Counterinsurgency has no “easy button.” As every soldier knows, insurgents don’t fight fair. Instead of wearing uniforms to signify their combatant status, they normally “hide in the open” in civilian guise; they infiltrate police and army units; they destroy infrastructure vital to civilian well-being; they kidnap, torture, shoot, behead and mutilate anybody who isn’t their ally; and they slaughter women and children like cattle.
Such people do not deserve mercy. In my view, they have forfeited any moral right to expect it from us. You and your troops may be sorely tempted to deny them humane treatment as a result. But you must resist that temptation. Treat them humanely even though they don’t deserve it.
The U.S. military has been extremely conscientious and diligent during the past three decades in emphasizing the importance of maintaining high standards of conduct, even amid the extreme pressures of combat and counterinsurgency. But I’ve sometimes heard officers and noncommissioned officers complain that upholding the laws of war hampers our war efforts and is pointless against enemies who don’t respect those laws.
That way of thinking is seriously mistaken. Our country needs you to uphold the laws of war because when you don’t, you undermine our war aims. As clichéd as it sounds, successful counterinsurgency really does depend on winning the hearts and minds of the citizens under occupation.
The contemporary laws of war reflect ancient traditions of military chivalry and humanity shared among most of the world’s religions and cultures. And they’re not some foreign imposition on our national ethic, they’re logical expressions of it.
Further, the laws of war have been affirmed in international treaties signed by U.S. presidents and ratified by Congress, and thus have the full force of federal law under our Constitution. Not even the president can ignore or unilaterally override those treaties, a point reinforced by the Supreme Court in its June 29 decision, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Humane treatment of all enemy combatants is your legal obligation, even when some of those enemies don’t reciprocate.
Be mindful of the dark reaches of human nature. The fact that hundreds of unarmed people were massacred at My Lai in 1968 is well-known. But some important details are often forgotten: Some U.S. soldiers of Charlie Company not only killed unarmed villagers with enthusiasm, but also raped and mutilated their victims; others killed without emotion, as if shooting infants and old people were just like any other task they might be asked to accomplish; and still others went on killing even though they clearly felt anguished and sickened by it.
I’m not persuaded that any particular atrocities alleged against our troops in Iraq or Afghanistan resemble My Lai to any great extent. And I’m quite sure that our military leadership and the character and training of our average soldier are much better on the whole today than they were in 1968. But I’m absolutely convinced that we need to remind ourselves again and again what My Lai tells us about human nature.
There will always be a small portion of human society that is deeply sadistic or sociopathic. The military will continually need to screen out such people from its recruit pool and discharge any who get through that screen before they’re deployed. Perhaps we need to redouble our efforts here, to avoid sacrificing the quality of our troops in order to meet numerical recruiting objectives.
But it’s vitally important to recognize that atrocities are not committed by sadistic people only. Almost all of us are capable of barbarism. Even our most admirable soldiers — ones who would courageously give their lives for their buddies without hesitation, ones you’d gladly trust to baby-sit your kids — can be transformed into indiscriminate killers.
Our tendencies to obey authority figures and be team players can unfortunately drown out the soft voice of our conscience if we’re not alert to that risk. Those tendencies are deeply rooted in our nature as a species. Commanders ignore them at their peril.
In the 1960s, Yale psychology professor Stanley Milgram conducted a series of famous experiments in which people were led to believe that they were taking part in a study of the effects of punishment on learning. In fact they were being tested to see how many increasingly strong electric shocks they would inflict on a total stranger, simply because a skinny man in a white coat told them, “The experiment requires that you continue.” (See Milgram’s fascinating book, “Obedience to Authority.”)
As you can imagine, Milgram’s experimental subjects differed from the soldiers at My Lai in many ways. Most of his subjects were older. They were not encouraged to hate the person receiving the shocks and had no prior reason to resent him. They were given no special training to inculcate a habit of strict obedience. The man leading the experiment would have seemed much less authoritative than a military officer. And there were no penalties for refusing to obey particular commands or even quitting the whole experiment, unlike the threat of court-martial for disobedience in combat.
But these differences make it all the more puzzling as to why most of Milgram’s subjects obeyed completely.
Milgram warns us not to infer from his experiments that most people, deep down, are really sadistic or cruel. In fact, one of his experiments showed that when people were allowed to choose the level of shock to administer, they overwhelmingly used only very light shocks. But Milgram’s studies are disturbing in showing that most people tend to obey authority figures even when asked to do something that deeply violates their conscience. This is something we ought to find profound and disturbing, because it suggests any one of us might have behaved like the soldiers at My Lai who mowed down unarmed people in obedience to direct orders from their superior officers.
Sometimes even our best moral emotions can get us into serious trouble. I can vividly imagine what soldiers feel seeing close friends killed and maimed by unseen enemies, day after day. But there’s a fine line between legitimate moral outrage and blind, indiscriminate rage. We need to retain a valid sense of moral injustice but stop ourselves from lashing out in frustration against innocent people.
Avoid reinforcing a belief among your troops that every inhabitant of an insurgent stronghold is guilty of aiding the insurgents, i.e., that no one is a non-combatant. Small children, at least, are always innocent, even if nobody else is. And adults who might sympathize with our side are sometimes threatened by the insurgents with death if they assist our forces. In any case, no soldier is authorized to be judge, jury and executioner of suspected insurgent sympathizers.
We also need to guard against the moral equivalent of negligent homicide of non-combatants. Commanders must take care to avoid issuing rules of engagement permitting soldiers to clear a dwelling with grenades or blind weapon firing with no prior indication that combatants are present there. In the wake of Hadithah, some troops have claimed that such ROE existed.
Briefing your troops on core values is important. They need to see you take ownership of high ethical standards, that you’re not simply parroting the party line. Hypothetical and practical scenarios can be useful in teasing out the proper and improper applications of ethical principles and legal obligations. Realistic exercises are even more effective in eliciting the kinds of emotional states that can make atrocities likely. Those experiences can then be the subject of reflection and discussion during after-action reviews. To quote a wise Army colonel who spoke at the Naval War College in 2003, train your troops “until they know what the right thing to do feels like.”
Most important, keep a close eye on their attitudes, emotional states and stress levels — before, during and after raids and patrols. Ideally, teach your soldiers to carefully monitor their own emotions and attitudes, and those of their buddies, to look for warning signs of moral fatigue that can lead even decent people to commit atrocities: verbal expressions of indiscriminate rage, callous indifference to the deaths of civilians, unusually aggressive behavior, sullen withdrawal and so on.
Finally, even the clearest code of ethics and the most thorough training programs can be undermined by the wrong objectives, incentives and pressures set by organizational leaders. For example, if you tell military subordinates that your overriding priority is getting actionable intelligence about the enemy — and especially if you add that you don’t want to hear any hand-wringing about “quaint” or “obsolete” laws or ethics — don’t be surprised if your people come up with very creative ways to make you happy, things that even they might be embarrassed or ashamed to do in public. Part of being a responsible, accountable commander is providing clear guidance and then monitoring how your subordinates achieve your objectives.
Chivalry and humanity in war conduct, even in counterinsurgency, are neither dead nor obsolete. We still need warriors who are effective in employing deadly force and are merciful captors, tough soldiers who will show mercy to the defenseless every time.