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Ethical Failures in the GWOT

3 policy-based ethical failures by the US in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

I’ve had the privilege to observe and interview hundreds of Soldiers at their combat outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. As someone who cares deeply about ethical conduct in war, I can assure you that the conduct of the overwhelming majority of US Soldiers over the past decade has been nothing short of inspiring. Despite very challenging conditions, American Soldiers consistently maintain their humanity and act with justice and compassion. On numerous occasions, Iraqis and Afghans have told me they wish that their own security forces would treat them as well as US forces do.

Although our rank-and-file Soldiers on the ground have acted honorably, our senior decision makers have a more checkered record.  There have been moral failings that we ought to acknowledge, learn from, and never repeat.

1. Torture (aka, enhanced interrogation procedures). This was perpetrated primarily by non-military OGAs (other government agencies such as the CIA) and contractors, but the practice tarnished the reputation of our nation and military (by association). It also set a terrible example and precedent. The temptation for Soldiers to mistreat a detainee who, for example, may have just killed one of their friends is very difficult to resist; it feels like every cell in your body demands payback.  Time and again, however, our Soldiers overcame temptation, exercised restraint, and chose the harder (moral) right over the easier (emotional) wrong. It’s a shame that the laudable ethical conduct of the uniformed many has been overshadowed by the unprofessional conduct of the non-uniformed few.

2. Contractors using lethal force.  It’s acceptable for contractors on secure bases to provide logistical support in war--to wash the clothes, repair the vehicles, etc. But contractors have NO PLACE on the battlefield. They should not be providing personal security to officials who travel outside the wire. They should not be running convoys, flying helicopters, or doing anything else where they are armed and likely to use their weapons. US Army Soldiers are professionals of arms--serving the nation, accountable to the people through their chain of command, trained in and committed to the ethical use of force.  Armed contractors, on the other hand, are mercenaries--serving their commercial enterprises, accountable to no one except their supervisors, and trained in the use of force, but not necessarily in its ethical use. Permitting contractors to perform warfighting tasks on the battlefield is an insult to the profession of arms and has proven harmful to US interests and moral standing. Only trained, accountable, ethical, professional Soldiers should be engaging in combat operations.

3. Senior military leaders being transported around the battlespace in armed, unmarked vehicles. A fundamental principle of the morality and legality of war is “discrimination” (or noncombatant immunity). In war, all combatants have the duty to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants: enemy combatants may be targeted, but noncombatants may not. This is why international law requires military personnel in a war zone to wear distinctive uniforms and to travel in distinctive, marked vehicles. The uniforms and markings enable combatants to know who is a legitimate target and who isn’t. The law protects noncombatants.

Regrettably, senior U.S. military leaders routinely travel around Afghanistan in custom-built, armored, unmarked SUVs, as they have since the start of the war. To an observer (such as an IED triggerman atop a mountain), these armored vehicles look like any other SUV used by a well-funded governmental, commercial, or NGO official. A case could be made that the customized SUVs are more maneuverable and practical on city streets, and that is true.  But there’s no excuse for not marking the vehicles clearly as military transport.

In 2009 I took a civilian airline flight out of Kabul. In the plane, a European who worked for an NGO recognized me as an American and complained bitterly to me bitterly her NGO’s workers were being killed in attacks by insurgents because of the US military’s practice of transporting senior military leaders in unmarked, civilian-looking vehicles. Her food-aid colleagues routinely traveled in caravans of large SUVs to transport supplies to remote villages. However, because senior US and Afghan leaders also traveled in convoys of large SUVs, insurgents sometimes mistook a food-aid NGO convoy as a US military convoy and attacked it.  According to the woman, our disregard for international military law indirectly resulted in the deaths of noncombatants.

Back in the US, I asked a JAG Colonel who was familiar with the practice how senior leaders could flaunt the law like this.  
“A memo was written giving a legal opinion that authorized it,” he said.
“On what legal basis? What’s the argument?” I asked him. “How does military personnel traveling in unmarked, armed vehicles not constitute a violation of the laws of war?”
He shrugged his shoulders and repeated without conviction, “A memo was written that authorized it. That’s all I can say about the situation.”

The United States can and must do better. We should not make exceptions for ourselves.  Wars are moral endeavors--battles by good against evil.  We should not undermine our moral authority by violating laws of war.  We are good enough at our profession to win with honor.


Excellent article and refreshing read.
As a musician, I feel honored to know the true ethics of the US military. My grandfather was a nisiei US Soldier in ww2. Re establishing morality after the war ended was a job that never ended for him. And I see that kind of perserverence in your writing.
I try to relate that same kind of general philosophy to my fellow citizens. Most of which are typically hard headed decent folks.
Thank you so far for your service.

Musashi Lethridge
Anonymous said…
Interesting Blog Pete. I come from a long line of pacifists and I must state from the outset that I strongly believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were immoral from the outset. I also hold a very low opinion of the machine that is the US Military. That being said I found many of your comments eye-opening and a great relief to me to know that there is thoughtful discussion on US military intervention with the machine itself. I really like your discourse on contractors. It always disturbs me that they are permitted to engage in security and military operations of lethal force, and that there are so many of them on the ground. It seems like a bad idea to have a relatively unaccountable group involved in direct action.

Your comments on senior officers traveling in unmarked vehicles was something that I was unaware of and I can see how this would lead to potentially dangerous situations for NGO's or aid organization. Good on you for opposing this practice and explaining your case so clearly.

Lastly, regarding torture. I was under the impression that many acts of torture of detainee's have been at the hands of military personnel (What occurred at Abu Ghraib for example). Am I mistaken? Or were those involved OGA's Or perhaps you are referring only to sanctioned interrogations, which is not what was happening at Abu Ghraib.

Anyway, a great and thoughtful blog, thanks for broadening my frame of reference.
Logan Crooks said…
Phenomenal article sir. It is my mission to earn an appointment to USMA and I always love to learn about the philosophy of honor in the US Military. On the subject of the unmarked vehicles, while the United States should always subscribe to the rules of war, wouldn't the Taliban target NGOs such as aid organizations regardless? I feel as if any organization that would contadict the Taliban's extremist views would be a legitimate target in their eyes. Especially considering they oppressed their own people pre-2001 and target any of their own who cooperate with US forces conducting COIN, as retribution.