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Ideas of the 21st Century

Ideas of the century: the moral psychology of war (42/50)

Our special ideas of the century series is continued by Nancy Sherman

stoicwar200Going to war inevitably turns policymakers and academics to philosophical justifications of war and its conduct. And so, unsurprisingly, there has been a renaissance over the past ten years in just war theory. But what we need moral clarity about is not just whether a war or its prosecution is justified, but how soldiers bear the moral weight of war. Soldiers go to war to fight external enemies, in Iraq and Afghanistan today, or in Europe and the Pacific in my father’s era. But most, at least the honest among them, fight inner wars as well. They wrestle with the guilt of luck and accident, and the uneasy burden of killing and leaving the killing behind. For some, what weighs heavy is the sense of betrayal that is part of the moral shadowland of wartime interrogation – of building intimate rapport with a detainee only to exploit it. For others, the moral burden comes with killing civilians, as part of the permissible, but no less wrenching collateral damage of war.

One might think that this is the proper domain of psychologists, not philosophers. But studies of war trauma, of posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, typically focus on the subject as patient. The idea that soldiers’ emotions are not just private burdens, but the public burdens and costs of sending our soldiers to war, is missed in a doctor/patient relation that takes place behind a closed door.

What is also missed is that psychological anguish is often moral anguish. The moral emotions of war are complex and not always best thought of as pathologies that need fixing. Pumped-up feelings of payback and revenge mix with the shame of triumph. Exuberance in coming home is undercut by the awful sense of betrayal in leaving behind battlebuddies who are lost and limbless. Difficult adjustments at home rub in the thought that the real empathic bond is back on the battlefield and not with the family. And this in turn engenders a further sense of betrayal and guilt.

These are moral conflicts that go with putting on a uniform and taking it off. Understanding them is, in part, conceptual and philosophical work. But it involves an unusual partnership of warriors who are willing to talk and of civilians who are ready to listen empathically. What results is a kind of philosophical ethnography of soldiering and its inner moral landscape.

This has been the underlying methodology of my recent work, The Untold War. The guiding idea goes back to Aristotle. “Discernment rests in perception,” says Aristotle, by which he means that we understand the moral demands of a situation by immersion in the details of the case. For the individual soldiers I have talked to, what is at stake is not so much a judgment about what to do, but, typically, a judgment about how to understand what has been done, and how to understand it now, once off the battlefield and outside the war zone.

One of the more compelling stories I heard was from a former Army interrogator who had been at Abu Ghraib as part of the “clean-up” act, a year after the torture scandal. This young interrogator had not engaged in torture or “enhanced” interrogation techniques: he did not subject detainees to waterboarding, or prolonged stress positions, or extreme sleep or sensory deprivation. Still, what he did do did not sit well with his civilian sensibilities. In one case, he showed a resistant detainee who had been stonewalling him in interrogation sessions a disturbing picture of a family member who had just been killed by a rival insurgent group in a bombing. The detainee broke down and after months of silence, finally started to talk. After the session, the interrogator walked out of the cell and chuckled to himself: “That finally got him to talk.” That sense of exuberance at getting another to become so vulnerable felt morally repulsive to him now.

Another case he told me about had to do with pairing a Sunni with a Shia in a recreation session, after each had demanded a break from solitary confinement. “I knew that they were just going to sit there and hate one another and be miserable for two hours, so that they may as well have been in solitary confinement for the whole time.” In yet another instance, he and a fellow interrogator were aware that a detainee had had extramarital affairs, “and so we just harped on it constantly. Every time we thought he was being difficult, we brought up the fact that he had been immoral in the past.”

In each of these cases, what bothered the interrogator is that he had developed relationships in order to manipulate them. Deception and betrayal, manipulation and exploitation, tools morally questionable in ordinary transactions, had become standard tools of his specialised trade. Accepting that role morality out of role was not morally easy.

Philosophers may reply that the whole point of just war theory is to teach us precisely why discriminate killing in war isn’t murder, and too, why deceiving and exploiting enemy detainees is not the same as doing it to our friends. But what I learned from listening to warriors is that theoretical discourse about when war and its conduct is justified doesn’t give much moral consolation to the warrior who has seen war’s hell and needs to make moral sense of it. The issue is not that the warrior doesn’t understand. It is that war is hard to process through civilian sensibilities. And yet to become hardened and numb to those sensibilities is to risk losing the very humanity required to be a good warrior.

Further reading
The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds and Souls of our Soldiers, Nancy Sherman (W.W. Norton, 2010)

Nancy Sherman is university professor at Georgetown University

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