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War should not be one soldier’s private burden

2013 November 30
by Paul Vallely

You have only three seconds to decide what to say. An angry soldier in front of you is about to shoot an unarmed prisoner. What words can you use to stay his itchy trigger finger? This is a question used by a philosopher employed by the US Navy in officer-training. The trainees are told they have time to say only one thing.

Unsurprisingly it is not “Paragraph 4 Subsection 2 of the rules of engagement forbid you from doing this”. The recommended thing to shout, according to the professional ethicist, is: “Marines don’t do that.” We will come to why later.

The sad fact, of course, is that some Marines do do exactly that. On Friday a court martial will meet to sentence the Sergeant from the British Marines who was last month found guilty of murder under Paragraph 4 Subsection 2 of Section 42 of the Armed Forces Act 2006. The first British serviceman to be convicted of murder on overseas duty since the Second World War had come across an Afghan insurgent who had been seriously injured by gunfire from an Apache helicopter sent to provide air support for the Marines’ patrol.

Footage from a helmet camera video of the killing showed the Commando shooting the man point blank in the chest with the words: “Shuffle off this mortal coil… It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.” He then said to his comrades: “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas. I just broke the Geneva Convention”.

The response, among soldiers and civilians, has been polarised. Major-General Julian Thompson, who led 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands war, urged a lenient sentence of no more than five years because of the “unique pressures of war”. But General Lord Guthrie, a one-time Army chief of staff, said “murder is murder”  and urged a tough stance against this “battlefield execution”. Pleas for clemency erode our “moral ascendancy over our enemies” warned Gen Sir Nick Houghton, the current Chief of the Defence Staff.

Ethics on the battlefield draw on two ancient traditions. The Stoics, like Seneca, have advocated detachment to make a soldier strong and self-sufficient. There is no place for emotions like anger, grief or other feelings that make a warrior vulnerable when he has to stare down death.  Aristotle, by contrast, says that anger is a proper response for a soldier because he remains a man and a social creature. Indifference is an inhuman response. Righteous indignation is a good thing so long as we do not become slaves to our own anger. Balance is crucial in this, as in all things.

Traditionally the British and US Armies have worked on a combination of both these philosophies. In a world which is increasingly self-focused, hedonistic and utilitarianin its mindset, the military has been one of the last bastions of Aristotelian virtue ethics which insists that we do the right thing out of character, or habit, shaped by the  training by our parents and teachers.

Army discipline is the acme of that. Men are repeatedly drilled so that when action comes they will react as they have been trained to do. “We become by doing,” says Nancy Sherman, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and former chief ethicist at the US Naval Academy. “You need to rely on character.”

“The system was about inculcating that and giving it a moral inflection,” says the Revd Dr Giles Fraser who has taught ethics at the British Defence Academy at Shrivenham. “Through the heroes of the regiment, the pictures around the mess wall, the Regiment becomes a sort of moral idea. So the words ‘Marines don’t do that’ takes on a moral meaning.”

Yet over the last century Aristotle’s ethics rooted in character have given way to what philosophers call deontology. The word comes from the Greek for duty or obligation and it is an ethical code that judges behaviour according to how well it sticks to a set of rules which bind us to our duty. Morality in the modern world has become increasingly rules-based. “The problem is that the modern battlefield is so fluid, fast-moving and chaotic that a rules-based approach breaks down,” says Fraser, who taught philosophy at Oxford. “We’ve let law shoulder the burden of ethics and that’s no good when you’ve got a split second to make a decision.”

For a soldier who has been up all night, is exhausted from the heat, is in a town he does not know, where the enemy where the same clothes as the civilians, rules are not enough. “We think the rule will do all the work but then suddenly up springs this kid on his mobile phone,” says Fraser, “and we have to decide whether he’s phoning his Mum to say he’ll be late for tea or whether he’s about to used the phone to detonate an IED.” Fraser wants more emphasis on character training than on ever-more detailed rules of engagement.

But there is a problem with relying too much on character.  Training hammers into soldiers practically is not that they are not fighting for Queen and country, nor freedom and democracy, but out of loyalty to the “sacred band of brothers” who serve alongside them.

There was a moving moment at the last Remembrance Service where a war widow described how her hero husband drew the fire of the Taliban so the men in his platoon could escape an ambush. But it is out of that same loyalty that grows the instinct for revenge which appears to be what motivated Marine A to finish off his captured enemy with the words: “It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.”

Character internalises our sense of what is right. So if battle skews that then our moral compass points awry.  Pious moralising about this “not being a killing in the heat of battle” underestimates the contribution made by fear and stress to such changes. So do black and white distinctions about the difference between acts in hot and cold blood where the Taliban were using body parts of fallen British soldiers to entice their comrades into booby traps. Unlawful killings on the battlefield most often occur when soldiers have lost a friend. Marine A had lost seven.

Revenge is traditionally despised as a primitive emotion. Professor Sherman is not so sure.“For some revenge is part of an unspoken pact an soldier makes with himself in preparing to face the enemy”. Revenge, she says, “maybe part of a package deal conceptually inseparable from love of country and solidarity with countrymen”. For Aristotle a proportional desire for revenge can be a reasonable response to a sense of injury or unfairness and thus part of a comprehensive noble warrior ethic.  The desire for revenge keeps grief at bay, says Sherman. It creates a mechanism for absorbing and acknowledging loss, though to excess it can leave its possessor more tormented than satisfied.

There are other considerations, like whether the criteria of just war apply in exactly the same way to individuals as to nations. There are other narratives; the dead Afghan, to his family, was a patriot defending his homeland against an invading army. The asymmetric nature of modern counter-insurgency warfare raises questions of moral equivalence: why is a Marine who kills one man piut on trial when those who direct drone strikes that kill scores avoid the courtroom? And what about the politicians who give the orders?

“War takes place in a different time and space”,” one combatant tells Sherman in her book The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers. This is not to exonerate or make excuses for Marine A. But it is to demand that society acknowledges it has  some responsibility in the acts of men who have been brutalised in its service.

Marine A had done seven tours of duty in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was experienced enough to know better; but he was traumatised enough to momentarily lose his moral bearings.  War is not over when fighting ends. Last year more British soldiers and veterans took their own lives than were killed in battle.

Political factors may be brought to bear in the sentencing. The judges may consider the impact on wider Army morale. Or the security risks to Marine A’s family. Or the added danger to British soldiers taken prisoner by the Taliban. Or the incentive to revenge a light sentence might bring among jihadist terrorists around the world?  Yet such consequentialist factors only add to complexity of this situation. What is clear is that the judges on Friday that they have before them a killer who is far from a common criminal. War cannot be one soldier’s private burden.

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor of Public Ethics at the University of Chester

a shorter version of this appeared in the Independent on Sunday.

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