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, etc gave them a sense of the decisions they would have to make.

Of course, real accounts of battle are descriptive, not prescriptive...and real descriptions of war are full of events that would be war crimes by legal, media, and other dominant but uninformed-about-war parties.

In my interviews, which are one-on-one, confidential conversations in the war zone, I've noticed that soldiers who are doing the fighting have their own set of ethical standards.  In most cases and most situations, their ethical norms are consistent with what is expected publicly of them--be gentle with detainees, do not discriminate against local national civilians even if you know they support (not materially) the enemy, use gov't funds IAW all the regulations, leave interrogations to the trained interrogators, put the mission first, etc. 

Yet there are times and situations in which soldiers judge "what's right" on the ground to be much different than the public ethics.  Sometimes, soldiers "interrogate" detainees whom they are authorized only to tactically question; sometimes they use funds for purposes not authorized; sometimes they put more risk on civilians whom they know support the enemy; on occasion, they insure that someone they've detained will never able to kill the innocent again.

Each of these action violates the "public ethics" of the US military (and some the Laws of Land Warfare)...yet I've heard well reasoned, convincing moral arguments for them.  The problem is, our soldiers cannot ever say publicly what they did, much less offer their reasons, without making themselves liable to legal proceedings.  As a result, the next generations of soldiers will continue to be unprepared for the complex, difficult moral decisions they will face in war. It's a catch-22.

So, the profession of arms has two moral codes--the public one, based on black-and-white legal rules, that work much of the time; and a private code, known only by those who have to do the messy work of war.

It's not healthy psychologically to have made difficult moral decisions that you cannot talk about publicly for fear of being punished.

It's also dangerous to have such "unspoken" rules of war that differ from what soldiers are taught in formal training.  For example,inexperienced young leaders (2LT platoon leaders) can have trouble enforcing standards when they are not confident that they know the true standards.

I am going to develop a paper on this topic that I'll present at the New Mexico Military Institute in October, and I plan to refine it and present it again at the American Society of Military Ethics meeting in January.

More to follow, but I thought I'd put the ideas out there and solicit your feedback.  You can always write me privately at pgkilner@gmail.com  if you want to share your experiences and ideas on this or any topic related to moral decisionmaking in the military context.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like the problem is the pre-combat focus on "legality" instead of a focus on moral decision making prior to the "gray area" event.

It sounds like the Soldiers you hear from are capable of making morally correct decisions, but this is probably derived from known moral guideposts (i.e Army Values, societal values, the biographical accounts you mentioned, and even the laws of warfare themselves).

You've called for more dialog about moral decision-making before entering conflicted circumstances, specifically killing. Could frequent dialog about moral decision-making be the key to not only providing a thought-laboratory for Soldiers soon to be entering fluid circumstances, but also provide a forum for those who have made tough decisions to vent their anxiety at the same time that they mentor others with their experiences?

On a different note: we know that so-called "gray areas" exist because there is no action that is legally "correct" but is still, as you say, morally defensible. Is there a defense for amnesty in these circumstances?

My gut tells me no...but it's a hard thing to face; certainly a catch-22, as you state here.

I'll have to give more thought to these illegal-but-morally-defensible actions myself...

cynik said...

You wrote: "Many of those attacking Indigenous 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."

You could just as easily leave out the fourth word, and the sentence reads just as well. "uneducated and misinformed" is hardly a distinguishing factor between common soldiers on any battlefield.

In my view, you suffer from a grand delusion regarding your own capacity to understand why people fight. You presume that your own nation is ethically and morally correct, and then move on with your thoughts from that point.

But why? If you are willing to begin your thoughts with the presumption that your nation state is fundamentally OK, and that killing for money whilst wearing its uniform is fundamentally OK, then why talk about ethics and morals? Who are you trying to convince? Yourself, or others?

And if you are not willing to start with the presumption that your nation state is fundamentally OK, then what the hell are you doing in uniform, taking money to kill folks when ordered to do so?

You see, you are not some great philosopher. You are just a soldier. Being a soldier does not make a person an expert on anything much, but least of all philosophy. Indeed, you are clearly unfit to philosophize precisely because you are such an ardent nationalist with ultra violent tendencies.

Say whatever you like about soldier, but all of them fit them bill of being ardent nationalists with ultra violent tendencies. That is why they join a group whose job is killing other human beings, and that is why they like to wear uniforms of the nation state.

It seems to me that people like you want to deny what you really are, and so you talk endlessly about "morals" and "ethics". You presume your own authority and competence to talk about such things, and you presume that others acknowledge your authority also.

All anyone ought to acknowledge about you is that you are voluntarily in a group of people who like the state so much that they enjoy dressing up in its uniforms, and who have such a disregard for human life that they will kill when it orders them to do so.

That fact that you blather on about ethics and morals is simply a curiosity, no doubt a self serving delusion. You can't change what you have chosen to do in the past.

There is no objective good or evil in any conflict. There are only those who take part, and those who do not. Of those who take part, some are vicious and callous, and some are frightened and loquacious.

Anyway, good luck with your chatter about the "good guys". I hope you end up convincing yourself that god made america because he finally realized that making one perfect nation state was what he had meant to do all along, and the rest of history was a trial period leading up to the glory of the USA.

Because if you ever end up doubting you nationalism, you are just another uniformed killer taking money from some state to do unspeakable things for the idiot reward of a few trinkets and a pretty hat.

Apolloin said...

Cynik sounds, to me, like someone from one of those balkanised nightmares of a State. Someone who's had a very different experience with the uniformed services than I have.

Warfare is simply a tool of statecraft and, like any profession, it can be performed in an ethical or an unethical manner. Speculation on the ethical performance of duty is NOT a dry hole and is, in fact, as important a point of doctrine as any other.

The sections on the psychological burden that soldiers carry once they leave the operational theater resonates strongly with me. Every modern Army worthy of the name has a highly sophisticated methodology for converting citizen to soldier, but I am not aware of a single one that possesses even an adequate system for converting said soldier back again at the end of his time in uniform.

Pete Kilner said...

@ Justin: I agree that the crux of the problem is a sanitized, legalized approach to combat, which simply doesn't apply to the reality of war.

@ cynic: the irony of your post is amusing. You accuse me of being biased and close-minded (to put it charitably), yet your words betray your own blinding prejudices. The arguments and ideas I share in this blog and elsewhere are intended for those who have open minds and are willing to engage with ideas.

@ Apolloin: I concur. As one vet put it, battle fatigue describes the soldier who cannot continue to find; PTSD describes the soldier who cannot exit the fight mentally--who cannot resocialize back into peaceful society. As I said in the 2002 "Military leaders' obligation to justify killing in war," if we train soldiers to kill without training them also to make sense of the experience and live in peace, then we are merely using them. We (the military) have to do better; our citizens deserve better.


Anonymous said...

I would like to Thank-you very much for having an open and honest dialogue on these extremely complex issues of soldiers being confronted with life and death decionmaking and then returning home from the horrors of war and lacking services in order to become a productive civilian in a society that finds their experience incomprehensible.

the truthspeller said...

dear pete; this is an interesting blog. i am not american or a soldier or even male...it all looks perefectly reasoned and sincerely debated...and what it leaves out is feelings. hatred, cruelty, absolute power...a payback type of thing for all the dirt and discomfort and the dislocation of the soldiers mind. dont you think your soldiers go into it reasonable young men and quickly get addicted to these feelings? perhaps some PTSD isnt reactions to threats to the soldiers life but actually a kind of cold turkey from these insanities of dizzyig power? i will visit again soon in order to read you. Gerry.

Pete Kilner said...

@Truthspeller touches on an interesting point. It is true that war creates an adrenaline high for those engaged in it. It is true that soldiers feel a great sense of purpose in their actions; after all, they literally are writing history for a region and their "cause" is usually the leading issue in news and politics.

One young captain leaving the Army told me that he feared that he would never do anything again that was so meaningful. "I'm afraid that my life peaked at age 24, and that's depressing," he said.

I recall a company commander in Iraq in 2003 telling me that he had to remind his soldiers that just because they wielded the power of God (life and death), they were not gods and were subject to laws.

I agree that war is infused with emotions. However, I think the #1 emotion is love--soldiers in war spend their days and months surrounded by people who would literally die for them...and often do. And they,too, are willing to give their lives for their brothers and sisters in their unit. That love is intense and is dearly missed once the deployment is over.

So, yes, there is fear and pity and sadness and--less frequently, hatred--but I think the overlooked emotion of war is love. Once the deployment is over, soldiers miss the unshakeable bonds they enjoyed with their "band of brothers," which I suspect is a big sense of their sense of loss and quest for meaning in their post-war lives.

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