Friday, May 04, 2007

Our Soldiers' Ethics

The Department of Defense has released the findings of its first study of the ethics of troops involved in combat, and the results are disturbing. The results included:
_Sixty-two percent of soldiers and 66 percent of Marines said that they knew someone seriously injured or killed, or that a member of their team had become a casualty.

_The 2006 adjusted rate of suicides per 100,000 soldiers was 17.3 soldiers, lower than the 19.9 rate reported in 2005.

_Only 47 percent of the soldiers and 38 percent of Marines said noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.

_About a third of troops said they had insulted or cursed at civilians in their presence.

_About 10 percent of soldiers and Marines reported mistreating civilians or damaging property when it was not necessary. Mistreatment includes hitting or kicking a civilian.

_Forty-four percent of Marines and 41 percent of soldiers said torture should be allowed to save the life of a soldier or Marine.

_Thirty-nine percent of Marines and 36 percent of soldiers said torture should be allowed to gather important information from insurgents.

_Less than half of Marines and a little more than half of Army soldiers said they would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian.
Much of this isn't surprising, especially the soldiers' attitudes towards torture. First, soldiers, of course, will want to do whatever is in their power to do in order to save the lives of their comrades. That's what makes them fight in the first place. And, as there is a legitimate debate over the use of torture, I'm not so sure this should been as disturbing as some of the other revelations.

But the responses indicating widespread tolerance of abusive behavior towards non-combatants is highly problematic, particularly in a war where the battle for the "hearts and minds" is just as important as the gun battles. One certain lesson of Vietnam was that brutality towards the peasantry made the people more willing to tolerate, or even collaborate with, the enemy. This is perhaps even more true in Iraq, where the only hope for success rests on Iraqi citizens choosing to side with the government rather than the militias or al Qaeda, and if they fear the US military or have been brutalized by it, that choice becomes an easier one to make.

Not to sound like a broken record, but this again points up the need for a new type of US soldier. It may be problematic, but it shouldn't be surprising that a soldier trained to kill his enemy will, particularly in a urban/insurgent type of conflict, not be tolerant or kindly to those he may suspect of cooperating with the enemy. Soldiering is a business that those (myself included) who haven't done it cannot begin to comprehend, and the stress that must come with combat is even more unimaginable. It is unfair to take soldiers trained to kill or be killed and ask them to act like policemen. The rules of engagement are different. The jobs are different. And the training is different.

The Defense Department will hopefully be spurred into action by this report. Soldiers are of course still necessary to conduct combat operations. But many of the tasks that our soldiers are asked to do are not those for which they are trained. Our military needs to recognize this fact and begin training troops to be peacekeepers, policemen, and nation builders. This report is just one indication of the damage that may occur if our armed forces cannot adapt to the new missions expected of them.


Matt Bondy said...

Definitely an issue that needs attention.

Though I don't know how exactly Iraqis go about policing their country - and to what extent its actually Coalition troops that do most of the 'policing' - it seems like a different kind of police force could be devised, specialising in operating in hostile environments.

I'm reminded of the role the Northwest Mounted Police (for a long time now called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police)played in the development of my country. They were diplomats, soldiers, policemen, administrators - you name it.

They're a federal police force deeply rooted in military tradition, and historically involved in intelligence and counter-terrorism (there's been a recent shift on this last point, as Canada's special operations forces, Joint Task Force 2, has taken over most counter-terrorism operations in recent years).

A robust police force, decked out with the training and gear it needs to defend itself whilst policing the state, might not be a bad idea. The added bonus of federal forces is that men from different regions of the country all go to training together, and they can be posted to anywhere in the state. It might mitigate some of the corruption if the local cops are from different territories and have no personal histories in the area.


Matt Bondy said...

(I mention this as part of the discussion on how to improve the tenuous relationship between Coalition forces and Iraqis. With reports that soldiers are perhaps willing to commit quite unethical acts, it seems as though there is a need to focus military resources on hunting down insurgencts and holding ground, and removing 'policeman' from their job description might facilitate a cooling of tensions...)

Matt Eckel said...

Rather than training our troops as "nation builders," wouldn't this data seem to indicate the necessity of using our military in different ways and not trying to repeat Iraq-like experiences?

Seth Weinberger said...

Perhaps...although wars like Afghanistan and Iraq, or interventions like Kosovo, are much more likely to be the norm for military operations in the future.

The strategic demands on the US military have expanded, and our soldiers will be asked to do more peacekeeping/nation building type missions. I do not see that it is the American or international interest for the US to refuse or to be incapable or ill-suited for such operations.

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