Friday, December 26, 2008

The Good Samaritan arrives early

Among my statements that were included in the film "Soldiers of Conscience," my thought experiment about the Good Samaritan has evoked the most passionate feedback.

Some people have found it very helpful as a metaphor that expresses their moral sense that even good Christians must sometimes engage in violent acts in defense of themselves or others.

Conversely, some have taken offense. A person I'll refer to as TJ, a Methodist pastor, expressed his reaction in an email to me:

"First, please do not continue insult the story of the good samaritan by your interpretation. ...You are as ill-equipped to discuss theology, and especially in such a repulsive way, as I am to discuss military combat strategy...Your profile lists your interests to include faith and ethics. That, sir, may look good on your profile, but you and I both know that ethics and morals go out the window in war. To say otherwise... is insulting to the intelligence of all people who have ethics and morals in their lives...You should be ashamed. I will assume you are not."

For the record, all my work is based on my conviction that ethics and morals do NOT "go out the window in war." They are challenged by war's difficult circumstances, of course, but we must not respond to that challenge by quitting and giving in to evil; rather, we should redouble our efforts to prepare ourselves and create systems that empower moral behavior in combat. But I digress.

My insight on the Good Samaritan emerged from a conversation with a pacifist who was arguing that Jesus calls us to love, not to fight; that He calls us "to be like the Good Samaritan." The pacifist was assuming that someone who would kill someone who was attemping to kill the innocent is not someone who would help a beaten victim along the street, as it it were an either/or proposition.

I responded, "If I found a person left for dead along the road, I like to think that I would stop and render aid, just like the Good Samaritan. But if I found someone being beaten by robbers, I like to think that I would protect him by stopping the attack, even if I had to beat the hell out of the robbers. And I think the Good Samaritan would have done the same."

So, here's the thought experiment. What would the Good Samaritan--an exemplar given to us by Christ of a person who loves his neighbor--do if he had arrived at the scene earlier, while the robbers were assaulting the man?

1. Would the Good Samaritan walk on by?
2. Would the Good Samaritan stop and wait, allowing the beating to continue, and hope that the victim survived?
3. Would the Good Samaritan rush to find someone else to stop the beating?
4. Or, would the Good Samaritan risk his own safety to stop the attack and protect the victim, using violence as necessary?

When we look at it this way, I think it's pretty clear that the loving, decent, honorable, courageous, and Christian thing to do is to stop the attack.

After all, Jesus calls on us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I know that if I were ever being beaten mercilessly, I would fight back, and I would want any passerby to join in my defense. So, I will do the same for others.

I welcome and invite any feedback that focuses on the merits of the argument.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

On Conscientious Objectors, Soldiers, and Courage

I posted this on the blog in response to viewers of Soldiers of Conscience praising the featured conscientious objectors' courage.

A consistent--and, in fact, necessary--assumption of war pacifists is that the soldiers on both sides of a war are not fully autonomous human beings. Aiden reveals that assumption when he states, "the vast majority of Iraqi soldiers and insurgents are really poor, uneducated men with no prospects, forced into a life of violence not by belief, but by economics." I'm sure he would say the same thing about American Soldiers--that we are "forced or fooled" into choosing to serve their country in uniform.

I cannot tell you how many times, during my masters and doctoral work at civilian universities, and at professional conferences on both ethics and education (my fields of study), people have said to me, "Why would someone as intelligent as you ever join the military?" They are dumbfounded when an actual encounter with a Soldier reveals their assumptions to be false.

I have been inside the pacifist, anti-military movement, and it is characterized by a paternalistic disdain for those who choose to serve in the military. This assumption is so foundational, so shared, that anti-military pacifists take it for granted. They simply go about their work of "saving" those "poor, no-other-options-in-life" patriotic Americans from defending the freedoms we all enjoy.

The other point I would like to make concerns the (mis)use of the word "courage." The film and its media outreach present the CO's as courageous. Let's take a minute to examine the nature of the courage they demonstrated.

If courage is defined as overcoming fear, what is the CO afraid of? People thinking of him as a coward? Fear of social rejection by the peer group? Although this is undeniably a form of courage, it's the civilian equivalent to not drinking when your underage peers do, or of telling someone that you didn't appreciate their racist joke. The primary risk is social rejection.

So, a CO's courage is a legitimate form of courage (a type of moral courage), but it hardly compares with the the moral and physical courage exhibited by Soldiers who sign up to fight and then actually risk their lives in battle.

What does a Soldier fear? Death. Dismemberment. Things that are a bit more serious and permanent than social rejection. The civilian equivalent of a Soldier's courage is a fireman who rushes into a burning building to save someone trapped inside, or of a lifeguard who braves a rip tide to rescue swimmers.

Who's the hero--the kid who resists peer pressure or the one who risks his own life and limb to save someone else? Both are heroes, but the latter one deserves greater admiration.

For every 1 conscientious objector who shows courage in the face of peer pressure, there are more than 1,000 Soldiers who show courage in the face of violent death. We should all be thankful for that unseen, courageous majority. No one gives them book deals.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Radio Interview on KQED San Francisco

Wow, I just endured a frustrating interview. The anti-military assumptions and leading questions of the host, Michael Krasny, were the most biased I've ever encountered.

I was just waiting for him to begin a question with, "Given that killing in war is immoral and the war in Iraq is wrong and that the only psychologically healthy people in the military are those who apply for conscientious objection, a process that the military makes unnecessarily difficult, what do you think about...."

Is he that biased on every topic?

The other people on the program were:

Gary Weimberg, the co-director of Soldiers of Conscience, who in the beginning of the interview played along with Krasny's line of questioning but later on challenged some of the host's assumptions;

Aiden Delgado, who is marvelously articulate and a genuine, Buddhist conscientious objector (CO). I'd want to talk war and morality with him over a beer, except that his Buddhist views are ulimately irreconcilable with my core values. He'd let someone be killed, even if he could stop it, so as not to diminish his own life. To the Judeo-Christian worldview, that's plain selfish. To a Buddhist, that makes sense.

J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, a CO advocacy group. She thinks she knows a lot more about war than she does. Her knowledge of warfare comes from conscientious objectors she helps and mass-market books, yet she claims to know what it's like in combat units in war. Ignorance+bias = a waste of the listener's time.

My favorite caller was a psycotherapist who treats veterans with PTSD. She says that EVERY patient she has suffers from the effects of war. From that, she generalized that EVERY veteran of war suffers. Talk about generalizing from a skewed sample. Healthy veterans would have no reason to see her.

I hope my participation did some good; if nothing else, I interrupted a left-wing chatfest against the military.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Slides I use to discuss the moral justification of killing in war

Several folks have asked if I have a paper or presentation I can share that would help them lead a discussion with their Soldiers on the moral justification of killing in war.
I have intended for months to write a concise paper, or at least put notes to the slides, but alas I haven't. So, I post these slides, knowing full well that bullets don't tell the whole story...but I hope that these are at least helpful. Talking openly about the morality of killing with our Soldiers accomplishes a lot on its own. I know that someone out there will take this discussion to the next level. Please share back with me the insights you discover.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Challenge to "Pacifists"

I received an email today from someone who objected to my reference in "Soldiers of Conscience" to the Story of the Good Samaritan.

Here is part of my response to him. I welcome feedback on my challenge. Am I off base?

My point in offering the hypothetical about the Good Samaritan is to point out that it's easy to oppose the use of violence in the abstract--when one is not personally facing it. It's easier to console victims than to prevent their victimization.

I invite you and any others who share your pacifist beliefs to practice what you preach--to disavow in your own lives both violence and the threat of violence. I challenge you to post on your windows and doors an announcement that you will neither ask nor permit the police to intervene for your protection, nor will you use any violence to protect yourselves or your property. After all, the police accomplish their mission (protecting the innocent) by using force. For good measure, wear a large pin on your shirt announcing your renunciation of any force on your behalf. Let the world know that you will not respond to violence with violence, and you will not allow anyone to do so on your behalf!

Then see what happens.

The great majority of people will applaud your idealism. But others will rob you blind. Sick pedophiles might even assault your daughter or little sister. And you Pray for them? Call your insurance agent?

Why, after all, does a Mennonite college employ armed guards?

I don't mean to sound callous, but I've traveled the world a bit as a Soldier, and I have seen the effects of evil. Most Americans never have to face evil--thanks to national and local security forces. I wish it were so for everyone in the world.

Jesus himself was very harsh on hypocrites and self-righteous religious leaders, but he never had a harsh world for Soldiers, despite several opportunities.

I could go on, but I wonder if you will accept the challenge, and invite all your pacifist brethren to do the same. THAT could launch a movement that changes the world.

"Soldiers of Conscience" film screening

Last week I attended a screening for the documentary "Soldiers of Conscience," which addresses the moral question of killing in war. I am one of the people featured in the movie.

It's a high-quality, interesting work that will generate healthy discussion on this overlooked topic.

Some military folks find the film to be too "pro-conscientious objector," pro-pacifist. I agree that it offers (superficially) compelling arguments from several articulate COs from the current war in Iraq, but any imbalance is caused by the more-developed narrative that pacifists employ. The military profession, in contrast, doesn't have an articulated moral justification for killing in war (unless you count my unofficial writings). Consequently, in the film I'm the only military person who offers moral (rather than legal or practical) arguments. Overall, I judge the film to be "fair yet unbalanced."

I recommend it. Its national broadcast premiere is on PBS on Thursday, 16 Oct. I welcome your feedback.

Friday, May 23, 2008

NBC Dateline

I received word this week that the "Dateline" episode this Memorial Day Weekend, on Sunday 25 May at 7pm EDT, will address the guilt that many soldiers experience after killing (justly) in war.

Dateline came by my office last October and filmed an interview. I hope that the show will raise awareness on the issue. A big first step to helping our soldiers make sense of their experience of killing in war is breaking the taboo and becoming more honest about the moral reality of war. A second necessary step is having a shared vocabulary that enables soldiers and citizens to talk about the wrestle through the concepts and experiences. Traditional Just War Theory is woefully in adequate in addressing the moral issues of individual killing. Hopefully my writing has contributed to both goals. More needs to be done. I invite you to join the discussion and the cause.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Killing enemy combatants--a justification

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 military leaders do not do enough to prepare our soldiers to understand and justify their actions in moral terms. This not only leads many soldiers to needlessly suffer moral guilt, but it also leaves them vulnerable to the arguments of war pacifists. Our troops deserve better from us.

In this essay, I investigate “morality and war” from a soldier’s perspective without resorting to legal justifications. My intent is to empower our profession to better understand the moral reality of war. What I write here is not doctrine. I speak only for myself—a career officer and Army-educated ethicist—and hope that our discussions around this topic will deepen our commitment to and comfort with our vocation as warriors.

This paper is divided into two sections. The first section puts forth an explanation of why soldiers are morally justified in killing enemy combatants, and it offers a framework for moral decision-making in those tragic circumstances of war when our actions will likely cause unintentional harm to non-combatants (i.e., collateral damage). The second section challenges the age-old notion of the “moral equality of soldiers” and suggests that soldiers’ moral justification for killing in war depends on the overall justice of the war.

Section I: Killing in War
Why killing enemy combatants is morally justified

thesis: 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 not to be killed.

Every person, by virtue of being a human being, possesses the right not to be killed by another person.[1] This is commonly referred to as the “right to life,” but the term “right not be 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. [2]

The term “right not to 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 be said to have violated our rights. We possess rights only in relation to other human beings who can be held accountable for their choices.

Our rights as human beings put limits on how others can act towards us. One person’s right has priority over another person’s freedom. For example, my right not to be killed trumps my angry neighbor’s freedom to kill me over our dandelion dispute. Were he to kill me, he would commit a moral wrong. To paraphrase the philosopher J. S. Mill, we possess the freedom to choose our actions provided they do not violate the rights of another. Rights must trump freedoms, if rights are to have any meaning at all.

Rights themselves are absolute, but possession of them is not. People forfeit their rights if and while they are engaged in violating the rights of others. This explains the rights of self defense and defense of others. When an attacker violates the right not to be killed of those who possess it, he forfeits his own right not to be killed.

Enemy combatants are people who are engaged in violating and threatening the rights of others not to be killed or enslaved. Thus, when we kill combatants, we do no moral wrong; we violate no rights. In fact, we vindicate the rights of those people whom the enemy combatants were threatening.

The Problem of Collateral Damage
thesis: In war, the least morally wrong option is the morally right choice.

War would be morally less complicated if our enemy would agree to face us on a field of battle away from noncombatants. That way, we could be sure to kill only those who had already forfeited their right not to be killed.

Unfortunately, our enemy is our enemy precisely because he seeks the death of non-combatants, if not by his own guns than even better by ours. Thus, we must fight against an enemy who hides among noncombatants, using them as human shields to create for us a moral dilemma—whether to protect the noncombatants (which is our end, or goal) or to kill enemy combatants (which is a primary means to achieve our goal).

What should a soldier do when faced with a situation in which a proposed plan of action to kill enemy combatants will likely also kill noncombatants? It is impossible to say outside of the context of the particular battle space; the soldier will have to make difficult decisions that involve tradeoffs. The decision, however, should be based on a framework that respects the rights—short-term and long-term—of those who still retain them, i.e., their own soldiers and noncombatants.

A Framework for Choosing a Course of Action

In a situation where a combat action could foreseeably risk the rights of non-combatants, soldiers are morally obligated to choose the course of action that in their judgment best respects the rights of those affected. Leaders must take into account: the mission, their fellow soldiers, and non-combatants.

Mission accomplishment can be understood in terms of rights. In a just war, the overall mission is to defend human rights. The many missions that subordinate units accomplish in support of that overall mission are the means by which the overall mission gets accomplished. These sub-unit missions may vary in how directly and substantively they support the overall mission, but they do contribute. The more directly and substantively they contribute, the more significance they have to supporting human rights. Any mission, then, can be evaluated in terms of its importance to the long-term defense of rights of everyone involved.

Military leaders must also take into account the rights of their own soldiers, who are fighting to defend the rights of others. Although soldiers are volunteers who willingly accept the risks of their profession, their leaders must develop and choose courses of action that accomplish the mission without unduly risking the lives of those entrusted to them.

Finally, leaders must incorporate the rights of potentially affected noncombatants into their course-of-action analyses. To some in our profession, the leadership mantra “Mission First, People Always” is interpreted as “Mission First, Soldiers Always,” thus overlooking our duty as military professionals to protect noncombatants. The fact is, every human being possesses the right not to be killed, unless by his own choice to violate the rights of someone who retains her rights, he forfeits his own right. This is not a binary condition; people can forfeit some of their rights claim, according to their participation in a rights violation. Thus, civilians can lose some of their right to not be killed if they support the rights-violating activities of enemy combatants. For example, a noncombatant who allows enemy combatants to assemble in her house forfeits much of her right to not be killed, so it is less of a moral wrong to take action against morally legitimate targets that results in her death.

Because there are, in combat situations, a nearly infinite number of possible situations involving varying levels of risk to mission, soldiers, and noncombatants, it is impossible to develop a flow-chart-like algorithm that would produce morally justified courses of action. Leaders have to assess their particular situations and use their professional judgment. As a guideline and to foster discussion on this important topic, I offer the following two examples to demonstrate how the Mission-Soldiers-Noncombatants framework can inform leaders’ decisions.

Situation 1: a water-supply convoy that is moving through a built-up area in a town receives poorly aimed small-arms fire to their flank at 250 meters.

Analysis 1: in this situation, accomplishment of the mission (water re-supply) does not require the soldiers to kill their attackers. In the big story of the war, the ambush will not even be a footnote. Also, given the distance of the ambush, the safety of the soldiers is not a major issue as they continue their mission. Finally, there is no evidence that the noncombatants who may be in the line of fire to the ambushers have forfeited their own rights not to be killed.

One reasonable conclusion: the soldiers would NOT be justified in returning large volumes of un-aimed fire. The risk to the rights of noncombatants would not be balanced by a commensurate benefit to mission accomplishment (long-term rights) or force protection (soldiers’ rights).
Situation 2: an infantry unit that is deliberately attacking a fortified urban area is receiving effective fire from an enemy strongpoint that is adjacent to the occupied homes of non-combatants. Civilians in the area had been warned about the attack and given opportunity to relocate. The enemy fire has halted the main effort of the operation.

Analysis 2: in this situation, accomplishment of the mission does require destruction of the enemy. Our own soldiers are already at great risk; their loss of momentum is likely providing the enemy time to maneuver. Moreover, other soldiers in adjacent units are relying on the soldiers’ continued progress to protect their flanks. Finally, the civilians had the opportunity to escape the situation, so they must bear some of the risk; they have compromised some of their own rights not to be killed.

One reasonable conclusion: destroy the enemy position with direct tank or fighting-vehicle fires. Respect for noncombatant rights should limit our use of less discriminating systems such as unguided field artillery and close-air support. Respect for our own soldiers’ rights impels us not to attempt a dismounted assault.
There is much more that could be said about these examples—much more information that leaders should take into account. What is important morally, though, is that military leaders’ course-of-action analyses and decisions give due respect to the three relevant categories in such situations—the mission, friendly soldiers, and noncombatants.

Section II: The Supposed “Moral Equality of Soldiers”

Traditional Notion of the Soldiers’ Moral Equality
thesis: 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 not to 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 are moral equals, and no moral wrong is committed when one combatant kills another.

The moral equality of soldiers has an obvious superficial appeal to both soldiers and politicians. To soldiers, it anesthetizes them of their responsibility to fight only for a just cause, and it relieves them of any moral responsibility for killing enemy combatants. To politicians, it ensures that their armies will wage the wars they launch. We should not be surprised, then, that the moral equality of soldiers has been written into the laws of war. It makes war more palatable, morally and politically.

Moral Implications of the Moral Equality of Soldiers
thesis: To subscribe to the moral equality of soldiers is to equate soldiers to mafia thugs or gang members, no better or worse than their enemies.

Should we accept the idea that enemy combatants are our moral equals? As a soldier, I am offended at the claim that soldiers who fight for human rights and freedoms have the same moral standing as those who fight for Nazi or Islamist fascism. Moreover, as an ethicist, I am concerned that we would accept an argument that rationalizes killing on the basis that no one is morally wrong because everyone is morally wrong; i.e., all combatants have forfeited their right to not be killed, so none of them is wrong to kill each other. This line of reasoning has implications that we should be unwilling to accept. As we will see in the ensuing paragraphs, it is only the moral inequality among people in a context that gives killing in self defense[3] its moral authority.

Consider, for example, a situation in which someone who has forfeited his right not bo be killed engages in conflict with someone who retains that right. Imagine that an armed bank robber has taken a hostage at gunpoint. By threatening the life of the hostage, the robber has forfeited his right not to be killed. Imagine further that a police officer then arrives at the scene and aims her firearm at the robber. Has the officer done anything wrong? No. Not only has the robber already forfeited his right not to be killed, but also the police officer has an obligation to protect innocent people, including the hostage. Would we say that the police officer, by virtue of “threatening” the robber, forfeits her own right not to be killed? Would the robber be justified in shooting the officer in “self defense”? Of course not, on both counts. Context matters. The officer cannot violate the rights of someone who has already forfeited them. The moral inequality between the robber and police officer makes it morally acceptable for the officer to kill the robber, but not vice versa.

Consider, on the other hand, a situation in which all parties have forfeited their rights not to be killed. Imagine two organized crime “families” that make their money by threatening the lives of businessmen and who compete over the same turf. They are “at war,” ready to knock off their rival extortionists at any opportunity. In this situation, “family members” on both sides who participate have forfeited their rights not to be killed. If a member of one family attacked someone from the other family, there would be no violation of rights. If the body guards fended off the attack and killed the attacker, they would not be morally justified. Nor, by this argument, would they be morally wrong. They would simply be killing in self interest, not justified self defense. In itself, that is not a violation of rights. However, if any innocent bystanders were killed in the exchange, the Mafioso would bear a grave moral burden, because they would have violated the victims’ rights to not be killed, and have done so for no morally worthy reason.

Are American soldiers analogous to the police officer or to the mafia hit men? Are we defenders of rights or amoral mercenaries? To subscribe to the moral equality of soldiers is to equate soldiers to the mafia thugs, no better or worse than their enemies. On the other hand, to subscribe to the idea that soldiers are analogous to the police officer entails that soldiers must act for a just cause. Soldiers must maintain their moral authority by threatening only those people who have already forfeited their rights not to be killed, and they must not do anything that forfeits their own rights. In other words, they have to fight in wars that are just. Is this a reasonable requirement?

The notion of the moral equality of soldiers can be traced to the Medieval Age and the concept of soldiers’ “invincible ignorance.” Invincible ignorance was the claim that soldiers are either too ignorant or uninformed, or both, to determine whether their side is the aggressor or the defender in a war. Thus was born the conditions that gave rise to the moral equality of soldiers. These conditions, however, no longer apply, at least not in the developed world. Perhaps it was once the case that soldiers were invincibly ignorant, when feudal lords rallied their illiterate serfs to battle, but it is certainly not true today. Today’s soldiers are educated and have access to a wealth of information. To assume that all soldiers are “invincibly ignorant” and thus incapable of judging the justice of a war is misinformed, inaccurate, and insulting to soldiers.

War is not a “moral-free zone.” Prosecuted by humans on their fellow humans, it involves the fundamental moral issues of life and death. In this paper, I have argued that every human being possesses the right to not be killed, and therefore, killing in war is justified only when the enemy soldiers have already forfeited their own rights not to be killed. I further argued that combat situations in which the legitimate killing of enemy combatants may potentially risk the rights of noncombatants require that military leaders give due to respect to the rights of everyone involved by considering the mission, their own soldiers, and affected noncombatants. I further argued that this rights-based justification for killing in war requires a moral inequality among soldiers. After all, if the enemy combatants aren’t wrong, then we have no right to kill them. Finally, I claimed that contemporary soldiers are capable of judging the morality of a war, and thus are responsible for ensuring that they are supporting a morally justified cause.
[1] The right to not be killed and the right to not be enslaved are both rights that are worth killing and dying for. For the sake of brevity, in this article I will refer only to the right to not be killed, but the same argument applies to the right to not be enslaved.
[2] For the sake of brevity, in this article I will treat “violate rights” to include “threaten imminently to violate rights.” We do not have to wait for our rights to be actually violated for the violator to forfeit his or her own rights.
[3] The right of self defense and the right to defense of another are distinct but based on the same principles. Also, the justification of killing in war relates to both rights. For the sake of brevity in this article, I will refer only to the right of self defense, but the right to defend another also applies.

Christopher, P. (1999). The Ethics of War and Peace: An Introduction to Legal and Moral Issues. Upper Saddle River, NJ, Prentice Hall.

Walzer, M. (1977). Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. United States of America, Basic Books.