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...

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?