Exuberance and repulsion

by December 24, 2010

"Corpsman In Anguish", photographed by Catherine Leroy (LIFE Magazine, 1967)

Since the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, much mental effort has been spent on the justification of war. This effort has most often revolved around the medieval theory of “just war”, and its appealingly Latin-termed sub-topics jus ad bellum (the right to wage war) and jus in bello (the nature of acceptable conduct in war). A powerful but unstated rationale for grappling with these questions is that finding a convincing answer will give us the ability to wage at least some wars (the just ones) with clear consciences.

In a recent essay, Georgetown University philosopher and ethicist Nancy Sherman disagrees with this rationale. She argues that the moral dilemmas of soldiering, or, more broadly, of serving in a war, cannot be dispatched with just war philosophizing, nor can they be fenced in safely as pathologies subject to “fixing” by psychologists.

The guiding idea [of my work] goes back to Aristotle. “Discernment rests in perception,” says Aristotle, by which he means that we understand the moral demands of a situation by immersion in the details of the case. For the individual soldiers I have talked to, what is at stake is not so much a judgment about what to do, but, typically, a judgment about how to understand what has been done, and how to understand it now, once off the battlefield and outside the war zone.

One of the more compelling stories I heard was from a former Army interrogator who had been at Abu Ghraib as part of the “clean-up” act, a year after the torture scandal. This young interrogator had not engaged in torture or “enhanced” interrogation techniques: he did not subject detainees to waterboarding, or prolonged stress positions, or extreme sleep or sensory deprivation. Still, what he did do did not sit well with his civilian sensibilities. In one case, he showed a resistant detainee who had been stonewalling him in interrogation sessions a disturbing picture of a family member who had just been killed by a rival insurgent group in a bombing. The detainee broke down and after months of silence, finally started to talk. After the session, the interrogator walked out of the cell and chuckled to himself: “That finally got him to talk.” That sense of exuberance at getting another to become so vulnerable felt morally repulsive to him now.

Read the rest of the essay here, and more on Sherman’s thinking on this subject in her 2010 book, The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds and Souls of our Soldiers (excerpt here).