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...

Unspoken ethical norms in war

I've had the privilege to interview more than 300 junior officers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have been very impressed and inspired by their deep commitment to leading their soldiers to fight morally.  Combat requires  moral decisionmaking--there's no getting around it--and our leaders overwhelmingly mean well.

However, I have also observed that many leaders and soldiers feel unprepared for the life-or-death decisions they have had to make in "gray" circumstances.  Their pre-deployment training consisted too often of black-or-white scenarios written by Army lawyers who've never had to make decisions in the fog of war. So, our soldiers learn by doing, trusting their gut instincts and character, and they generally do remarkably well.

The soldiers I interview describe their most uselful preparation for combat moral decisionmaking as being their reading of memoirs or other accounts of battle, and movies.  Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, With the Old Breed, etc gave them a sense of the decisions they would have to make.

Of course, real accounts of battle are descriptive, not prescriptive...and real descriptions of war are full of events that would be war crimes by legal, media, and other dominant but uninformed-about-war parties.

In my interviews, which are one-on-one, confidential conversations in the war zone, I've noticed that soldiers who are doing the fighting have their own set of ethical standards.  In most cases and most situations, their ethical norms are consistent with what is expected publicly of them--be gentle with detainees, do not discriminate against local national civilians even if you know they support (not materially) the enemy, use gov't funds IAW all the regulations, leave interrogations to the trained interrogators, put the mission first, etc. 

Yet there are times and situations in which soldiers judge "what's right" on the ground to be much different than the public ethics.  Sometimes, soldiers "interrogate" detainees whom they are authorized only to tactically question; sometimes they use funds for purposes not authorized; sometimes they put more risk on civilians whom they know support the enemy; on occasion, they insure that someone they've detained will never able to kill the innocent again.

Each of these action violates the "public ethics" of the US military (and some the Laws of Land Warfare)...yet I've heard well reasoned, convincing moral arguments for them.  The problem is, our soldiers cannot ever say publicly what they did, much less offer their reasons, without making themselves liable to legal proceedings.  As a result, the next generations of soldiers will continue to be unprepared for the complex, difficult moral decisions they will face in war. It's a catch-22.

So, the profession of arms has two moral codes--the public one, based on black-and-white legal rules, that work much of the time; and a private code, known only by those who have to do the messy work of war.

It's not healthy psychologically to have made difficult moral decisions that you cannot talk about publicly for fear of being punished.

It's also dangerous to have such "unspoken" rules of war that differ from what soldiers are taught in formal training.  For example,inexperienced young leaders (2LT platoon leaders) can have trouble enforcing standards when they are not confident that they know the true standards.

I am going to develop a paper on this topic that I'll present at the New Mexico Military Institute in October, and I plan to refine it and present it again at the American Society of Military Ethics meeting in January.

More to follow, but I thought I'd put the ideas out there and solicit your feedback.  You can always write me privately at pgkilner@gmail.com  if you want to share your experiences and ideas on this or any topic related to moral decisionmaking in the military context.