Military ethics questioned

By Jan Adams
Sep 19, 2013

Two years ago I wrote a review of Joshua E.S. Phillips' painful yet empathetic account of some horrible crimes and their aftermath committed by U.S. soldiers in our misbegotten wars of the 00s: None of Us Were Like This Before. Those us of us who were paying attention knew these abuses were going on, but nonetheless this remains a story that still needs telling.

By way of Thomas Ricks, here's another agonized take on how the US military has allowed itself to be mesmerized by false values in the last decade. Three officers -- Lt. Col. Peter Fromm, U.S. Army, Retired; Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, U.S. Army; and Lt. Col. Kevin Cutright, U.S. Army -- have published an article in Military Review entitled The Myths We Soldiers Tell Ourselves: and the Harm These Myths Do. They are unstinting in their analysis of how the profession they wish they could be proud of has violated its proclaimed moral principles.

When an institution adopts false beliefs about itself, it corrodes itself. …


People honestly calculate and, with good intentions, recalculate what reality is until they find a place where they are comfortable with their moral myths, where they can sit complacent. Soldiers cannot afford moral complacency.

…. A prevalent form of this complacency involves rationalizing one’s own superiority above others. The myth of American exceptionalism permeating the U.S. military’s ranks is an example. It usually occurs when Americans apprehend the empirical fact that they enjoy remarkable freedoms and prosperity and transfer those accomplishments of their forebears into feelings of personal superiority. Instead of perceiving their heritage as a lucky accident, they irrationally perceive it as a personal virtue and a sign of their own superiority. … to some American “exceptionalists,” a restriction that applies to other nations and militaries does not necessarily or fully apply to the United States if, by applying it, an apparent American advantage is taken away.

Failure to fully consider the ethic of reciprocity is apparent in the ongoing debate on torture. Nearly all American service members would call it “torture” if they were subjected to waterboarding, forced nudity, water dousing, extreme hot and cold temperatures, sleep deprivation, or any one of the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs). After all, the goal of these EITs is to inflict suffering so great that it overcomes the subject’s will to resist without physically marking or injuring the subject. Many of these same service members, though, become offended when any description of Americans applying these techniques refers to “torture.” …


[The Army Values rubric] contributes to self-deception by convincing people that they are good, an ethical member of a values-based organization, even though it does very little to actully encourage right action. For example, before the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 made “enhanced interrogation” illegal, one could employ Army Values to endorse harsh treatment of detainees. Those who used torture could argue they displayed “loyalty” to their nation and fellow troops by helping extract intelligence that might save lives. They could display “duty” to country and “selfless service” by their hard, dirty work for good ends. They could show proper “respect” for detainees, since they treated detainees like evil terrorists should be treated (meaning, with no respect). They could show “integrity” through the use of only approved techniques. They could embody “honor” by fulfilling the other Army values, especially the “personal courage” needed to deliberately agitate dangerous detainees. …By simply saying them, we soldiers frequently delude ourselves into thinking they make us more ethical, like they are a talisman.


Of the 100 detainees who died in U.S. custody between 2002 and 2006, 45 are confirmed or suspected murder victims. Of these, eight are known to have been tortured to death. Only half of these eight cases resulted in punishment for U.S. service members, with five months in jail being the harshest punishment meted out.

This is only a summary of the most extreme cases. During the last decade, the military opened hundreds of investigations concerning detainee abuse. Investigators closed most of these quickly, not because there was nothing to them, but because investigators lacked the resources, command support, or willpower to meaningfully investigate them. Even in those cases where investigators found criminal negligence, military juries and commanders consistently chose not to punish wrongdoers.


…A sense of American superiority makes it easier to tolerate and forgive offenses that we would decry if committed by the enemy.

Ever since civilian leaders in the Bush administration chose to normalize and embrace torture in their wars, the strongest bulwark against worse atrocities has been the professionalism of people who were part of the system -- soldiers, lawyers, even spooks -- who took it on themselves to protest what they saw as violations of essential ethical norms. There's a lot to be said for ethical education; these officers have made a worthy contribution. The article can be downloaded at the link.

Cross posted at Can It Happen Here?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Jan Adams has worked with WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras since its beginning, coordinating distribution during the three years when the organization published an antiwar tabloid newspaper. She is a lifelong political activist who has worked for justice in Central America (Nicaragua and El Salvador), in South Africa, in the fields of California with the United Farmworkers Union, and for racial and economic equality with electoral and advocacy campaigns in many areas of the United States.

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