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...

"Good" in war is the lesser of evil choices

Part of the reason that many Soldiers suffer psychologically from combat is that the language we use to talk about war too often fails to capture its moral reality.

There have been "good wars," but war itself is not a good in the same sense that being honest or generous is good. War always represents a failure--of diplomacy, of human cooperation. War can be good only in the sense that waging it is the lesser of bad choices. I.e., it is better to fight than to be enslaved, even though the killing and destruction that war entails is awful, because being enslaved and all it entails is an even worse outcome. At the individual level, it is better to kill some responsible parties than to allow innocents to be killed. Many morally right choices in war would be morally wrong in any other circumstance.

This explains why Soldiers often experience guilt after killing enemy combatants. They made the morally right choice, but it was still a lousy choice for a human being to have to make. There's still something that feels wrong, especially if they have not been educated candidly about what to expect to feel when they kill another human being.

The binary, good/bad language used by our politicians to promote or justify war is not only inaccurate, but it also contributes to the psychological trauma of veterans. A justified war is a necessary evil. Killing in war is a necessary evil. Except for the intense love forged among Soldiers who fight side by side, there is no genuine good created by acts of war.

Our combat veterans should absolutely be commended for exhibiting the physical and moral courage that is required to defend our values, lives, and liberty. A sovereign nation could not survive without them. But we--as a profession of arms, as a nation--need to do a much better job of being honest with our Soldiers about the moral reality of war. Even when war is justified and good in the circumstances, it's still fundamentally bad.

Does this make sense to others?

If you have killed in war...

...I would love to hear from you about how you make sense of the experience, i.e., how you justify it morally.

I asked this same question in 1997 just as I began my study into the moral justification of killing enemy combatants in war, and the responses were fascinating. Now I hope to learn more, and perhaps to develop a taxonomy of justifications that could become part of Soldiers' professional education. I know how I would justify killing (although I have not killed anyone), but I also realize that there may be other approaches that work for other folks.

I would love to hear from you, if you have killed in war. Your information would remain confidential unless you prefer otherwise.

Pete Kilner
LTC, Infantry

Observations from Iraq

Earlier this year, from 21 April --9 June, I had the privilege of traveling around Iraq and interviewing Army junior officers. I pretty much was able to visit a different company each day. In all, I interviewed 142 captains and lieutenants, all of whom were current or past company commanders or platoon leaders in the war. I was so impressed by their competence and commitment; I'm humbled the wear the same uniform as these heroes.

The purpose of the interviews was to gain a deeper understanding of the most demanding leadership challenges that our junior officers are experiencing in the war.

Inevitably, issues of morality came up in our conversations. Here are some of my impressions:

1. Our Soldiers are exhibiting remarkable restraint in the use of violence. Time and again when listening to their stories, I found myself thinking, "Shoot the bastards" or "Just bomb the building!" when in reality the Soldiers on the ground chose not to employ heavy-handed force--despite wanting to emotionally. The attitude in most units is: we're the good guys, so we chose the harder right over the easier wrong.

2. My biggest "aha" discovery was the awareness by many leaders that unjustified killing has harmful effects on the perpetrators. Many Soldiers are on their 2nd or 3rd tour, and they have seen what happens to Soldiers who kill when they shouldn't--they suffer psychologically. As more than one leader told me, "I make sure we do what's right, because someday--win, lose, or draw--this war will be over, and I want all my Soldiers to feel proud about how they conducted themselves." This long-term awareness--leading today in a manner that will take care of my Soldier not only today, but also 10 years from now--is a recent phenomena, as far as I can tell. I think it stems from the increased awareness of the harmful psychological effects of acting unjustly in war.

3. It's a complicated moral universe when the Iraqi Security Forces that we are funding, training, and arming are actively engaged in attacking us. Again, the patience and restraint being demonstrated by our Soldiers is nothing short of remarkable.

More to follow...

Soldiers of Conscience documentary

Soldiers of Conscience (www.socfilm.com) is a feature-length documentary on conscientious objection. I am featured in the film as one of the people who argue for the moral permissibility of participating in war. The producers, Gary Weimberg Catherine Ryan of Luna Productions, did an admirable job of interviewing people on both sides of the CO issue, but I have to admit that the COs they feature are exceptionally articulate.

That makes sense. The COs are folks who had to argue their way out of military service. They can articulate their position. I am really the only person on the "killing in war can be moral" side who had given the issue the thought it deserves, and it showed.

Soldiers of Conscience is a film that will challenge your beliefs. I'm still confident in mine, but I know other military folks who were disturbed by the questions the film raised in their own consciences. For me, this is just more evidence that we in the military profession have to do a lot of hard thinking to think through and to articulate to our members the moral justification for killing in war.

SOC is still on the film-festival circuit, looking for a good distribution deal. It has won awards at the Hamptons and Rhode Island film festivals, and had a week-long run in Seattle, but it still hasn't made the leap to a mass audience.

If you get the opportunity to see the film, I recommend it. It is unbiased (rare for the genre) and very interesting.