Soldiers of Conscience

On October 16, 2008 PBS will broadcast “Soldiers of Conscience,” a documentary on how soldiers wrestle with the moral issues surrounding the use of lethal force. PBS follows eight soldiers in the current conflict, some of whom chose to engage the enemy and some of whom refused. In its preview for the program, PBS makes what I consider to be a very true statement: all soldiers are “soldiers of conscience.”

I have not seen the program. I don’t know who these soldiers are, much less what we will learn about the specifics of their moral reasoning processes. Consequently, none of the comments that follow are a reaction to the specifics of the program or to the decisions made by any particular soldier. What I want to discuss is one particular phrase in PBS’ program promotion that started me thinking.

Soldiers, PBS says, are “torn between the demands of duty and the call of conscience.” Based on the theme of the program, one presumes “the demand of duty” is killing and the “call of conscience” is not killing.

This way of describing the issue is problematic on two fronts. First, it presents the issue as a conflict between external demands (“duty”) and an internal call (the voice of “conscience”). Doing one’s duty is also a matter of conscience; the word “duty” itself implies a moral “ought.” Failing to do one’s duty should give one an uneasy conscience. Duty and conscience are intimately related.

More significantly, what if – when you come face-to-face with an armed sociopath rampaging through the halls of a school or an insurgent about to bomb a marketplace – what if that voice in your head telling you not to pull the trigger is not the moral voice of conscience, but simply a programmed response that emerged over the long course of human biological evolution?

Based on their studies of battles from the 17th century onward, authors such as Dave Grossman (On Killing and On Combat) and S. L. A. Marshall (Men Against Fire) have made a convincing case that even “the man who can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat still has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that the will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility” (Marshall, quoted in Grossman, On Killing, p. 1). There is within the human psyche a nearly universal aversion to killing another human being.

Grossman builds on and expands Marshall’s work, examining modern warfare in a number of different cultural and technological settings. Wherever he looks, he finds the same patterns. In combat, soldiers face the choice to fight, flee, submit or posture (the same choices faced in the animal world). Historically, many of them have chosen to “posture” (to make fighting motions and noise in the hope of driving the enemy away) instead of actually attempting to kill the enemy.

In On Combat, Grossman subsumes this concept into his theory of the Universal Human Phobia . Interpersonal violence, Grossman says, makes a psychological impact on humans far out of proportion with the actual physical threat. Grossman believes both the fear of experiencing interpersonal violence and the reluctance to inflict it are related and universal, to be found in every age and culture.

Grossman’s findings support the idea that psychological resistance to killing (and the powerful related fear of violent conflict) is a hard-wired personality trait in the vast majority of human beings. It’s a good thing that it is. The human aversion to killing keeps the murder rate relatively low and facilitates living in community. While we may bemoan how common violence is within our world, we should probably be thankful that “thou shall not kill” is written on our genes. The daily violence in this world could be much worse! The vast majority of human beings go through life without being assaulted or murdered by their neighbors.

And while Christians will certainly want to say that this genetic programming is part of God’s common grace to us, scientists will want to answer the question, “How did the reluctance to kill come to be written on our DNA?” Grossman doesn’t answer this question, but the evolutionary advantage is obvious: populations with a biological impulse against killing were more likely to be successful than those with no biological aversion to murder. It’s hard to build a civilization when murder is as common as sunshine.

And if the universal aversion to committing or experiencing interpersonal violence is the result of biological evolution (or even the result of social programming), how can it be described as either moral or immoral? An inborn or conditioned psychological urge is not a moral mandate. Some people take it that way, though. Indeed, it is difficult to separate one’s genetic disposition from one’s moral reasoning. It’s very easy to confuse one’s dispositions with “the right” and develop moral arguments for what are essentially biological urges.

Of course people have made the same observation about the resort to war; it’s very easy to fancy up greed, vengeance, hatred or lust for power with moral language. “Duty” is one of those words that is sometimes abused.

Most soldiers experience the call of duty on multiple levels. Certainly, military authorities establish specified duties that a soldier must perform. Those in command can and do back up those demands with the threat of corrective actions and punishment. In this sense, “duty” is something imposed on a soldier from the outside. There is nothing inherently moral about this form of duty; it is up to those in positions of power to ensure that the duties they impose on others are shaped largely by moral considerations.

But soldiers also want, on a psychological level, to be a part of a team and to do what is right. The “team” aspect is very significant for soldiers. It is very true that in the midst of combat that soldiers are often motivated more by the fear of letting their buddies down than by abstract moral reasoning. Perhaps “loyalty” is a better word for this phenomenon than “duty,” but many soldiers would go further than that. Soldiers, they believer, have a moral obligation that soldiers have to support and defend the men and women with whom they risk their lives. In the midst of the battle, soldiers fight for their brothers and sisters in arms and don’t think much about the underlying moral foundation of the fight. But that doesn’t mean they don’t think about such things at all. They do.

For soldiers, duty exists at all three levels. There is a legal duty to the institution, but there is also duty to the members of the team and moral duty to do what is right. As I have often written before, most of the soldiers I know want to make a positive difference in the world by their actions. They want their sacrifices to count for something. In this sense, “duty” is not some arbitrary action imposed by an all-too-human authority figure. Rather, “duty” is what conscience demands.

For soldiers, the demands of duty (in the proper sense) and the call of conscience are ultimately one in the same. Biological or socially formed urges to shrink from combat are no more moral in themselves than the urge to kill. A truly moral conscience – and not one simply formed by the forces of nature and society – must reflect what is most truly right in any situation. That which is right is our duty – no matter how uncomfortable it might make us. When the use of force is right, it would be wrong not to use it.

That doesn’t mean that the act of killing isn’t painful and regrettable for many – perhaps most – soldiers, even when it is morally necessary. I hope that Christian soldiers always recognizes that the use of lethal force – even when justifiable – is something less than God intended for creation. Soldiers cannot confuse their unease or discomfort, however, with the demands of duty or the call of conscience.

Even when the use of force is justified, soldiers always pay the price of acting in a manner contrary to millennia of beneficial biological and social evolution. In On Killing, Grossman describes many of the high psychological costs associated with lethal combat. That’s just one more reason that when we send soldiers to use lethal force in our name, we’d better make sure that it’s worth the price.