rights to life and liberty. Soldiers have no recourse to a “higher authority” to defend them. They must fight, or they and other innocent persons will lose their cherished rights.

Finally, soldiers do not have a non-lethal option. If they flee before the enemy, the threat will follow them. Again, there is no “higher authority” to offer protection to them and to those who depend on them to defend their lives and freedom.

Therefore, not only is it morally permissible for soldiers to kill enemy soldiers in combat, but also it is morally obligatory for them to use the force necessary to defend the rights of those who depend on them. Soldiers are the last line of defense for the rights of life and liberty.

2.4 Conclusion

What I have proposed here is only a “user-level” justification for killing in combat. I realize that this argument is incomplete, but my goal is to spark institutional discussion on this important topic. I think that its further development and dissemination to the force would significantly enhance the moral standing of the military profession. The conditions that I have outlined are theoretically robust,[36] and perhaps a more complete explanation of their foundation in rights theory could be offered as an element of officer and non-commissioned officer professional development.

Honest reflection on the moral demands of military service should play a part in the Army’s transformation. Soldiers who are empowered to make well-reasoned moral decisions would be more likely to exercise proper initiative and less likely to err by commission or omission. Rules of engagement are by nature static; the battlefields of the future will be fluid. The Army must grow soldiers who can think for themselves.

Not only should the Army include the moral justification for killing in combat in its training because it would enhance the Army’s effectiveness, but also because it is simply the right thing to do. The profession of arms is a noble calling, and military leaders perform their duties honorably. We devote their lives to preparing our soldiers—mentally, physically, materially—for the rigors of combat. We conduct demanding, realistic training; we keep them physically fit; we equip them with the best weapons. Unfortunately, we are unwittingly failing to prepare them morally, and in doing so we are failing in our duty to care for our soldiers’ welfare. Currently, military leaders are leaving our soldiers unprepared to deal with their post-combat consciences and unprepared to make morally right decisions about whom to kill in morally ambiguous circumstances. This is a leadership problem that is solvable, and it demands our attention and action.[37]

References and footnotes

[1] LTC Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1995), 189.

[2] The prevalence and degree of PTSD among combat veterans is a disputed issue.

Dr. Jonathan Shay (Achilles in Vietnam), Grossman, and others contend that PTSD severely affects hundreds of thousands of veterans. Other researchers, such as B.G. Burkett (Stolen Valor) and syndicated columnist Michael Kelly, dispute their claims as exaggerated. For the purposes of this paper, we need not take a side. All informed parties recognize that combat-induced PTSD does exist to some extent and is therefore a problem worth solving.

[3] It goes without saying that military leaders must first understand the moral justification themselves before they can teach it to their subordinates. Therefore, military leaders have a duty to develop their own skills of moral discernment. I owe this good point to MAJ Tony Pfaff.

[4] Marshall, Men Against Fire, 78.

[5] Many military officers disputed Marshall’s findings, which did not surprise him. “In the course of holding post-combat interviews with approximately four hundred infantry companies in the Central Pacific and European Theaters, [Marshall] did not find one battalion, company, or platoon commander who had made the slightest effort to determine how many of his men had actually engaged the enemy with a weapon.” Marshall had discovered that what the military’s leaders had taken for granted—that well-trained soldiers will utilize their training to kill the enemy—was a false assumption.

There are reasonable explanations for officers’ unwillingness to accept Marshall’s findings. For one, relatively few officers had ever personally experienced the difficult task of an infantryman—they had not looked down the sights of a weapon and tried to kill someone; that wasn’t their job. Marshall’s research revealed that the typical soldier’s resistance to killing another person was “unrealized” until that moment of truth when it was time for him to fire his weapon. Having not themselves faced that critical juncture, it is understandable that officers would discount it.

Furthermore, some officers objected to Marshall’s findings because they felt that they besmirched the honor of their soldiers. In fact, though, Marshall went out of his way to emphasize that soldiers’ failure to fire their weapons was not indicative of cowardice. He noted that most non-firers performed important and dangerous tasks, such as providing medical aid, distributing and delivering ammunition, and running messages, that supported their firing comrades.

[6] Marshall, Men Against Fire, 78.

[7] See Roger Spiller, “S.L.A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire,” Journal of the Royal United Service Institution 133 (December 1988) 63-71; and Russell W. Glenn’s Reading Athena’s Dance Card: Men Against Fire in Vietnam (Annapolis, MD:

Naval Institure Press, 2000) 134-136.

[8] Samuel Stouffer, et al., The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath,

vol. 1 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1949) 85-87.

[9] CPT John “Ike” Eisenhauer, personal email correspondence with author,

November 1997. CPT Eisenhauer is an outstanding officer whom I greatly respect.

His candor on this issue is admirable; others with whom I have spoken share his sentiments, but they are not willing to “be quoted.”

[10] The practice of employing psychologists to train men to kill in combat is not a post-WWII phenomenon. See Joanna Bourke’s An Intimate History of Killing (Great Britain: Basic Books, 1999) 57-90.

[11] These figures are from Grossman, 35, who references Marshall’s research, which spanned WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

[12] Marshall, Men Against Fire, 79.

[13] Marshall, Men Against Fire, 71, 81-82.

[14] This explains why nearly all of the officers that Marshall interviewed reported that all of their soldiers fired their weapons. The soldiers that the officers were watching did fire.

[15] Marshall, Men Against Fire, 82.

[16] Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York:

Harper & Row, 1974) 186-189.

[17] Grossman, On Killing , 143. He identifies the researchers as Kranss, Kaplan, and Kranss.

[18] Marshall, Men Against Fire, 82.

[19] Grossman, On Killing, 254.

[20] Why did the Rangers and 10th Mountain infantry soldiers fire their weapons while the Gulf War engineer platoon did not? Perhaps it was their level of training, their level of conditioning.

[21] Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (New York: Atlantic

Monthly Press, 1999).

[22] Bowden, Black Hawk Down, 64.

[23] Bowden, Black Hawk Down, 46.



[26] Not his real name.

[27] Eisenhauer correspondence.

[28] Grossman, On Killing, 240.

[29] Discussion with author, 20 November 1999, West Point, NY.

[30] Discussion with author, 20 November 1999, West Point, NY.

[31] Lieutenant Colonel Harry B. Axson, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 504th

Parachute Infantry Regiment during OPERATION JUST CAUSE, quoted in United States

Army Training and Doctrine Pamphlet 525-100-2, Leadership and Command on the

Battlefield (USA TRADOC, Ft. Monroe, VA:1993) 21-22.

[32] See the author’s M.A. thesis, “Soldiers, Self-Defense, and Killing in War,”

available at:

[33] See Richard Norman, Ethics, Killing, and War (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1995) for a detailed development of these elements.

[34] Whether or not it would be justified to threaten the robber with lethal force in order to prevent the robbery is another issue.

[35] Although my argument addresses what are traditionally considered jus in

bello concerns, I reject the absolute jus in bello/jus ad bellum distinction held by Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars) and others, because I reject the concept of invincible ignorance. Soldiers are responsible moral agents, so they should concern themselves with the jus ad bellum question of the justice of the war, and they should not kill in war if their nation’s war is immoral.

[36] See the author’s M.A. thesis, “Soldiers, Self-Defense, and Killing in War,” available at:

[37] I presented an earlier draft of this paper at the 2000 Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics (JSCOPE). I want to thank all those who have provided encouragement and comments for my revisions, especially SAMS 2001/2 Seminar 2, COL Michael Haith, COL Al Shine, and MAJ Tony Burgess.