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Nancy Sherman

Nancy Sherman is a Distinguished University Professor in the Philosophy Department of Georgetown University. She received her BA from Bryn Mawr College, her PhD from Harvard, and her MLitt from[…]

From the Iliad to Afghanistan, the field of military ethics has tried—not always successfully—to impose rules on the chaos of mass slaughter.

Question:  How did military ethics become a fieldrnof serious inquiry?

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Nancy Sherman: Ifrnyou think about the history and its introduction into the military rnacademies,rnit often is indexed or linked to a cheating scandal.  Andrn that was certainly the case of the Naval academy when Irnwas brought in, in the mid-‘90s. rnThey had taught psychology of leadership and also the law of war,rn orrnthe law of the high seas, that sort of thing, but they didn’t teach rnmilitaryrnethics until they had a massive electrical engineering cheating scandal.  And the same, I believe with WestrnPoint, and I thinking 1959, the Air Force probably was ahead of the rncurve andrndid it, I think without provocation. 

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But it’s a relatively new field in the way that thern ethicsrnof, these applied ethics are sort of business of law.  Oftenrn they come about when there’s a problem and theyrnrealize that some of us who have been teaching ethics for the longest rntime andrnteach these general issues even though they might not be specifically rnappliedrnto a kind of profession.  But it’srnas old—the topic is as old as the ancients.  If rnyou think about it, in the Iliad, Achilles drags aroundrnHector’s body seven times around, desecrating it in revenge, wild rnrevenge forrnthe death of his buddy, Achilles’ buddy, Patroclus.  Andrn Homer says finally, he breaks down and says, “Even therngods cannot sit by quietly and watch this.”  And rnthey protect the face of this desecrated body so that inrnfact, because if the gods watch, it’s never really desecrated.  So there’s this important sense of thernugliness of revenge.  Maybe it’s arncombat motivator, maybe it’s fire in the belly that adrenalizes, we rnwould say,rnbut it’s got its really ugly side. 

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And so the Stoics come in later as a comment on thernancients, they themselves, like second century, before the common era, rnthe secondrncentury after, and say, you ancients, including Plato and Aristotle, butrn beforernthat Homer and his warrior tradition gave carte blanche, you might say, rnopenrnticket to revenge, but revenge knows no limits, knows no excess.  So, event he warrior ought not to havernit.  Do it for its own sake.  Fightrn in there because the cause isrnright, or because you believe in the cause, not for the sake of payback,rnbecause you won’t be able to control the revenge.  Oncern it’s out of the gate, the game is over. 

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So, it’s been around for a long time and that givesrn you arnsense of... it’s been around as a worry about the inward war, not just rnwhat you’rerndoing to other people and whether your conduct is good, but how you can rncontrolrnyour own inner motives.  So, that’srnwhat I’m fascinated by, it’s not just the limits of just war.  That’s been also a tradition since thernmedieval... since the Crusades.  Howrndoes a king get his, or the church get his Army going and have them not rnhavernmassacres?  And how do theyrnseparate the people that are legitimate targets from those who aren’trnlegitimate targets?  Are therncivilians, or the folks that aren’t knights in armors, are the rnlegitimate?  No, they’re not legitimate.  But there’s always been rape, pillage,rnand plunder.  In the middle ages,rnit became a cause célèbre.  Let’srnwrite rules for the church so they know how to fight.  Sorn that’s been about justification.  When can you gorn to war and how does thernhonorable, chivalrous soldier fight well? 

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What there has been very little discussion of is rnwhat goesrnon in the head of the soldier and how do they conduct the moral debate rnin sidernand live with the moral difficulties and quandaries.  Andrn that’s sort of what I’ve been interested in, and it’s inrnthe border between philosophy, that's worried about justification of rnwars, justrncauses, and just conduct.  Andrnpsychology that’s worried about what goes on in the privacy of a rnclinician’srnoffice and the unloading of the trauma.Between rnthose two goals, there’s a huge area about the moralrnpsychology in the inner psyche of the soldier.

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Question: Is there somerntruth to the idea that "all’s fair" in war?

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Nancy Sherman:  There’srn a real sense that all’s fair inrnlove and war, you know, and that all the rules are off.  Butrn since the Middle Ages and thernformulation of just war, however abstractly, the idea has been that rnthere arernrules of permissibility.  Both forrnthose in charge of declaring war, what counts as a reasonable cause, a rnjustrncause, a justification for going to war, and aggressing or defendingrnyourself.  And also for how thernsoldier conducts herself, or himself, justly, honorably. 

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So, there’s that, and then there’s the reality of rnit, as yournsay, and the concrete cases.  So,rnright now, we, with the surge in Afghanistan, are dealing with, or rnshould berndealing with the real heavy moral implications of the nature of thernfighting.  So, General McChrystalrnhas made it very clear that there will be tight rules of engagement on rntherntroops, the 100,000 troops that will be fully deployed in Afghanistan.  And those troops will not be able to—ifrnthey’re mingled civilian and insurgents, the troops need to put thernpreponderance of risk upon themselves and take additional risk rather rnthan riskrnthe lives of civilians, unless the unit is being overrun, and we’ve sentrn thatrnthat is not full proof.   InrnMarsiya, there were 12 killings, there have been drones that have killedrncivilians, and now the Special Forces are under the same tight rnrestrictions,rnso, unified command. 

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Now the way that—you have to think about that, how rndoes thatrnplay out on the troops?  Well wernknow a lot of the grunts, the ground troops, are grumbling bitterly on rnfightingrnwith one hand tied behind my back while they get all the advantage rnbecause theyrncan shield their innocence in... They shield their insurgents in rncivilian populations and then I as arncombat troop have to restrict my fire. rnSo, you have to say, are they risking troops at the cost of rnsaving therncivilians in Afghanistan and some will say that.  Andrn we’ll say, oh, it’s just a political ploy.  We rnneed to buy the hearts and minds ofrnthe population.  But I think itrnalso is protecting the hearts and minds of our own soldiers, and that’s rnthernmilitary ethics really made concrete. 

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The soldiers I have spoken to who have been rninvolved inrncivilian casualties, that’s an awful term, collateral damage.  It makes it—it’s so euphemistic.  Butrn it means not just accidentalrnkillings of civilians, it’s where you foresee that it might happen, but rnyourndon’t intend it.  The civilians arernin the periphery of the target area and it’s an important enough target rnthatrnyou go for it.  In cases likerncheckpoint incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq where this has happened, rnandrnespecially if the civilian is a child. rnThe Marines that I’ve talked to just decompensate almost, they rnfeel sornawful about killing a vulnerable child; it’s like the mythic child that rnhasrnbeen killed.  And if you thinkrnabout it, here they are in a place on the Helmand Province we are rnfighting inrnAfghanistan, and they are there not only to be fighters, but they’re rnpoliceman,rnthey’re community organizers, they’re building a city in a box.  They’re building civic order in a box. rn And that’s how it’s been phrased.  And rnthey’re the savior in a sense,rnthey’re bringing order.  Andrnthere’s a lot of idealism about them, but also the sheer reality of rnwhat’srnhappening.  And when they can’t dornthat and they fail miserably in the sense of see a kid killed in the rnmidst ofrnthat operation, I think that really, really plays hard. 

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So, I think the restrictions which come from high rnup and arernimposed through the chain low down by a commander that has to work rnreally hardrnto restrain his troops and restrain the fire force, the fire power rnthat’s usedrnare protecting the hearts and minds of our own soldiers. rn They’re reasonable moralrnrestraints.  Not just to buy thernhearts and minds of the country we’re in, but to preserve our own souls.