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The Moral Dilemma of Military Service

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People in the United States take pride in our military. We appreciate the integrity, the loyal service, and the willingness to sacrifice that the members of the armed services so often demonstrate, even when the pay is modest and conditions difficult.

Almost everyone in the U.S. has, or have had, members of their family serve in the military, so we know that most are good, honest people. My husband, one of my daughters, two sons-in-law and three brothers-in-law are among my family members who have served or are serving our country in this way.

To insure that our armed forces serve honorably, training and regulations require that those who serve in the U.S. military act morally, even in war. What this means is not always clear.

On the one hand, our armed forces are held to the level of individual moral accountability in war set out in Nuremberg Principle IV. It states, "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

On the other hand, by virtue of being sent to war, the government is saying that you can engage in certain harmful acts and we won't hold you accountable. The Nuremberg Principle says this is not always the case. You are often required to discern the line between the two when you are in the midst of battle, suffering from battle fatigue, and despite your conditioning to see the enemies as less than human so that you can overcome your moral resistance to killing them.

This is further complicated by the fact that the exercise of moral choice is usually restricted. Military regulations do not permit those in the military to selectively accept assignments they consider moral and decline those they find morally objectionable. Failure to carry out an assignment will most often result in court martial and punishment.  

Yet another inconsistency is that those serving in the armed forces are taught the basic principles of Just War (see 11-24-10 blog), which is intended to establish certain limitations on war so that it can be reconciled with widely-held moral values. However, when someone in the military raises a moral objection based on Just War principles to a particular war, they have no recourse. Current U.S. military regulations governing Conscientious Objection require objection to "war in any form."

What underpins these moral dilemmas is the double moral standard upon which war is necessarily based. It is a subjective standard that says that our killing is moral; theirs is not. This double standard is made possible by projecting blame for our killing upon those whom we kill, but not granting them the same measure of morality. "We are good people, but you make us do these terrible things to you," is the defense to what would otherwise be immoral conduct.

Because those whom we kill are likely to see our acts as immoral, they reverse the standard, seeing their killing of us as moral. Thus, both sides can engage in what, by objective standards, is usually seen as immoral behavior, but claim their own acts to be moral because they see the harm as being done to people who deserve it. This is the process by which war is given moral legitimacy.

In the video, The Fog of War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tells of his moral dilemma during World War II. He had performed statistical analysis for General Curtis E. LeMay and the Army's Air Forces. America's firebombing of Japanese cities during the war killed perhaps as many as nine hundred thousand Japanese civilians. McNamara recalled LeMay saying, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals."

A question McNamara could never answer was, "What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" In later years, McNamara concluded it had been a war crime. He could not project enough blame upon the Japanese to make the United States blameless in the deaths of so many non-combatants.

Even among your own, you cannot be certain this double moral standard will be a reliable defense. When the Nuremberg Principle is applied, for example, you can't blame your government or your superior officers. Or there may be a public outcry at what you did and you discover this moral elastic band did not stretch as far as you thought. Sometimes it depends on who the judge is and what interests are being served, who you are and who you know, or the resources you command. As is sometimes demonstrated in our criminal courts, those in control sometimes just need to publicly apply strict accountability, to remind others that it can happen.  

This brings to mind the torture and inhumane treatment perpetrated by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war. The abuse had been known by those up the chain of command for some time, but nothing was done until the abuse became known to the public. Then those at the bottom were held accountable.

What happens if you acknowledge that you bear ultimate moral responsibility for your acts (which is what the Nuremberg Principle requires). Then there is no double moral standard to justify what you are called upon to do in war. You give up blaming others for the harm you cause. Individual moral accountability reflects one moral standard which, if universally applied, would deny war its moral legitimacy.

The only way out of the dilemma of dual morality is do precisely this, to all live by one standard of morality: harm to anyone, by anyone, is unacceptable. Is it possible for the U.S. military to demonstrate one moral standard for the world?

I believe it is, and sometimes we do. When we give to others what truly serves their needs, not what serves our needs at their expense, we end up serving both our needs and theirs. The 2005 earthquake in Pakistan is an example of what this approach achieves.

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www.sylviaclute.com

Attorney, author, blogger. After several years as a trial attorney, Sylvia Clute became disillusioned with the legal system and began her search for a better way. This led to writing two books, Beyond Vengeance, Beyond Duality: A Call for a (more...)
 
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Dr. YellowBird totally nailed it. This I posted i... by Virginia Simson on Monday, Jan 3, 2011 at 5:24:46 PM
the Nuremburg Principle you describe told and expl... by GLloyd Rowsey on Monday, Jan 3, 2011 at 5:54:49 PM
Thou Shalt Not Kill I've made this comment bef... by Daniel Geery on Tuesday, Jan 4, 2011 at 10:48:01 AM
I used to be amused by the "pride" of people servi... by Robert Tracey on Tuesday, Jan 4, 2011 at 3:14:12 PM
You have got to be kidding. There are actions tak... by Robert P. Philipps on Wednesday, Jan 5, 2011 at 2:17:10 PM
All my life I've heard that I should be grateful t... by Vernon Huffman on Wednesday, Jan 5, 2011 at 11:37:57 PM