Warrior Ethics 101: Everything We Need to Know We Learned in Sunday School

[1] Today, U.S. military commanders in Iraq are teaching classes in “core warrior values.” About 150,000 multinational troops are receiving remedial ethics education during June and July. The action comes in response to backlash over the massacre of 24 civilians at Haditha-and an alleged cover up of the incident.

[2] Military authorities emphasize the training is a “refresher course” in battlefield ethics to update what soldiers receive before being sent to Iraq. It includes 36 slides and takes two to four hours, according to Brigadier Commander Donald Campbell, Deputy Commanding General of the Multinational Corps in Iraq. “There are five scenarios that we work through in the training package, and they range from encountering an IED [improvised explosive device] on the road to being engaged from a mosque or a school, and what the reaction would be… It basically focuses on the values piece of it, and making sure that our soldiers react in the proper manner.”

[3] Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, commander of the multinational Corps in Iraq, said in a press statement that the training would emphasize “professional military values and the importance of disciplined, professional conduct in combat,” as well as Iraqi cultural expectations. “As military professionals, it is important that we take time to reflect upon the values that separate us from our enemies,” his statement said.

[4] Still, the phrase “core warrior values” is so opaque it begs questions: What are these values? To what extent do they reflect the nation’s values and aspirations? Most troubling: Do some of these values contribute to the indifference to human life to which the white-wrapped corpses at Haditha give silent witness?

[5] A few hours of field training may or may not prove useful to soldiers facing impossible choices in life-and-death situations. But we can be certain it will not touch the underlying issues and attitudes which contribute to abuses and continue to make light of them. The “warrior values” evident in Pentagon and Bush administration actions have contributed to a climate of disregard for civilians and contempt for enemies that paved the road to Abu Ghraib and now Haditha.

The Haditha Incident
[6] Initial reports last November, from U.S. Marines at Haditha, said 15 civilians had been killed in a bombing. The other deaths were insurgents killed in fighting that followed. But a three-month probe, led by Army Major General Eldon Bargewell, holds that this is false and should have been challenged immediately. Wounds on the dead were unmistakable: the civilians were killed by gun shots. U.S. and international news reports hold that U.S. soldiers went on a shooting rampage following the death of one of their number from a roadside bomb, killing the 24 Iraqi civilians including elderly and children. Military and Iraqi government investigations are ongoing.
[7] Haditha is only the most recent allegation of abuse to attract significant international scrutiny. Reports of disregard for Iraqi civilians-and accusations that they are deliberately targeted-have been widespread since early in the war. At least one such report came from an ELCA chaplain, Glenn Palmer, in April of 2003 (The Lutheran, June and November 2003). The obvious result is widespread mistrust of the troops and U.S. intentions. “These forces do not respect the citizens, some of whom are crushed by tanks, others shot,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a June news conference focusing on Haditha.

[8] Investigations of “three or four” charges of alleged wrongful killings of civilians and cover-ups are ongoing, according to Major General William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. Given longstanding abuse allegations, one need not be a cynic to suggest that the current ethics training appears to be more about public relations than about values, an attempt to limit repercussions from an atrocity that could prove much worse than the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal. Certainly, it is doubtful that remedial ethics training would be happening today had Haditha not become public.

Missing Leadership
[9] It is also questionable that this training could have prevented Haditha. If current reports continue to hold true, it was sparked by rage and battle stress of weary soldiers serving multiple tours of duty in a pressure cooker where friend, foe and innocent bystander are often indistinguishable. With no clearly identifiable enemy to attack, they allegedly struck at those who were at hand.

[10] The soldiers’ stress and emotions are understandable. Harder to grasp is the failure of the command structure to put an immediate stop to this and other incidents that periodically come to light, including the squalid Abu Ghraib affair. Like the infamous and well-studied 1968 massacre at My Lai, Vietnam, these incidents represent fundamental failures of military command to take a firm hand, establish unmistakable expectations and stop potential abuses in their tracks. Leadership failed to establish an ethos of professionalism, self-discipline, emotional stability and respect for friend and foe, fundamental dispositions apparently lacking at Haditha.

[11] A quick course in warrior values is unlikely to address these issues. First, in previous scandals, investigations quickly blamed lower-ranking officers and enlisted personnel. They have not focused on those higher in the command structure who failed to take responsibility for the actions of subordinates-or for the climate that may have encouraged, if not produced, breeches of discipline and law such as those alleged at Haditha.

[12] Nor will field training address the myopic vision of the Bush administration and, perhaps, the Pentagon, which failed to imagine the current urban insurgency despite the warnings of many. Now, they continue to send soldiers into the teeth of this insurgency with inadequate training about how to respond militarily while building and maintaining the support of the population, without which the mission is doomed to fail.

Missing Values
[13] Beyond these immediate practical issues, we can be almost certain the current field training will not take up the problems implicit in the term “warrior values” itself. A few lessons from Sunday school critique these problems and supply sorely needed insights.

Peace Doesn’t Grow from the Barrel of a Gun.
[14] “Warriors know that war is our profession and peace is our product,” writes General John T. Chain, Jr., former Commander and Chief of the Strategic Air Command, in his Warrior Code of Ethics. “Warriors are ready to go to war today … . They accept the warrior lifestyle.”

[15] These ideas are endemic in military culture. As people of faith, we honor the vocation of the soldier. I certainly do. Two of my brothers are career military personnel, one of whom suffered through a terrorist bombing that killed a colleague. I honor their service, training and considerable sacrifices. Their units and the world is a better place and, I believe, safer, for the care and conscience they bring to their service.

[16] Military force can throw off oppressors, halt the expansion of injustice, protect innocent life and prevent the destruction of peoples and their freedom. However, it does not produce peace.

[17] Peace is not the product of willingness to go to war. Peace, our faith suggests, is a gift of God which ensues when justice and fairness prevails among human relationships and communities. Peace is pursued by free souls willing to surrender personal and national privilege so that the blessings of God may fall like the rain on all flesh. Peace is the transformation that appears as nations and peoples reject the temptation to repay evil for evil. Peace is made by the patient, who refuse to turn their suffering into violence against others. Peace comes not by dominating with superior power but by responding to evil in ways that break the torturous cycle of injury and retribution. Peace makers know: the myth of redemptive violence is a killing lie.

[18] The willingness, even eagerness, of the Bush administration to wage war and threaten retaliation reflects the attitude that gun barrels and subjugation of enemies are our best tools for making peace and building security. This fallacy quickens the use of deadly force and glibly makes light of its abuses, such as at Haditha, a reflex also evident in Pentagon statements. More on this in a moment.

American Blood Is Not More Valuable than the Blood of Iraqis.
[19] “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea,” we sang from childhood, praising the love of God in Jesus Christ. Even earlier we might have sang, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”

[20] But from the beginning of the war the principles of reporting the dead have discounted the value of civilian blood. The massive death toll among Iraqi civilians is not counted by deliberate decisions made by the U.S. command structure. This devalues the Iraqi population and keeps Americans ignorant of the terrible and prolonged suffering of innocents being carried out in the name of its security.

Moral Exceptionalism Isn’t Moral, nor Is It Exceptional.
[21] It’s policy, at least in the Bush administration and sometimes in Pentagon statements.

[22] The same week the recent military report on Haditha was revealed-and remedial ethics training was mandated-the Pentagon announced it was omitting from its new detainee policies a key tenet of the Geneva Conventions that bans “humiliating and degrading treatment.” This is potentially a permanent shift from strict adherence to international standards, according to a June 5th Los Angeles Times report.

[23] A more recent example involves a June 16 Pentagon report on the treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. Special Forces. The report, covered in a June 17 Associated Press story, details “only a few cases” of alleged abuse from 2003 and 2004, leaving others out of consideration. Many portions of the report are blacked out. It concludes that special forces treatment of detainees was “wrong” but “not illegal,” although they had violated the Geneva Conventions concerning the humane treatment of prisoners. The Pentagon report also said that incidents of prisoner mistreatment were the result of inadequate resources, lack of oversight and proper guidance more than deliberate abuse.

[24] The report begs the question: Would the Pentagon be willing to split hairs over the difference between “wrong” and “illegal” had these violations of the Geneva accords involved the treatment of U.S. soldiers?

[25] Such episodes of convenient conscience reflect the moral exceptionalism that has infected the war effort in Iraq from the start. The Bush administration justified its behavior using the moral logic of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14). With immense gratitude, the Pharisee thanked God that he is “not like other people.” He knew his morals, purposes and conduct lifted him above the common run of humanity. Hubris, arrogance on steroids, is the biblical term for this.

[26] The United States went to war claiming it wasn’t like other nations. Our leaders said we didn’t need to follow agreements and laws we expect others to follow. We flouted treaties prohibiting preemptive war. We justified it citing unprecedented threats and the morality of our purposes. Danger and the nobility of our goals justified exceptional means. Later, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote that Geneva Conventions on treatment of detainees were “quaint” and inapplicable to those at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. Every U.S. soldier is required to know what the conventions say about conduct during warfare. But that didn’t prevent Justice Department attorneys from writing memos that justified taking a detainee’s child, crushing a detainee’s testicles or water boarding him to extract information. Preemptive war, torture and extraordinary rendition were all now permissible.

[27] Such hubris and moral exceptionalism paved the road to Abu Ghraib-and likely to Haditha. Now, even a scurrilous figure such as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can rightfully suggest that U.S. behavior in the war violates the Christian faith and values espoused by our president and most Americans. The moral high ground was surrendered the day this administration suggested that we are exempt from the rules and behavior we require of others. And recent Pentagon statements make it clear that the disease is contagious.

Moral Integrity Requires Respect for and Knowledge of One’s Enemy.
[28] While we possess values that “separate us from our enemies,” we also share the divine image with them. Sharing that created dignity should at the very least move us to consider the values and beliefs that move them to fight our nation’s intentions in the Middle East. We need not agree with or endorse the values of the insurgency or of Shiite and Sunni factions that bloody each other over ancient fears and ongoing grievances. But we would do well to understand them, lest we fail to grasp what we are doing and the likely consequences of our actions. We cannot know what we are doing or make informed moral choices without understanding this context.

[29] National book award winner Larry Heinemann, in a wonderful memoir, Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnam (Doubleday, 2005), recalls meetings with former Viet Cong fighters who, in tunnels and hovels during the war, studied American culture, authors and values so that they understood their enemy-us. With respect and some amazement, Heinemann records how much more they knew about Americans than Americans soldiers knew about them. Learning the enemy’s ways and reasons was not considered important to the American cause.

[30] Jesus commands us to love our enemies. Learning who they are-and why they see and act as they do-may be the most basic expression of love our nation can offer in the current situation. But encouraging such understanding has been far beyond the capacity of most political, military and religious leaders. Amid the acrimonious debates, those who attempt it typically are accused of being weak, stupid or appeasers of terrorists. The effort to understand would provide useful insights for future relations in the Middle East and with Muslim cultures. It is a minimal movement toward moral integrity.

Separateness Is an Illusion.
[31] The world God continues to create is an intricately connected whole where actions can’t be separated from their consequences. What goes around comes around. The sins of the fathers and mothers are visited on the children to the third and fourth generation. Consequently, we can’t exert the national will over part of the world, how ever far away, and expect to be protected from inevitable and unpredictable consequences of our actions. The intricate interconnectedness of creation refuses to respect our power or the supposed nobility of our cause. Power exerted in self-interest in one place will blow back in unexpected ways. Personal life and U.S. foreign policy provides ample examples of unforeseen and unintended consequences of actions we imagined were justified.

[32] In Iraq, actions in the name of security are producing greater insecurity. Hubris, injustice, torture, lack of respect for civilians are bad seed, yielding abuses at places like Abu Ghraib and Haditha and an abiding harvest of mistrust, antagonism and hatred.

[33] Amid the political and moral quagmire of Iraq, Haditha is a microcosm of the U.S. war effort. After 9/11 our wounded and outraged nation struck at a dictator and nation that had nothing to do with the heinous acts of that terrible day. If current accounts are true, Haditha echoes that tragedy: Innocent civilians were targeted in a rage response to the killing of Americans. Weary, frustrated soldiers without adequate information, training or leadership indulged the revenge reflex. They followed an illusion all-too-evident in warrior values: the myth that one can produce peace and security from the barrel of a gun.