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?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog site. It provides an outstanding venue for this very necessary professional discussion. So many areas of the issues are well served here. First off, it provides a chance to engage and inform the greater public beyond the hype that all war is unjust and all combatants are the same. The professionalism of an honorable soldier is hard to understand by one not connected to the military, (either personally or through study), and this blog can certainly help to uplift that understanding. It may also be a good outlet for those struggling to deal with there own personal experience of killing in war. However, I think this blog site' greatest benefit may be to help military leaders plan and prepare soldiers and units to conduct ethical missions under the full spectrum of military operations. It is for these reasons that I offer my own experience and thoughts on killing in war.

My experience with killing came as a 27 year old warrant officer Cobra pilot serving as a member of an aviation quick reaction force in Mogadishu Somalia in the summer and fall of 1993. Prior to deploying, I had a little more than a year of training in the aircraft and only one unit gunnery under my belt. The Army had provided me with a good understanding of the laws of war. We spent plenty of time on fratricide prevention and some on Rules of Engagement (ROE) issues, which did include discussions on collateral damage. All important, but the idea of training to make the split second ethical decisions needed to apply the proper level of flying firepower in the middle of a city in a stability operation in support of multiple allied military forces, was somehow missed. Another complementary area of training that was lacking was the understanding of weapon effects. In the Army at that time, all we worried about was what it took to destroy a Russian T-72 or BMP. How to best kill a machine gunner in a window on a civilian populated street was never considered.

In Mogadishu, we did have the benefit of regular, scenario based ROE training, which I think helped us to better consider the quick decisions we needed to make to best fulfill our missions. Nonetheless, we never had any training on the ethics of killing. I believe this led to a number of situations in which pilots were either to quick or to late to fire when it was needed, and I believe the fact that we never trained on the ethics of killing contributed to these problems. Not to mention the problems it may have caused for soldiers in trying to deal with the guilt of their actions post-conflict. What I am referring to is not a major distracter from mission accomplishment and is not something that a commander would normally even recognize as a problem. What I am talking about here is a fine gray area that is hard to see without some good reflection.

My personal preparedness for the rational of killing comes from my moral principles which were embedded into my conscience as it developed with the aid and direction of my faith and family traditions. It was certainly something I had thought through in good detail prior to joining the Army. The idea of service and sacrifice was a part of my family and faith traditions that I admired, and I knew that sacrificing in combat might mean the choice of both taking the life of others as well as laying my own on the line. In Mogadishu, I got to deal with many of the situations that one may encounter on the ethics of killing. The easiest situation was one of coming to the aid to a US or allied force under ambush. Anyone targeting our forces has clearly lost their right not to be killed. The decision to kill them was simple. However the risk of killing an innocent bystander in a populated city in a stability operation was high. The hard part was not shooting two guys with an RPG in an alleyway as they set to take a second shot on a friendly convoy. The hard part was ensuring your high powered canon fire did not go through the wall of the house they were next to. This is why a significant understanding of weapons effects in all environments is such a valuable skill. I benefited greatly from the training of regularly test firing all my weapon systems in-country against various targets.

A more complex killing situation may have occurred during deliberate attack missions. Shooting missiles into a building in which there is absolutely no immediate threat to self or other friendlies is a little different. I had to trust my leadership that the building was clear of innocents and that those inside had already given up their right not to be killed, and that they were a genuine threat to the lives of innocents or friendly troops. In one such situation I learned sometime after one deliberate mission, that an informant was actually in the building during our attack. Fortunately he was not hurt, but it did give me the chance to reflect on the issue of dealing with the personal guilt of killing an innocent. In fact, in several other situations there certainly was a chance that I may have actually caused the death of an innocent in the performance of a just killing. Sustained stability operations, especially in an urban environment, may provide the greatest chance for such situations.

While understanding the rational of killing in war on a personal level is a great benefit in preparing one to make the right ethical decision at a moment’s notice, one also must have a way to deal with the personal guilt of a mistake in war. I would propose that this may be the greatest challenge for military leaders dealing with soldiers preparing to return to a persistent conflict. A year or so away from the fight gives one plenty of time to let guilt “eat them up” if not properly dealt with. This is another area where a good set of faith values can greatly help. The Christian power of repentance, confession and forgiveness can set one free from the guilt of a past action that may otherwise interfere with the mental readiness needed to prepare one to properly kill in war again. Leaders must know the benefits of encouraging soldiers to seek a religious answer to troubles they may be dealing with post-conflict. Giving a unit's chaplain good access to one's soldiers, and providing soldiers real opportunities to spend the time to fully deal with the guilt they may have after killing in war, can pay for itself on the next deployment. Additionally, good post-conflict small-unit after action reviews and more realistic training scenarios can give soldiers the belief that they will make better decisions the next time around. Once again, this should include a good understanding of weapon effects. Finally, I would advocate well designed, leader-led, discussion based classes specifically on the ethics of killing in war, be a part of all predeployment training. Having soldiers that are well prepared with an understanding of the ethics of killing in war and the personal mechanisms required to deal with the psychological repercussions of such actions is a real combat multiplier; one that will show benefits during a conflict, afterwards, and in the next one. How to best train this tough subject is a real leadership challenge, one that I will face in my next assignment, and I would welcome the thoughts of military leaders of any level that have developed a good way to conduct such training.

Geoffrey McLaughlin
Major, Aviation
Student, Command and General Staff College
U.S. Army Combined Arms Center
Ft. Leavenworth, KS.

Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this blog submission are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.”

Pete Kilner said...

I just re-read your post. This is one of the most insightful and powerful comments I've ever read on this topic. Thanks, Brother.