Ethics on the Battlefield

It seems odd to talk about the "morality" of war. The purpose of war is to kill people and destroy things, actions which in normal circumstances we do not tolerate. In wartime, however, we deputize soldiers to do these things and we excuse them from punishment.

Think a little further and it makes sense. War involves killing people and destroying things, but that is not its purpose. The purpose is to achieve certain political objectives. When the purpose is just, such as self-defense, the war itself is just and the killing is simply an inevitable consequence of it. St. Augustine and others long ago developed a philosophy of "just war" that helps us understand these distinctions.

The fact that a war is just war does not mean that all actions taken in the course of the war are also morally acceptable. Deliberate killing or oppression of civilians, for example, is never right. The key word here is "deliberate." Yes, some civilians are probably going to get caught in the crossfire and die. But soldiers should not be purposely aiming at them.

This brings us to a distressing new study of U.S. troops in Iraq. There seems to be widespread ignorance or disregard for the standards of warfare.

  • Only 47 percent of the soldiers and 38 percent of Marines said noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.
  • About a third of troops said they had insulted or cursed at civilians in their presence.
  • About 10 percent of soldiers and Marines reported mistreating civilians or damaging property when it was not necessary. Mistreatment includes hitting or kicking a civilian.
  • Forty-four percent of Marines and 41 percent of soldiers said torture should be allowed to save the life of a soldier or Marine.
  • Thirty-nine percent of Marines and 36 percent of soldiers said torture should be allowed to gather important information from insurgents. MORE
I'm sure that sergeants and officers usually prevent soldiers from acting on these opinions, but it still disturbing. The data suggests that many thousands of Iraqi civilians have been abused or mistreated by U.S. forces. Our troops have also done a lot of positive things in helping people rebuild their homes and improve their communities. Yet one case of abuse can reverse the good will generated by a hundred good deeds.

The attitudes found by the study are actually not too surprising when you remember that the commander-in-chief of these soldiers and marines has officially determined that the laws of war don't apply to him. The troops are simply following his example.

It's also important to remember that soldiers in Iraq are under tremendous stress. As recent bombings inside the so-called "Green Zone" of Baghdad demonstrated, there are no "safe" rear areas in Iraq. Under such conditions it is easy to adopt an "us vs them" mentality.

The study found lower levels of combat stress in Marines than in the Army. Why? Possibly because marine combat tours in Iraq are only 7 months, while Army troops stay for a full year and sometimes longer.

However the Iraq conflict ends, it seems we are going to be saddled with a generation of young men - and more than a few women - who suffer from the same kind of disorders that afflicted the veterans of Vietnam. For the most part the troops aren't being spit on this time, but they will face something worse: a nation of civilians who have no concept of what war is really like.

In the 1970s there were still plenty of WWII and Korean War vets who could sympathize, but Vietnam vets still had a rough time readjusting. I can only imagine what it will be like for Iraq War vets to return to a society that barely notices a war is going on. They will need a lot of help.

Rod Dreher has some interesting thoughts from a WWII chaplain about war and the soul.

No comments: