Law in Contemporary Society


The Military Creed and Human Rights Violations

-- By SandorMarton - 09 Feb 2008

I. Definitions and Conflict

A. The Problem

Last May, a survey of U.S. forces stated that more than half of the soldiers and Marines in Iraq would not report illegal conduct during combat. Further, only 47 percent of U.S. soldiers and 38 percent of Marines interviewed said noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect. These attitudes result in violations of the rules of war concerning both civilians and combatants and have been an ongoing problem. Why do these attitudes prevail despite repeated efforts to retrain service personnel and curtail the problem? Arnold’s article provides a possible explanation for the endemic problem and the difficulty of finding a solution. Reducing ethics violations in combat must start with changing the military creed by equalizing the respective values military personnel place on the “killing ethos” and “combat ethics” ideals.

B. Definitions

Throughout what follows the phrase “killing ethos” describes the ideal of killing for one’s country, defeating the opposition and self-identifying as a warrior and a killer. “Combat ethics” means the ideals which stress the importance of ethical decision making (treating prisoners humanely, avoiding the deaths of civilians, etc…) in combat.

C. Conflict Between Ideals

Both ideals are part of the American military creed. The centrality of the killing ethos to the creed is demonstrated by the symbols used by the services in unit artwork and tattoos, by the indoctrination methods used in boot camp and repeated throughout a service person’s career and the very purpose of the services: the use of violence and death to advance American interests. Marines are taught that they are warriors; killers without remorse.

Considerable effort is also expended in inculcating the combat ethics ideal in service people. Company grade officers, for example, are put through live exercises handling “civilians” (actors) in combat situations throughout their career, beginning with their first training command. Prior to deployment to Iraq, combat units go through extensive training programs in dealing with non-combatants, detained enemy combatants and proper interrogation techniques. The first school new lieutenants attend provides classes in ethics and morality. Marines see themselves as the “good guys”: protectors of the innocent, performing their duties honorably and morally.

It is hardly surprising that these two ideals come into constant conflict in Iraq. When the identity and location of the enemy is clear and when the fighting is taking place outside of civilian areas, that conflict is reduced as the mission of killing the enemy does not run counter to combat ethics. On the other hand, when it is difficult to separate the enemy combatants from the civilians and when the fighting is occurring in the middle of cities, our military personnel must often choose between obeying the rules of war (combat ethics) and breaking those rules in order to defeat the enemy (the killing ethos).

II. The Killing Ethos Prevails

In practice, however, the killing ethos dominates combat ethics when the two conflict as evidenced by the survey cited earlier. There are two reasons why this is so. First, where and when personnel receive indoctrination in different ideals of the overall creed seems to play a large role in determining how one relates to that ideal. In the Marine Corps, the killing ethos is made part of one’s identity upon entering recruit training while the ideal of combat ethics is not introduced until later schools. For the next three months of boot camp the importance of aggressiveness and killing is stressed daily. Additionally, recruit training is designed to break down recruits and rebuild them in mind, body and spirit. By making the killing ethos part of the indoctrination process, recruits, whose identities have been stripped away, embrace the ethos and make it part of who they are. No training in follow-on schools can touch the core of the Marine’s being the same way the lessons taught in boot camp can.

Second, the very process of exercising the killing ethos erodes the traits which form the foundation of combat ethics. Treating others ethically requires the ability to empathize with them; to humanize them. Killing, on the other hand, requires the dehumanization of others. Since military personnel in combat exercise the killing ethos ideal much more often than combat ethics, the longer a unit is in combat, the more eroded their combat ethic ideal becomes. This is borne out by history: there is a strong correlation between combat stress and incidents of war crimes. The quintessential example of this is the My Lai massacre.

III. Resolution?

A. Changing the Military Creed

Reducing the incidents of violations of the rules of war is not as simple as providing more ethics training to the military. To solve the problem, the military needs to make combat ethics as central to the military creed as the killing ethos. If the killing ethos and combat ethics ideals were on par, service personnel would be much less inclined to give in to the former over the latter whenever conflict between the two erupted. While combat stress would still erode combat ethics, such erosion would take longer. Admittedly, organizations have great difficulty changing their creed on their own. However, because one of the central ideals of the American military creed is that it serves the civilian government, if the political will existed, one could force modifications of the military creed.

B. Changing Government Foreign Policy

However, do we actually want such a change to take place? Current American policy calls for using the military to secure U.S. interests by force of arms worldwide; a policy which many would argue undercuts the foundation of combat ethics (empathy). Further, if Abu Ghraib is any indicator, our government condones the emphasis on the killing ethos in the pursuit of its policy objectives. After all, a more ethics-focused military would challenge orders which, although helpful in supporting U.S. interests, violate rules of war. Creating a workable solution to reduce human rights violations by our military must therefore start with a change in civilian leadership and policy direction.

  • Was there something new here? If, as appears, you are well-informed about military affairs or at least about the current war, surely pretty much everything here is a platitude that has passed under your eye at least once recently. The poor fit between the "close" reading of military culture in the body of the paper and the shoddy rapidity of the conclusion (want to prevent war crimes? change foreign policy) is a further indication of writing on auto-pilot. I'm also puzzled by the peculiar emphasis given to the details of Marine training. As of October 2007, according to the Pentagon, there were roughly 25,000 Marines in Iraq, out of roughly 160,000 all arms deployed. Unless 16% of the soldiers were committing the bulk of the war crimes, we don't need a close survey of the boot camp curriculum at Camp Lejeune. On the other hand, you do miss one important area of inquiry, which is the effect of the military's accelerating success in raising the participation rate in killing over time. Putting, say, Dave Grossman's On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society together with statistics over time on your two questions might very well produce something new: guidance on whether the conditioning that leads troops to convert themselves by "removing the safety catch" also produces difficulty in securing compliance with the laws of war.

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r11 - 12 Jan 2009 - 23:07:50 - IanSullivan
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