War can be an Experience of both Heaven and Hell

Many combat veterans have a love/hate relationship with their wartime experiences. They love the profound sense of purpose that their liv...

CO is only half the word

A logical implication of my rights-based approach to justifying war is that selective conscientious objection (CO) must be permitted. The challenge of this, though, is determining when a soldier is a legitimate conscientious objector and when he is just afraid and selfish.

In my limited experience, I’ve found that “CO” is only half the word. The other half is –“WARD”. As in coward. How do we distinguish CO’s who are legitimate (those with real, well thought-out moral convictions against the war) from those who are mere cowards?

My former unit in the 82nd found one way to address this challenge during the Gulf War in 1991. In the days of the air campaign before the ground campaign began, a soldier in an infantry battalion declared that he “could not kill his Muslim brothers” and fully expected to be sent to the rear or sent home. His battalion leadership, however, distrusted the soldier’s motive, and put him to a test. The commander took the soldier’s weapon away (so he wouldn’t run the risk of killing his Muslim brothers) and assigned him to the unit’s forward-most unit, the scout platoon. He told the soldier that he could help with radio watch and medical care—tasks that wouldn’t involve him in killing. Well, to make a long story short, when it came time to initiate the attack into Kuwait, that soldier was BEGGING for his weapon. Once he saw that his cowardly attempt to avoid the risk of combat wasn’t going to work, he was ready to kill rather than be killed.

This worked for one unit, but it’s obviously not an approach that could be used on a large scale. Still, it makes clear the challenge of permitting selective CO, a challenge that I’m still trying to think through.

Anyone have any ideas?

More evidence of the MH "blind spot" on PTSD

A story in today's USA Today reveals that "1 in 4 Iraq vets ailing on return." As always, the Pentagon spokesperson and mental-health leaders attributed the mental health problems only to what happened to Soldiers, giving no attention to what Soldiers may have done.

“The (wartime) deployments do take a toll,” says Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “We send them to austere locations, places that are extremely hot, extremely cold, very wet, very dry … where they may also encounter an armed enemy.”
As if feelings of suicide after a deployment were caused by the weather in Iraq.

The article also included this list from DoD:
Of servicemembers returning from the Iraq war this year:
  • 47% saw someone wounded or killed, or saw a dead body.
  • 14% had an experience that left them easily startled.
  • 6% wanted help for stress, emotional, alcohol or family problems.
  • 2% had thoughts of hurting someone or losing control.
  • 1% had thoughts that they might be better off dead or could hurt themselves.
Given that we know--anecdotally, from research, and from common sense--that killing another human being is usually a traumatic experience, shouldn't we be talking about the experience of killing and how we can help Soldiers prepare for it and come to terms with it? This "blind spot," this unwillingness to speak about an aspect of our profession that makes many of us uncomfortable, is harming our Soldiers.

Remembering the Battle of Mogadishu

Today is the 12th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, when Task Force Ranger and the 10th MTN fought, killed, and died in what was arguably our first battle against Al Queda.

My thoughts and prayers go out to our brave Soldiers and their families. Battles as intense as that one leave a lifetime mark on those who are involved, for better or worse.

Developing a Coherent Moral Argument

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.

I am concerned that we in the profession of arms do not do enough to prepare our soldiers to understand and justify their actions in moral terms. This allows many soldiers to needlessly suffer moral guilt, and it leaves them vulnerable to the arguments of war pacifists. Our soldiers deserve better.

In the ensuing posts, 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 Army officer (infantryman) and Army-educated ethicist—and hope that our discussions around this topic will deepen our commitment to and comfort with our vocation as warriors.

These posts mark the beginning of what I hope will become an extended, coherent, rights-based argument that addresses the fundamental moral questions of war. It is divided into two sections. The first section explains 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. Future additions to this essay will continue this rights-based line of argument to its logical conclusion that soldiers are not morally justified if they kill in wars that are unjust. That, in turn, will lead to examinations of the moral justification of war and of the legitimacy and limits of conscientious objection.

I invite and welcome your critique and suggestions for improvement.

Killing in War: a Rights-based Justification

Killing in War: a Rights-based Justification

Why killing enemy combatants is morally justified

BLUF: 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 to not be killed.

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

The term “right to not 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 to not 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 to life of those who possess it, he forfeits his own right to not be killed.

Enemy combatants are people who are engaged in violating and threatening the rights of others to not 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

BLUF: In war, the least among morally wrong options 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 to not 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 do 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 to not 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 assembly in her house forfeits much of her right to not be killed.

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 (rather extreme) 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 takes small-arms fire.

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 to not 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 to not 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 field artillery and fixed-wing 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 all relevant factors in such situations—the mission, friendly soldiers, and noncombatants.

Rejecting the Moral Equality of Soldiers

The Supposed “Moral Equality of Soldiers”

Traditional Notion of the Soldiers’ Moral Equality
BLUF: 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 to not 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
BLUF: 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 its moral authority.

Consider, for example, a situation in which someone who has forfeited his right to not 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 to not 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 to not 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 to not 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 to not 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” (assuming that membership is voluntary and informed) on both sides have forfeited their rights to not 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 to not 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 “invincible ignorant” and thus incapable of judging the justice of a war is misinformed, inaccurate, and insulting to soldiers.

What we owe our Soldiers

This week, I received an email from a friend who is attending the Army's Command & General Staff College, which is the intermediate level (rank of major) education for officers. He had been tasked to lead a seminar discussion based on my article, "Military Leaders' Obligation to Justify Killing in War," so he asked me some questions as he prepared. Below are his questions and my off-the-cuff responses.

1) What are our moral obligations as leaders to our soldiers?

There are probably tons, but here are some thoughts off the top of my head:

a. Train them to be proficient in their wartime tasks, so they have the best chance of accomplishing their mission and returning home alive.

b. Respect them as persons--this includes things such as recognizing their family obligations and not humiliating them and looking out for their long-term welfare (encourage GI Bill, financial counseling, etc). A part of respecting our soldiers as people is ensuring that they can integrate their soldierly tasks with their human ones--that they can make sense of the death they see and deal. If we recruit people, train them to kill, order them to kill, and then not help them make sense of killing so they can go on with their lives, then we're using them as mere soldiers, not treating them as soldiers who are people--before, during, and after their service.

2) How do leaders lessen a soldier's psychological impact of killing?
a. Preparation is HUGE. According to killologist Dave Grossman, one of the three critical components of developing PTSD is surprise--facing an unexpected trauma. As leaders, we can help by talking with our soldiers about how upsetting killing can be. It shouldn't come as a shock to them--real war ain't a range.

b. We can also let them know what we as leaders care about fighting morally. They may not have the education or maturity to understand it all, but they should have the confidence that someone they trust does. Then we just have to walk the talk.

c. Third, after a fight we can help by talking about it, and encouraging our soldiers to do the same. Most PTSD doesn't begin showing until months or years after the trauma, when Soldiers have the time to reflect and think about things. If we as leaders recognize this, then we'll be in a position to be there for our troops (including those who fought with other units on previous tours), and we'll know that killing another human being isn't something that most people "get over" quickly or easily.

I hope this helps. Let me know how it goes.

NPR Interviews

The audiofiles of the interviews are available online: Here and Now, a 15-minute interview and the Leonard Lopate show, a 35-minute discussion that included WSJ reporter Greg Jaffe.

I'll be interviewed today (Wed, 24Aug) on the syndicated radio show Here and Now at 12:10pm EDT, and tomorrow (Thur, 25Aug) on WNYC's Leonard Lopate show from 1:15-2pm EDT. Feel free to listen in and send me your feedback.

Are ROE sufficient?

A senior leader recently said to me that the LLW and ROE are all that Soldiers need; and, in fact, that introducing morality into the battlefield equation will only confuse Soldiers and undermine discipline.

I respectfully disagree. First of all, would you ever try to justify an action as moral by saying, "The lawyer said it was ok"? I think that we all know that what's legally permissible and what's morally permissible can be very different. In almost all cases, they do correspond with each other, but they may not always, and they come from different sources. Law and policy is contingent--written by a lawyer or commander; morality is necessary--it has a less flawed, more enduring Author. Thus, for a soldier who has killed someone in Fallujah, the knowledge that the JAG in Baghdad or Arlington would say that the killing wasn't illegal isn't going to be a great comfort to his conscience. He already knows that, since he acted IAW ROE, he won't be court-martialed; but he may still wonder if what he did was morally wrong.

I dispute the claim that Soldiers who are familiar with the justification of killing in war would undermine discipline by being more likely to hesitate and put themselves and others in jeopardy. For one, a well trained Soldier will react reflexively to an imminent threat, without having to think, regardless of his knowledge about morality. Second, in those ambiguous situations where a Soldier must think and use his judgment, a well formed ability to reason morally will aid him in making the right decision, faster. Third, if a proposed action that is permissible under ROE turns out, in a particular sitution, to be immoral, we WANT to have Soldiers who are sufficiently morally aware to make the morally correct decision.

In the end, though, I just can't see a Soldier reflecting--days or years after killing in war--on his actions and saying, "I did what was morally right; I acted within the ROE." I HAVE heard statements like that, but they ring of rationalization and guilt, not justification and peace.

The ROE are the "cheat sheet" that provide the basics for conduct in combat, but I'm convinced that a deeper appreciation of the moral principles that are prior to--and foundational for--the ROE will better support Soldiers' long-term development as Soldiers and as people.

Link to masters thesis

Soldiers, Self Defense, and Killing in War

Chapter 1 is a critique of Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars, which is used at West Point and is the best text on Just War Theory. Walzer understands warfare, but he implicitly relies on an account of killing in self defense that is much too permissive, one that claims that we are justified in killing anything or anyone that threatens us.

Chapter 2 is a critique of war-pacifism as laid out in Richard Norman's Ethics, Killing, and War. I argue that he presents a strong case for when killing is and is not justified, but--because he simply does not understand soldiers and warfare--he applies his criteria inaccurately to soldiers in war.

In Chapter 3, I show how Norman's account of justified killing can be combined with Walzer's more accurate understanding of warfare to produce a moral justification for killing in combat.

This was my first deep thinking on the subject, so I invite and welcome any critiques of the argument.

Warfighter or Security enforcer: the moral implications

Counterinsurgency operations (COIN) present tons of challenges, not the least of which is how they complicate the moral calculus of killing.

A Soldier who fights in a high-intensity war against a uniformed enemy can confidently assume that every enemy soldier is a combatant, a threat, someone whom it's morally permissible to kill. That's why Soldiers don't fire warning shots; instead, they aim to "put two in the chest." People downrange are to be killed unless they surrender or become incapcitated.

In contrast, a Soldier who is part of a security force in a situation where his mission is to protect the people and where a non-uniformed enemy hides among the people, such as the situation we face in the Iraq COIN, faces a calculus more like that of a police officer. He must assume that people are innocent civilians until evidence suggests otherwise. People downrange are to be protected unless they show hostile intent.

This puts Soldiers in a bind; it gives the bad guys a huge advantage. The bad guys usually get to initiate fires, forcing Soldiers to transform from cops to killers in an instant.

I worry that this too easily creates an over-reaction. Our Soldiers are doing a remarkable job overall of limiting collateral damage, but one area I worry about is some units' "react-to-contact drills" that include firing every weapons system, immediately in all directions, as suppressive fire, with or without targets. Doing this, of course, often leads to harm to innocents, which can be traumatic to the Soldiers who did the firing. Needless to say, it also furthers the insurgents' cause, "proving" that we don't care about the lives of Iraqis.

Like I said, this is a huge challenge for leaders on the ground. With very few exceptions, we ARE adhering to the laws of war, while the insurgents and terrorists are violating just about EVERY law of war (e.g., steal an ambulance, execute the driver, pack the ambulance with explosives, and intentionally kill children; does it get any worse than that?), to include not wearing uniforms.

But we have to find and share effective ways to help Soldiers transition seamlessly and continuously between their roles as warfighters and security forces. Soldiers who kill innocent people because of TTPs that privilege "force protection" over "moral justification" will one day pay the price of PTSD. Leaders need to be proactive and continuously seek ways to train their Soldiers to make justifiable moral calculations, even in the most difficult circumstances.

note: Thanks to LTC Tony Pfaff, whose ideas in this area have sparked my thinking. He has written a chapter (one I've heard about but not read) on this topic in a forthcoming book on the Army Profession.

Talking about this stuff "publicly"

Some of my fellow Soldiers have questioned whether I should be addressing this issue--the need to talk about the moral justification of killing and its possible linkage to PTSD/PITS--in such a public forum. There's a concern that this is our 'dirty laundry' that we shouldn't air out for everyone to see.

It’s true, after all, that some anti-war groups have used some of my words (usually out of context) to further their agendas.

So, here's some thoughts on why I think we as Soldiers should talk publicly about this issue:

Public discussion on killing will be good for the Army and its relationship with the people its serves because civilian readers will likely be pleasantly surprised-to-shocked to realize that: the Army actually educates and trains Airborne-Ranger types who care deeply about morality in war; that officers study morality and war; that West Point teaches it as part of a required class; that the Army encourages and rewards critical thinkers; that its leaders care about the long-term well being of America’s sons and daughters; to list just a few largely unrecognized truths.

With less than 10% of recent generations serving in the military, many of our fellow citizens do not personally know a Soldier or Marine. This blog is a way to communicate directly with the American people, at a more personal level. Who I am as a military professional may have a greater impact than what I say. In each and every of the many situations in which I have talked to civilians about the morality of killing in war, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. People stand in line to thank me…although what really connects with them is that they experience what they want desperately to believe—that their nation’s Army, the world’s most powerful army, is genuinely concerned about doing the right thing.

The fact is, our military is much more morally aware than Hollywood movies and media-frenzy aberrations like Abu Gharib give us credit for. In this blog, I will be able to share many true anecdotes that convey the humanity, the moral goodness of our soldiers and leaders. By engaging with the American people--even those who have anti-military opinions—in reasoned and thoughtful dialogue, we can break some anti-military stereotypes and project a more accurate, positive view of America’s military.

In another sense, this blog and other efforts on this issue will be good for the Army because the Army is Soldiers, and our efforts will raise awareness on an issue that will help Soldiers. External awareness of an internal issue is a good thing, when change is needed. The Army is a bureaucracy, and like all bureaucracies it reinforces the status quo. It’s amazing how a great idea, said at a staff meeting, gets nods but no action, yet the same idea reported in the civilian media gets immediate action. It doesn’t have to be a critical news report; in fact, bureaucracies retrench and resist change in the face of criticism. But bureaucracies respond well to external validation of an issue that they recognize as valid as long as it is communicated in a positive way. That is what I try to do.

A captain who commanded an infantry company in OIF-1 sent me a note after reading the New Yorker article: “Moreover, infantrymen have to kill at a personal level, and in many ways physically experience the death of both enemy soldiers and non-combatants. I think that overall, soldiers will be better prepared for combat and recover from the experience more completely if the Army educates them it moral acceptability…I did not observe any immediate negative psychological impact, however, at the time none of us had the distance necessary to really contemplate the events… The real question is what occurs once soldiers are safe and think fully about their actions.”

The problem of PTSD will not go away. The only right thing to do is to take action that might be able to prevent or relieve it for thousands of Soldiers. The smart PR action is to show the people we serve that we are concerned about the problem (which is already all over the news) and we are working to address it.

Think about it. We are the first Army in centuries to recognize and address this problem. We take care of our people, and in doing so we will reinforce right conduct in battle. That’s a story the American public should hear.

This is not a risk-free endeavor. But nothing worthwhile is ever risk free. As military professionals, we must do what’s right by our Soldiers, America’s sons and daughters who volunteered to defend our Constitution. They are our credentials. They must be our priority.

"Back into the fight" vs "Back into civil society"

There have been a bunch of articles lately, especially in the Army Times, about actions the Army is taking to address the problem of PTSD among Soldiers. I'm a little concerned to hear the Army place so much emphasis on the role of combat-stress teams (CSTs), which are in-country teams of uniformed mental-health professionals who counsel Soldiers after critical events (e.g., firefights).

By many accounts, CSTs are very effective at getting Soldiers "back into the fight." So, it seems that CSTs address what's been called "shell shock" and "battle fatigue" in previous wars.

But, I wonder: is the treatment that gets Soldiers back to being Soldiers the same that's required to help Soldiers re-integrate as civilians? After all, PTSD isn't about not being able to get back into the fight; it's about not being able to leave the fight behind.

Recent reports indicate that symptoms of PTSD are more common in the follow-up screenings done 3-4 months after re-deployment than they are in the screenings done at redeployment. PTSD seems to be correlate positively to having time to reflect upon the things experienced in battle. What can we do for Soldiers after they have re-deployed and they begin serious reflections?

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, http://www.killology.net.

[17] Shane.

[18] O’Connor.

[19] MacNair, 165.