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Unspoken ethical norms in war

I've had the privilege to interview more than 300 junior officers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have been very impressed and inspired by their deep commitment to leading their soldiers to fight morally.  Combat requires  moral decisionmaking--there's no getting around it--and our leaders overwhelmingly mean well.

However, I have also observed that many leaders and soldiers feel unprepared for the life-or-death decisions they have had to make in "gray" circumstances.  Their pre-deployment training consisted too often of black-or-white scenarios written by Army lawyers who've never had to make decisions in the fog of war. So, our soldiers learn by doing, trusting their gut instincts and character, and they generally do remarkably well.

The soldiers I interview describe their most uselful preparation for combat moral decisionmaking as being their reading of memoirs or other accounts of battle, and movies.  Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, With the Old Breed, …

Diminished moral responsibility of many enemy combatants

The straightforward examples used in my baseline argument for the moral justification for killing in war are not representative of many of the enemy combatants that we kill in the current wars. Many of those attackingIndigenous Security Forces or Coalition Forces (the good guys) are doing so solely to pay the bills, to put food on the table; others are uneducated and misinformed about the goals of each side in the wars. In other words, many of the attackers are not fully morally responsible for their actions. In terms of domestic self defense, they are more like: a drug addict who commits armed robbery and murder to finance his addiction; or a mentally disabled person who watched a violent movie, came across a loaded weapons, and is now “living the fantasy” by shooting innocent people; or like a man who mistakenly thinks that you raped and killed his mother and is coming to kill you.

In such cases, I think, we would say that using lethal force to stop the attack and protect the lives o…

The Justice of the War does matter

The editors cut a couple important paragraphs from the Army Magazine article. The paragraps address the effect that the justice of the war has on the morality of actions within the war.

"As you likely realized while reading the bubble theory, its approach to justifying killing in war requires that the soldier be fighting for a war that is just. This is a stumbling block for many military professionals. The bubble theory rejects the long-held tenet of the Just-War Tradition that soldiers on both sides of a war are “moral equals”—equally innocent of responsibility for the war but equally guilty of threatening each other. This claim of moral equality between unjust aggressor and just defender treats all soldiers as “innocent aggressors,” and thus reduces the “justification” of killing in war to the moral equivalent of gang warfare—no one is wrong because all are wrong, i.e., all soldiers have lost their bubbles. This waiver on soldiers’ responsibility for fighting may have had merit …

Ethics of Killing seminar at West Point

Department of English and Philosophy Seminar on “The Ethics of Killing”

Last Friday, 22 Jan, Dr. Richard Schoonhoven led a very interesting discussion on the ethics of killing, especially as it applies to war. This was the first of a series of Departmental seminars on the Army’s Professional Military Ethic. About 60 staff and faculty attended the 55-minute seminar.

Here are a few of my take-aways from the seminar:

First, it was validating. Richard didn’t put forth a theory or an answer to the question of the moral justification for killing in war; that wasn’t his intent. Instead, he laid out the many aspects related to the question—e.g., the problem of the innocent attacker, moral responsibility, “invincible ignorance,” the relationship of citizen and state, the connection (or not) of Jus in Bellum and Jus in Bello, noncombatant immunity. Yet, in almost every area of discussion, I felt confident that my approach to the morality of killing could coherently address the issues.

Second, I rea…

Why study the morality of killing in war?

Why talk with our soldiers about the morality of killing?

1. Helping our soldiers understand the moral justification of killing is a leadership issue. Many soldiers who have killed in war are wracked by guilt when they should not be. When our soldiers kill justly, they ought to be able to live at peace with themselves. We, their leaders, are responsible for them killing; we ought to do our part to help them live fully afterwards.

2. Our soldiers arrive in the Army without any personal experience of killing another human being. As their leaders, we need to help them prepare for and make sense of the first-in-a-lifetime experience of killing a fellow human being. This contrasts with other, more frequent moral decisions. For example, by the time I turned 18 and joined the Army, I knew that stealing was immoral. Why? Well, when I was an 11-year-old boy, I shoplifted some candy. Almost immediately afterwards, I felt guilty and ashamed of myself. A year later, someone stole my bicycl…

Moral justification for killing in war

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


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


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