Military Leaders' Obligation to Justify Killing in War

By Kilner, Peter | Military Review, March/April 2002 | Go to article overview

Military Leaders' Obligation to Justify Killing in War


Kilner, Peter, Military Review


During the nation's worst conflicts, soldiers have wrestled with the morality of killing during combat Pete Kilner argues that leaders have a responsibility to train combat soldiers to kill during combat but leaders also have an obligation to explain the moral justification for such killing. He further argues that leaders must explain the morality of killing so soldiers can live with themselves in the years after combat.

THE METHODS that the military currently uses to train and execute combat operations enable soldiers to kill the enemy, but they leave soldiers liable to postcombat psychological trauma caused by guilt. This is a leadership issue. Combat training should be augmented by explaining to soldiers the moral justification for killing in combat to reduce postcombat guilt. Soldiers deserve to understand whom they can kill morally and why those actions are indeed moral.

Military leaders are charged with two primary tasks-to train and lead units to fight effectively in combat in accordance with the war convention and to care for the soldiers they command. Military professionals generally hold these two tasks to be complementary, accepting Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's statement that the best form of welfare for troops is first-class training.

American military leaders have been very successful in creating combat-effective units. In response to the U.S. War Department's research indicating that less than half of World War II riflemen fired their weapons at the enemy in combat, the military instituted training techniques. These techniques-fire commands, battle drills, and realistic marksmanship ranges-resulted in much-improved combat firing rates. During the Vietnam war, similar research reveals combat firing rates of 90 percent.1 Unfortunately, this improved combat effectiveness has come at a cost to soldiers' welfare. The training techniques leaders have employed to generate the advances in combat firing rates have resulted in increased rates of postcombat psychological trauma among combat veterans.

Training that drills soldiers on how to kill without explaining to them why it is morally permissible to kill is harmful to them, yet that is currently the norm. Modem combat training conditions soldiers to act reflexively to stimuli, such as fire commands, enemy contact, or the sudden appearance of a "target," that maximizes soldiers' lethality, but it does so by bypassing their moral autonomy. Soldiers are conditioned to act without considering the moral repercussions of their actions; they kill without making the conscious decision to do so. In and of itself, such training is appropriate and morally permissible. Battles are won by killing the enemy, so military leaders should strive to produce the most efficient killers. The problem, however, is that soldiers who kill reflexively in combat will likely one day reconsider their actions reflectively. If they are unable to justify to themselves that they killed another human being, they will likely, and understandably, suffer enormous guilt. This guilt manifests itself as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it has damaged the lives of thousands of men who performed their duty in combat.2

This article argues that military leaders' important and legitimate role-transforming civilians into combat soldiers who kill to defend their country-- carries with it the obligation to help soldiers cope with the moral repercussions of their actions. If military leaders train soldiers to kill others in combat, they should also educate soldiers to live with themselves in the years after combat. Military leaders should augment current training by morally justifying killing in combat to soldiers.3 This education would improve the U.S. Army's mission effectiveness.

Why Soldiers Deserve a Moral Justification for Killing

Military leaders should be concerned with morally justifying killing in combat; it stems from their duty to care for their troops. …

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Military Leaders' Obligation to Justify Killing in War
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