Morality and war: the cost of dehumanization

By Katharine Cornish

Around this time last year, Private Andrew Holmes pleaded guilty to murdering an Afghan teenager. He was the second to plead guilty after Jeremy Morlock was sentenced to 24 years in prison on counts of murder, conspiracy, illegal drug use, and obstruction of justice in March of last year. The case, involving five American soldiers, brought to the forefront concerns of moral decay within the US military.

Recently, King’s own David Fisher launched the paperback version of his book entitled “Morality and war: can war be just in the twenty-first century?”  A response to the recent spike in military scandals, Professor Fisher uses just war theory to assert a pressing need for renewed morality in the military.

I attended the launch and found myself struck by one key question: why do we need to train officers in morality when a legal framework dictating their behaviour already exists? Certainly all Western military officers are trained in the tenants of international humanitarian law, with the Geneva Conventions setting out clear parameters for the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war. In contrast to the subjective nature of morality, international humanitarian law seems to provide a clear-cut guide of do’s and don’ts, which can be taught and memorized like any other drill. With military courts prepared to punish and hold officers accountable, isn’t this legal framework enough?

Engaging in combat requires a departure from Western social norms. The battlefield serves as a unique place, where killing a fellow human being becomes justified in the context of war. So how do young soldiers overcome their moral upbringings and detach these feelings from violence in war? Just war theory would teach us that sometimes violence is necessary to protect innocent civilians, state citizens, and defend important values like justice. But war always involves the threat of an enemy, and dehumanizing that enemy ensures that soldiers do not find themselves conflicted – having to reconcile entrenched respect for human life and a mission to kill during a critical moment of combat.

Perhaps it is this method of conditioning soldiers to dehumanize their enemy that is at the core of the trend we’ve observed since Iraq. In attempting to produce disciplined soldiers ready to kill the enemy, the result has been Frankenstein’s army – a new wave of soldiers capable of shocking cruelty and brutality, perhaps demonstrated most vividly in Abu Ghraib. But it is not the first time we have seen this, the My Lai massacre proved long ago how dehumanizing the enemy lends itself to brutality, as American troops murdered hundreds of unarmed civilians in Vietnam.  In both cases, the result was public uproar and a soiled reputation, doing little to advance any justified cause.

Is it possible then to create an army of moral individuals prepared to kill in a justified war? Clearly, Western armies possess large numbers of people who, whether for moral reasons or fear of consequence in court, retain violence for appropriate situations in war. However, the war crimes carried out by Western forces over the last decade cannot be ignored. Thus, while I support Professor Fisher’s revival of just war, I think we must consider the impact of dehumanization training on military moral decay.

Dehumanization is a dangerous tool. It has been successfully used to provoke genocide, as seen in Rwanda and against the Jews during the Second World War. Feeding on strong emotions of hatred and anger, faced with such conditioning, ethics and reason are easily thrown to the wayside. As long as a military culture of dehumanization persists, Professor Fisher’s virtues of justice, practical wisdom, courage, and self-control will remain hopeful ideals and human rights violations will continue to blemish Western wars.

Katharine Cornish is an MA candidate in the Conflict, Security, and Development programme. She is currently on leave from the Canadian International Development Agency, where she managed development projects in Sudan and South Sudan.

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