Academic journal article Military Review

Ethics, Combat, and a Soldier's Decision to Kill

Academic journal article Military Review

Ethics, Combat, and a Soldier's Decision to Kill

Article excerpt

On a lonely forward operating base in Iraq, an 18-year-old private, who five months before worried only about whom he might take to the prom, listens carefully to his commanding officer as if his life depends on it. It does. The soldier's mission is to deliver critical supplies to units spread across his region. The commander orders him not to stop on the road for anything--even for children blocking the road. The enemy uses them to obstruct the road, hoping soldiers' moral sense will cause them to stop their vehicles, which leaves convoys open for attack. If he should meet any children on the road, the soldier is ordered to run them down if they refuse to get out of the way. (1)

Four Navy SEALs (members of a sea-air-land team) drop into an isolated village in Afghanistan to identify the location of a Taliban commander. Their operation is exposed when they are discovered by a young shepherd boy and his companions. The SEALs agonize over whether they should kill the shepherds and continue the mission or let them go. By freeing them, the SEALs undoubtedly will alert others to their presence, bringing probable death and mission failure. (2)

Four insurgents kneel blindfolded before the squad of soldiers who captured them. These same insurgents were captured and handed over to the Iraqi government twice before. Each time they were released to fight again. The previous night, these same insurgents had injured U.S. soldiers with a command-detonated improvised explosive device--the wounded were members of the same squad as those now holding the insurgents at gunpoint. After conferring with the battalion commander, the platoon sergeant--having sworn to protect the lives of his men--moves deliberately to a position behind the kneeling insurgents. He takes out his M9 Beretta pistol and fires a bullet through the head of each prisoner. (3)

These types of morally complex quandaries of war could be considered part of what is commonly called the fog of war. This idea, attributed to famed strategist Carl von Clausewitz, refers to the uncertainty and ambiguity that surround military operations. (4) Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara explains: "What the fog of war means is--war is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily" (5)

A Complex Moral Decision

In war, soldiers make judgments of life and death. The magnitude of such absolute decisions is nearly beyond comprehension. No remediation can change the outcome of killing, justifiable or not. When faced with killing someone, soldiers often try to synthesize moral and legal values with their mission, their safety, and the safety of fellow soldiers. They may struggle with the decision to kill, and eventually they may struggle with the memory of killing for many years afterward.

When soldiers make decisions about killing, they make moral choices. When soldiers have time to consider a moral problem and make a decision, their thought process usually integrates an ethical foundation of personal concepts of virtue that influence intent, rules that guide actions, and the consequences likely to follow the decision. Even if all these things are understood theoretically, applying these moral concepts is not a habit in the average soldier. Therefore, when a decision must be made and action taken in the moment, the conscience is morally disengaged. The enormity of the decision is only considered in the aftermath.

In the dense fog of war, soldiers need more than these sometimes-competing frameworks ranked by the dominant value and only contemplated when given the opportunity after the fact. Soldiers need a way to understand and apply moral guidance and internalize moral standards as second nature to all their actions. This essay proposes that the principles of just war theory can help soldiers develop a clear moral vision when they have to measure out whether to kill. …

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