About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Training soldiers on “core warrior values”?

As most people who are paying any attention know, the US military in Iraq is about the get entangled in yet another scandal, this time much worse than the mistreatment of prisoners. It's beginning to look (though the proper investigations are far from complete) that a group of marines (yes, “the few, the proud”) back in November of '05 executed several Iraqi civilians, unarmed and opposing no resistance, because the soldiers lost their nerve after a bomb attack on their convoy.

As a preemptive measure against the repeat of such instances in the future (or is it perhaps a not-so-clever public relations maneuver?), Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli today ordered all sub-commanders stationed in Iraq to give their troops training in “core warrior values,” to emphasize the importance of “legal, moral and ethical standards on the battlefield.” I guess killing unarmed civilians isn't a core warrior value, though it has in fact been regular practice since the Peloponnesian War.

The issue, in part, is weather the words “moral” and “war” may in fact be used in the same sentence without fear of oxymoronic contradiction. I am not a pacifist, as I believe in the possibility of just wars within exceedingly restrictive circumstances (much more restricted than those encompassed by the ever-shifting “justifications” given by the Bush administration for the mess they are making in Iraq). However, as the saying goes, all is fair in love and war, no? War is by definition the abandonment of civil way of resolving disputes, it is sheer might trumping over whatever rights there may be. Especially when troops face a guerrilla war, rather than a clearly defined enemy that they can defeat in open combat, civilians do (logically, though not justly) become targets, since it is (some) civilians who are engaging the invading army. Indeed, it was precisely when the Peloponnesian war became guerrilla rather than pitched battle that attacks against civilian populations became increasingly frequent and accepted.

There is another angle, of course, which is that neither the US army, nor Bush have a trustworthy record when it comes to “legal, moral, and ethical standards.” The army has committed atrocities in, for example, World War II (the bombing of Dresden, at the center of Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse Five) and, of course, Vietnam (dropping napalm on undefended villages). Why should we trust them to change their behavior now? As for Bush, who today actually had the gall to say “One of the things that happens in a transparent society like ours is that there will be a full and complete investigation,” someone should remind him that we are still waiting for the firing of Donald Rumsfeld in conjunction with the Abu-Grahib prison abuses, not to mention the dismissal of Dick Cheney and the resignations of Bush on the ground of lying about WMD to get us into a war. Then again, Chiarelli said that the troops needed ethical training, he never mentioned the commander in chief and his close associates.


  1. I suppose its a (rather transparent) attempt by the US military to put a spin on the teaching of basic humanitarian values without seeming soppy and 'liberal' to the American people and military men. I get the impression that to large sections of the US population anything subtle and/or suggestive of any kind of 'softness' (as opposed to 'tough' and 'patriotic') appears to amount to defeat - even where subtlety and soft, even dare I say it, yielding tactics would be more successful in the long run.

  2. The thought of this administration teaching any kind of values to anyone is frightening. This reminds me of the recent episode where one bunch of White House mental defectives was dispatched to teach another bunch of White House mental defectives all they knew about ethics.

    As Massimo said, in effect, war brings out the worst in men. When the war is unjustified and is being conducted by a totally immoral person like George Bush we can expect to see bad things happening on the battlefield. Like the old saying goes "shit rolls downhill."

  3. Many bad things hapen during war, sometimes the result of strategic decisions, sometimes for tactical reasons, and so on down the chain.

    Nevertheless rules of engagement are usually in place. And in some instances, like this latest in Iraq, it may make sense to say "was this preventable?" I think it probably was. If so, the training in "core warrior values" may actually do some good. Sure there is lots of room for cynicism. But let's be thankful for small mercies.


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