What moral obligation do soldiers have in war? This is a tricky question, and one which I considered more than once during my fifteen years in uniform. There are many perspectives, and some are equally valid even in diametric opposition to one another. But is there a single, undeniable answer that applies to all? Is there a fundamental truth behind the morality of war?
I was inspired to consider this question once again after I received some feedback from a reader. There is currently an online contest underway which involves my novel Virtues of War, and one of the questions the participants are asked is this: Which of the four main characters is your favourite and why? The answers given have no bearing on the contest itself; they’re just part of the fun of allowing readers to put in their two cents on the book and many have answered with colour and enthusiasm.
But as I read through the latest answers the other day one response really stuck with me. This was the answer:
“I suppose my favourite character amongst the 4 main characters is Jack Mallory. He’s willing to commit mass murder of civilians, but at least he’s not a completely psycho killing machine, or a sleazy climber, like the other 3 are.”
Mass muder of civilians by Jack? Another character a psycho killing machine? Are you sure you read Virtues of War, lady? I was taken aback by the response. But I was also fascinated. The reaction of this reader wasn’t at all what I’d intended, but it was certainly a possible result of the story I told. Jack doesn’t personally engage in mass murder of civilians, but he is a soldier in a campaign of warfare and terror that without question does result in significant civilian casualties. And so I asked myself the Big Question: what is Jack’s moral obligation in the war in which he served?
Some context. On one hand, Jack is a volunteer in his military, so he could never claim that he was forced to join an organization he opposed; Jack is also an officer, and would traditionally be held to a higher standard of conduct and responsibility. On the other hand, though, Jack is very young – twenty-two – and is on his first operational deployment with no prior experience to call upon; Jack is also a very junior officer, and not really in a position to made strategic decisions on the conduct of the war.
So does Jack have a moral obligation to oppose any military conduct which he feels is unethical or immoral? Some would argue, without hesitation or doubt, yes. In the Canadian Forces which I served, it was made very clear to us that we were obliged to follow orders, unless we were given an immoral order. A common example we were given was being ordered to shoot unarmed prisoners. Another was being ordered to kill non-combatant civilians. It seemed pretty clear-cut in the classroom. It isn’t always so in reality.
Another viewpoint is to accept the fact that soldiers will kill each other in battle – that’s what war is, after all – but that to kill civilians is morally unacceptable. This was very clear-cut in warfare centuries ago, when lines of redcoats would form up against lines of bluecoats and blast away at each other while the landed gentry looked on from their picnics on the hill. But this changed in the twentieth century when the entire nation became involved in the war effort and to bomb civilian factories was seen as justifiable in order to weaken the enemy combatant. And in the twenty-first century, when wars are rarely if ever fought between professional armies but rather between armies and “irregulars” – be they terrorists, freedom fighters or both – it can be nearly impossible to know who the enemy is.
Some more context. Jack is captured by civilians while delivering humanitarian aid, watches as one of his colleagues is killed and then is beaten nearly to death himself. The result for Jack is permanent disfigurement and emotional suffering. When Jack is rescued and civilian mobs outside begin to threaten his rescuers, should Jack have spoken up from his stretcher and protested against the orbital bombardment that destroyed a city block and killed hundreds?
Tough question. Were the civilian mobs the enemy? What was their real intent and, just as significantly, why had they formed into an angry mob in the first place? What was the greater context into which Jack entered? And was his military justified in harming civilians because it was the civilians who had struck first?
Compare this fictional situation to any number of real-world scenarios today. Because it’s fiction it can be easier to choose sides. But in the real world, with very few exceptions, the actions of men and women in warfare – whether they’re uniformed military or active civilians – are a result of a complex web of motivations, beliefs and circumstances. For an outside observer to state a simple, black and white answer is insulting and patronizing to those involved. No situation in war is simple or black and white, and the raw, emotional power that can seize those thrust into life and death circumstances can’t always be countered by a lofty principle or philosophy.
Believe me, I wish it could.
Civilian photo – image source – Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Soldier photo – image source – New York Post
Recent Bennett R. Coles Articles:
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part 4 – The traditional industry: the bookstores (and distributors)
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part III – The Traditional Industry: The Publishers
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part II – Making sense of the lingo
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part I – Author Motivations
- Star Wars: The Next Generation