Whether it’s firing a rifle from 100 feet away or directing a bombing raid from a mile or more in the air, the military objective is the same: Kill the enemy.
Troops get instruction in deadly skills from the first time they put on a uniform.
But there’s another lesson they’re taught, one that’s rooted in philosophy and old-fashioned values like honor and courage. Call it the morality of war: how to kill, but not murder.
At a time when a flurry of criminal allegations have been raised against U.S. troops — charges or investigations in five separate cases alleging they gunned down unarmed Iraqis or detainees — military personnel and their instructors insist ethics training is both vital and vibrant.
‘I’m sorry, but that’s war’
This is how it breaks down for Tim Coderre, a sniper with the National Guard who spent more than five months in a frontline operation in Iraq amid heavy fighting: “I’m not a warmonger. But I understand my job. ... My job is to be ferocious in combat, to be a killer. I’m sorry, but that’s war.”
Coderre was a Marine for eight years before returning to civilian life in North Carolina. He joined the Guard after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and went to Iraq in 2004. “I don’t apologize,” he said. “I’m very proud of the number of confirmed kills I had.”
Killing from a distance, he shot only those who he judged were enemy insurgents. The rules of war — no targeting civilians, no killing prisoners — were ingrained, he said, despite his revulsion for the insurgents and their tactics, such as beheading prisoners.
“I could never do that to them,” he said. “I hate insurgents, but I could never do that to them.”
At West Point, moral training is at the heart of the enterprise, said retired Army Col. Don Snider, a professor of political science.
Fighting the ‘right’ way
Classes teach philosophy, logic and the history of war, emphasizing the right conduct and the unacceptable, like My Lai in Vietnam, where American troops killed about 300 villagers, or the French experience in Algeria, where commanders turned to torture to fight rebels.
“Normally, the right (choice) is harder than the wrong, or there is no clear right and wrong. In many cases, soldiers are choosing between two wrongs, because both have morally ambiguous outcomes,” he said. An example: A unit takes fire from a village, with no target in sight. Should the troops fire back, with the likelihood of civilian casualties? Retreat?
Each choice has moral consequences, he said.
Among the latest accusations, the charge that a group of soldiers raped an Iraqi woman and killed her and her family would — if proved true — clearly fall outside the bounds of military and civilian law. In others cases, in which villagers and detainees were killed, defense attorneys say troops in danger made difficult choices but followed the rules of war.
‘Code of the Warrior’
At the U.S. Naval Academy, a class called “The Code of the Warrior” examines warrior cultures, looking at the ancient Greeks, the Vikings, American Indian tribes, the Japanese samurai and others.
Shannon French, an associate professor of philosophy, aims to distill the essence of warrior values and the reasons they matter so much.
“It’s so vital. Those rules are there to keep them from becoming monsters,” French said. “Any time you take a human life, there is trauma, there is what we’d call moral, psychological or even spiritual damage. Nothing removes the trauma.
“But if, after the fact, you can understand the reason for the killing, and recognize how it fits in with the values you were raised with, how it isn’t an affront to those values, then you can integrate that into your identity in a way that is healing.”
Her students reject even the word “killer,” insisting it carries a judgment that doesn’t fit a warrior.
From one warrior to another
If the rules fail, French said, a great deal is at risk: hopes that your captured soldiers will be treated humanely, the chance to reconcile with the enemy when the war is over, the power to keep allies at your side and support at home.
Most important are the troops themselves, she said. At stake is their return to civilian life and sanity. The temptation to cross the line is undeniable in the chaos of battle, but so is the result.
To make the lessons real, her classes feature visits by American warriors.
In one case, a bomber pilot came to her class, bringing videos of his missions in Afghanistan. Infrared footage of targets exploding brought cheers from her class of would-be pilots.
“He paused an image, which was an infrared explosion, a larger explosion and some smaller heat signatures.
“He said, ‘What are the smaller heat signatures you’re seeing?’ They paused: ‘People?’ ‘That’s right, when we hit this building, people came out. Why is that one so much hotter than the others?”’
“Then he let the image play, and that signature ran erratically. Finally, one of the students spoke up and said ‘He’s on fire?”’ French recounted. “You could’ve heard a pin drop.”
“My speaker turned to the class and looked them in the eye. ’That is a human being writhing in agony, and I caused that and I have to live with that,” she said.
Middle ground between pride, sorrow
The pilot wasn’t trying to frighten them out of the task ahead of them, French said. He was simply trying to force them to acknowledge the moral weight of warfare — even from a distance.
“He didn’t regret what he did, but he felt for his own moral well being he did have to mourn it,” she said.
For Coderre, back in civilian life as a deputy sheriff in coastal North Carolina, few can relate to his experience in war unless they’ve been through the same.
“That’s something people really don’t want to hear about. ‘My God, you’re happy you killed someone?”’ he said.
But no apology is necessary, he said. “Yes, a soldier, a sailor, was able to go home because of me,” he said.