Friday, December 24, 2004

Supporting the Troops in Evil Conflicts

A discussion broke out over at Legal Fiction recently regarding the inconsistency that potentially exists when one professes opposition to war while supporting the troops. At first, I was surprised that the question was getting any play at all. However, thanks to a clarifying comment, I realized that the issue was more subtle than I had initially appreciated. The real question was: how do you morally justify the actions of soldiers taken in service of a larger, immoral cause? I agree, that trickier. But not impossible.

For all except the most rigid moral absolutists, actions are judged in the context in which they occur. For example, most people would morally excuse the theft of medication to save a dying child if there were no opportunity to acquire it lawfully. In the abstract, most of us lean toward Machiavellianism, supporting whatever action produces the greatest good. In the same vein, people tend to forgive behavior that is legitimately uncontrollable. A man who commits a crime after being surreptitiously drugged will generally not be seen in a negative light.

Of course, judgment in the real world is complicated by the fact that circumstances are rarely indisputable. But, for our discussion here, these abstractions aptly describe the fundamental principles.

With all this in mind, let's consider the situation of a typical soldier in Iraq. They're young. Due to their displacement, often extended far beyond what they had been led to expect, and the constant danger in which they live, they are under enormous stress. They have been trained to employ their own judgment, but also to follow orders without question. Failing to do so often results in severe punishment. Conversely, behavior that would in a civilian context be considered antisocial and destructive is instead rewarded implicitly and explicitly. In short, it is a very different world than most of us typically experience.

Given this context, can the actions of soldiers in combat truly be said to be under their control? If there is any remaining doubt, consider the following:

In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram performed a series of experiments designed to establish the degree to which humans are malleable to authority. Subjects were recruited under false premises and were told that they were assisting in a learning study. In the experiment, the subject sits in front of a desk containing a row of buttons. Above most of the buttons a numerical value indicates a voltage level, increasing as one moves from left to right. Near the end of this row is an indication warning the subject not to proceed beyond that point, although buttons exist beyond the indicator implying that it is possible to do so.

The subject is told that he is assisting a researcher who is in the room with him. The supposed subject of the learning study cannot be seen. Allegedly, he is electrically wired to the subject's dashboard. The only connection he has to the experimental room is his voice over a loudspeaker. In actuality, this subject is a confederate and is in no danger whatsoever. But, the actual subject of the experiment has no way to know this. Also, he is told that it is imperative that the experiment reach its conclusion.

The researcher then proceeds to administer a test to the "learner." When the learner responds incorrectly, the subject is instructed to administer a shock. With each additional wrong answer, the subject is told to increase the voltage. As the "shocks" get more intense, the learner begins to protest, eventually crying in pain, demanding that the experiment stop, and reporting that he has a heart condition and that further shocks might kill him. Past a certain level, the learner is simply silent, the implication obvious. According to the researcher, silence is scored as a wrong answer, necessitating more shocks.

As the experiment is conducted, the researcher does nothing more than ask questions, request administrations of punishment, and explain that the experiment must continue. He does not explain why. He does not employ force or other forms of overt coercion on the subject. He is, except for the mild indications of authority implicit in his experimental role, completely neutral.

The results of the experiment were terribly disturbing. Fully 65% of the experimental subjects delivered the maximum possible voltage, indicated as 450 volts. No subject stopped before reaching the "do not go beyond" indicator. To a man, every subject was willing to take actions that they believed would cause great physical harm or death to another human being.

Now, we all would like to think that we could resist such behavior, that our sense of right and wrong would prevail. However, the results of this experiment, and of its many variations, conclusively demonstrate that few if any of us could refuse to comply with the wishes of the researcher. So, if you are willing set the bar for moral validation so high that no mortal could ever attain it, you can condemn the actions of the study participants. I, for one, am willing to cut us all a little more slack.

The soldier, like the experimental subject, is in a situation where they are at the mercy of another person's authority. However, the explicit authority governing the experiment is extremely mild in comparison to the power wielded by a soldier's commanding officer. Immense forces of coercion are brought to bear on a soldier to ensure that he dutifully complies with his commanders wishes. And if we are unable to control our actions in such a relatively benign setting as the Milgram experiment, is there any question that a soldier is completely at the mercy of his command structure?

As I see it, that's the bottom line. I condemn this war and those who administer it. The closer the individual is to the top of the chain of command, the more I hold him accountable for the consequences of the conflict. But the foot soldier has no choice in the matter. Quite literally, his conduct is beyond his earthly control. And therefore his actions I absolve of moral stain.

Individuals who are unaware of the power of authority to compel obedience may be unable to unravel the connection between the soldier and the larger conflict. However, it is my hope that those armed with this knowledge will be able to do so successfully, enabling them to support the troops, irrespective of the cause they serve.

Update: both Intel Dump and Peat are thinking about this issue.

Update: added link and fixed typo.
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