Monday, May 07, 2007

Ethics of War


Last Friday’s blog ended with a plaintive musing, a question really, from a parent whose son is leaning toward joining one of the ground services, the Marine Corps or the Army. The parent’s concern was the growing evidence of a lack of integrity among the officers serving today.

That same morning, the San Diego Tribune carried a page one story about the third annual “mental health” survey of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.

Unlike the two previous iterations of the “mental health” survey, this one was looking well beyond the onset, severity, and longevity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its effects on marriages and parent-child interactions or at the mental trauma introduced into the lives of the spouses or parents of those that suffered severe brain damage from improvised explosive devices, bullets, and suicide bombings.

This survey was probing mental health from the standpoint of trying to gauge what combination of factors encountered in battle lead to reprisals against civilians and noncombatants. The underlying suspicion, given Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and similar incidents is that the mental pressures arising from continuous exposure to injury and death, compounded by witnessing comrades killed and wounded by an unknown enemy against whom force could legitimately be used if the enemy were identified, causes a marked decrease in the propensity of soldiers to sustain ethical conduct.

Among Marines, the report found only 30 percent said they would inform the chain of command that property was unnecessarily destroyed, only 33 percent would inform their leaders about incidents of stealing, while a mere 40 percent said they would report members of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian. In general, the responses by Army troops on these three points were about 15 percent higher.

Increased number of deployments to battle zones, longer deployments, and the level of the brutality all act to break through the training in the rules and restraints on combat that are contained in the Geneva Conventions and reflected in the rules of engagement under which U.S. forces operate. The only condition that seems to counteract the accumulation of these negative influences is strong and sustained moral example and ethical leadership from all of the unit’s noncommissioned and commissioned officers. One would also expect that similar moral and ethical leadership from the top civilians in government would be desirable, especially from those in the Pentagon.

The survey also revealed, chillingly, that Iraq has become like Vietnam was 40 years ago in terms of how the foreign troops view the indigenous population. As summed in the words of one Iraq combat veteran: “An innocent civilian? I don’t think I ever met one over there.”


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