Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Responsibilities of Soldiers

by James Moore

I am responding to chapter sixteen of Just And Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer. In this chapter Walzer continues his discussion on rules of war during war. He is particularly concerned with soldiers and their obligations to their superior officers. He is trying to see who should be held accountable for war crimes and acts that are directed at innocent civilians. During this essay I would like to lay out Walzer’s position and give a slight critique of his position.

Walzer begins by defending the soldiers with the idea that they act in the heat of battle without reason. The soldier gets so immersed in his situation that he loses his train of thought and his reaction to it is not one of reason but sheer disregard for human life. This is understandable because, we can see how an individual under such duress reacts in such away that would not be acceptable in normal situations. The soldier is so worked up that his action become uncontrollable, according to Walzer it can be considered a temporary insanity. I have to agree with Walzer in this theory; we can’t expect an individual during the heat of battle to selectively choose targets when the bullets seem to be coming from everywhere. The soldier wants the situation to end, so this is when his mind shuts down and the emotions take over and we get a situation where the soldiers action become uncontrollable. The analogy I can draw is one of less severity than war but none-the-less makes an individual act in a way in which he normally wouldn’t. We can see individuals losing control of their actions in sports. An athlete is so immersed in winning the game that he sometimes losses control of his actions. We take this harmless situation that can cause people to act irrational and compare it to war, which is a harmful environment; we can see how an individual would lose his self-control and do something irrational.

This is not always the case according to Walzer. Walzer gives a situation where opposing soldiers, to a particular army, try to surrender and the soldier is shot in the head. The temporary insanity argument tends to become a bit more tenuous at this point, but Walzer still would say, in some cases, that this could be a legitimate argument on behalf of the soldier. If this is only good in some cases, then who should be in control of the situation, when a soldier is not insanely shooting people. This is when Walzer turns to their commanding officers. The commanding officers have a bit more responsibility that the soldiers. They are expected to be more professional on the battle field and in control of their unit. When a situation comes up where there is wholesale slaughter of innocent people then the person that carries the most of the responsibility for those actions would be the commanding officer.

Then the question comes in of orders. We a soldier gets an order from his commanding officer should he obey the order even if the order forces the soldier to take innocent lives. Walzer thinks that soldiers are trained to follow orders. If they didn’t follow orders, without question, then they wouldn’t be good soldiers. On the battle field you can’t expect a soldier to sit back and think as to whether he should or should not do the order his officer has commanded him to. This way of thinking could get the soldier and some of his comrades killed. The soldier gives the authority to his commanding officers and trusts their decisions, so should a soldier be held accountable for something that he is trained to do? Walzer thinks that they both should be held accountable but the commanding officer has a greater responsibility, so his degree of punishment should be weighted to that.

The way we tend to look at these situations are through the eyes of Americans and how our soldiers act when given an order, but what about other countries. We consider the situation that Walzer discusses when a German soldier refuses to kill any more hostages and his comrades throw him in with the hostages and kill him as well. This is where it gets difficult to decide of you should or shouldn’t follow orders. I know Walzer doesn’t like the argument of self-preservation but we have discussed it in class and I thought it would be relevant. The idea that you should only fire upon someone when your life is in danger; this is in order to preserve your life. We can now see how this argument falls apart when an officer tells you to kill an innocent person or he will shoot you in the head, then the self-preservation argument seems to become a bit more tenuous. The soldier in order to survive must kill an innocent person. This is probably why Walzer just gets rid of it.

I would like to give a slight critique of Walzer’s position. I would like to start by giving the responsibilities of the soldiers. I can’t deny, because of my ignorance of actively being involved in a war that soldiers are under duress. I can see how certain situation could cause a soldier to lose character and do something he wouldn’t ordinarily do. This does not relieve him of his responsibilities during war. He should be held responsible of his actions. We can use situation in U.S. to give examples of why an individual shouldn’t be charged with murder if he shoots an innocent person in a shoot out. When police officers get in a fire fight with armed gun man they are not responsible for any innocent civilians that get caught up in the crossfire. The same should apply to war.

Now, if an individual, during war, attempts to surrender and the soldier kills him anyway, this soldier has just broken the law, this irregardless of his environmental situation. The individual had given up his arms and was no longer a combatant and the soldier killed him anyway, this is murder. This would also have a poor affect on the enemy soldiers giving up. They would find out that their opponents were killing their comrades as they surrendered, and would realize that they would have to fight to the death because if they surrendered it would be certain death. This is not a good way to try and win a war. Though soldiers may be trained as machines they are still human and must be held to making moral decisions during war. Though we should be understanding to innocence that get killed in a crossfire, we should not be understanding for shooting a individual in the head after he has surrendered his arms.

I will now turn to the commanding officers. The chain of command is built on trust and respect. The lower in command always trust and respects the higher in command. This is not always the case but the majority of the time it is. The higher in command mustn’t misuse their authority over the lower in command. This command chain can go all the way back to the particular government that started the altercation. This meaning if a government orders their soldiers to kill all the Jews, then the government is held accountable because if the government is stopped then all that follow is stopped. You must always start at the root of the problem and work your way up. The problem with just punishing the soldiers is that they are not the ones calling the shots; they are just following orders, though I think it is right to apprehend them. I can’t say that it will be affective in winning the overall war.

This is why we must give some standard for everyone to follow. So the lower in command will have some way of justifying their commander’s orders. The “cause I said so” is not a just reason for killing innocent people. The soldiers should be able to react to their commanding officers by refusing to take the order on the grounds that it is unjust. This is why I enjoy the idea of setting up a standard for everyone to follow. If we can get a reasonable understanding for what is just we must set it in stone and adhere to it.


Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

While the idea of having some sort of legalist paradigm for deliberating post hoc, I am actually interested in what should be a moral standard for those actively participating in situ.

I suppose what I am getting at is this: we as squishy philosophers may get to sit back and make up the rules for those that come out of combat; when soldiers are in the hamburger machine, however, they should still have some sort of moral base from which to work (like it or not, agency only tends to go away when you loose person-hood). Perhaps I am expecting too much. Heat of the moment excuses work all the time... even on hunting expeditions.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Wesley Gibbs said...

In pertaining to your portion on responsibility, I mostly agree with you. I think that though the responsibility for killing innocents falls to a greater extent on the officers that ordered it, the soldier still has a lot because he ultimately makes his own decisions. He should have a set of morals, and choose what to follow and what to not.

I still see a problem with killing the innocent even if the soldier's life is at risk. I understand that most people have a need for self-preservation, but if a person won't stand up for what they believe is right, do they truly believe it?

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Steven Grueshaber said...

I think we will all agree that a soldier is responsible for his own actions. Our goal should be determining which of those actions are right or wrong, which is what I believe Mitch is getting at. However, I'm not a big fan of 'heat of the moment' excuses. There is too much potential for a slippery slope.

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Kim Morrison said...

A soldier is trained to follow orders. Officers are trained to give orders and discipline those who do not follow them. A soldier may act differently in a combat situation (this is most likely due to increased levels of adrenaline and/or testosterone) but "heat of battle" excuses should still be investigated and not taken at face value. Soldiers should be held accountable for their actions whether or not they were given an order to perform those actions. The soldier who fragged the tent of his superior officers was held accountable for his actions. The soldiers who mocked and humiliated POWs have been, or are being, dealt with according to their involvement. It's nice to say that the commanders who give questionable orders are also dealt with in a sufficient manner but it seems that at some point the chain-of-command breaks down. Information about who issued the orders or even if they were issued at all tends to disappear when high-ranking officials are involved. At any rate, the main responsibility of soldiers, and their superior officers, is to protect those who cannot protect themselves and they should be held accountable when their actions conflict with this responsibility.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Adam Johnson said...

I also have concerns about the slippery slope problems of the 'in the heat of the moment' position, but I'm not ready to abandon it completely. If we hold that one cannot be morally obligated to do something one cannot do, I think it certainly gives at least a little wiggle room for cases of extreme mental duress and how that affects choice making.

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy Page said...

I'm somewhat inline with Adam on this one. "Heat of the momentexcuses" are really not excuses, but explanations. I would tend to say this means we should be more lenient on soldiers and some of their incidents, but as Walzer writes he seems to be in favor of some sort of absolutist regualtions for soldiers, I wonder how this would work out. BTW, I thought Walzer noted that "heat of the moment" things happened, and that they were understandable, but that the soldier was still somewhat liable...maybe I misread.

3:34 PM  
Anonymous jamie mccall said...

Many soliders do things "in the moment" that they later regret. When everyone is shooting at you, its often hard to sit back and ponder whether who you are about to shoot needs to be shot at. But this doesnt mean that you should never think about it. Soliders need to be constantly thinking about the moral value of what they are about to do, the circumstance (no matter how bad) doesnt give a carte blanche to slaughter everyone/anyone. "Heat of the moment" may be true in some circumstances, but not all...

11:01 AM  

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