Forget religion, it’s the army that sets moral standards?!

The former head of the British Army is offering us a ‘way forward for rebuilding a society based on values and virtues’, according to Elizabeth Hunter, director of Theos. 

In his lecture to the ‘think tank’ (I put it in quotes since very little thinking seems to have taken place), General Dannatt says ‘[Soldiers] must be able to extract information from captured enemy forces in a timely manner to avoid future loss of life, but they must do so within the rule of law; they must be able to kill and show compassion at the same time…’

Who knew torturing and killing could ‘set an example to the wider society’ on the ‘importance of moral and ethical standards.’ Thanks but no thanks!

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  1. I kinda see what he’s trying to say in the quoted bit. The military often engages in all sorts of violence and actions that would be deemed immoral in any other context and it’s very mission requires (and would be more efficient) evil. But because of our commitment to humanity we limit ourselves and show compassion even to those we must kill.

    Which is noble unless you have any kind of moral compass.

  2. Who knew torturing and killing could ‘set an example to the wider society’ on the ‘importance of moral and ethical standards.’

    Oh well, you are a bit too harsh to your general. Basically, he meant “do what has to be done, but obey the law and don’t lose your humanity”. Since on this reading it concerns all of us (not just soldiers), the stricture can be treated as a common standard. Hardly a discovery and I find it rather difficult to quarrel with that. If the army really tries to introduce such a standard and to become a moral example in this respect, I can only wish them good luck (admittedly, with a good dose of skepticism about their success). And that’s it.

    • But that’s what, at least to me, makes this all such a joke. The military’s tradition of ‘do what must be done’ is a rationalization used to excuse the otherwise indefensible lengths they go to to accomplish whatever task they are given or (in many cases) silence dissent within ranks. There’s nothing there worth emulating and it’s such a vacuous piece of advice why would anyone listen to it?

      General Dannatt isn’t offering anything. There’s no standard or example to follow. It’s almost as empty as saying ‘be nice but firm.’

      • ‘[Soldiers] must be able to extract information from captured enemy forces in a timely manner to avoid future loss of life, but they must do so within the rule of law;’
        In fact, General Dannat is saying soldiers must not use torture here.
        It was probably inspired by the British army’s use of torture in Iraq, which he has criticised elsewhere. He was speaking in a context where- or so he believes- recruits to the army have to be taught that torture is wrong.

  3. Come on now.

    It is actually quite admirable that any top commander of a military these days would take a moral compass reading to at least minimize the inevitable inhumanity that any kind of military operation involving violence must include.

    To meet your apparent standard, one would have to end violence and militarism completely, which, while being a nice idea, is not at all a reasonable goal in today’s world.

    To get any civilized person to commit the kinds of acts required of your typical combatant, one must at the very least, dehumanize one’s opponent to make him/her less than human, just to minimize the psychological damage done to the perpetrator. It is well known today that violence has a terrible affect on people who commit the acts of violence. We used to just tell them to buck up and “act like a man”, but today’s military, at least in the US, is getting a bit smarter about how that damage can cripple someone. The more we can minimize the violence allowed and the more we can control our own people in combat, the better we can deal with the inevitable issues our own people will suffer later.

    Not to mention that fewer acts of violence against those we fight can at the very least lessen the hard feelings such violence engenders. It is one thing to try to make peace with someone you’ve fought when you’ve only killed their own legitimate combatants – it is quite another when you’ve allowed your people to indiscriminately commit violence against women and children. (not going to go to where we talk about the inevitable mistakes and “misses” that kill unintentionally, ok? That is another conversation.)

    Since there is almost no chance that we will ever see “peace in our time”, I’ll take any attempt by military authorities to lessen the violence that military operations cause as a good thing which should be encouraged, not denigrated.

    • Wouldn’t it be better to say ‘non-combatants’ rather than ‘women & children’? After all women can certainly fight and depending where you draw the line between child & adult, children could too and there’s doubtless men who don’t fight as well.

  4. This is odious.

    “In past generations, certainly in this country, it was often assumed that young men and women coming into the Armed Forces would have absorbed an understanding of the core values and standards of behaviour required by the military from their family or from within their wider community,” he told the Theos think-tank annual lecture.
    “Indeed, such standards would have typified our society more generally. I would suggest such a presumption cannot be made today.”

    Notice that he doesn’t cite a specific era, but rather uses the vague “in past generations” to evoke a time of better families. And he counters that by “suggesting” that kids today haven’t been brought up right. How does this pass for meaningful discourse?

  5. Actually, that sounds more like a criticism based on a belief that modern kids aren’t being brought up in religious households like they “used to be”. I’ve heard that from numerous christian sources in this country, just in more explicit language, usually.

  6. My grandfather, eventually a Command Sergeant Major in the US Army, told me exactly one serious story about his various combat duties: entering Buchenwald on the day Third Army liberated the camp. After describing the horrors he’d seen, he told me that there are lots of causes worth dying for, and that the list of causes worth killing for was much, much smaller, but perhaps even more important.

    The first and largest USA governmental racial integration was through the armed forces, and the Korean War led many Americans, my grandfather among them, to shake off much of their racial prejudices in favor judging people by on their competence at doing their job, a rather selfish way of judging when a comrade’s competence might mean life or death for yourself. Selfish or not, I know plenty of people who have the CIB with two or three stars who thought DADT was complete and utter crap.

    Every combat soldier I’ve ever known repudiates torture, as does every SERE instructor I’ve ever met.

    To say that there are systemic moral problems, both in the civilian directives to our armed forces and within the execution of those directives by our armed forces is true. As a former interrogator from Vietnam once said, “Any time you give a 19 year old kid a rifle and put his life on the line you create a policy maker.”

    The prevalence of moral failures within and without the military does not mean moral lessons from military personnel are untrue simply because they military personnel. Violence, or the threat of violence, has been, and most likely will continue to be, a fact of life, and our moral sense must encompass the possibilities of violence. Being at risk for your life, or facing the possibility of taking another life, are situations that call for serious moral consideration. I do not think they are being given sufficient consideration, either by our military or our politicians, who are mostly divorced from the reality of combat, but thinking that there is nothing to be learned from those actually involved in violence is a mistake.

    • “My grandfather…told me that there are lots of causes worth dying for, and that the list of causes worth killing for was much, much smaller, but perhaps even more important.”

      I’d say your grandfather was a wise man. You must very proud of him.

      “Every combat soldier I’ve ever known repudiates torture, as does every SERE instructor I’ve ever met.”

      That may be the case, but I’m sure you’d agree this is certainly not representative of all military personnel from all military organizations worldwide.
      Some armies simply do not give a damn if their troops commit atrocities or not, while others actively encourage it as a tool of war.
      While individual troops may carry a sense of values with them into combat, those values were a part of them long before they put on the uniform.
      Combat merely provides the venue by which men and women may test:
      A) those values they carried in with them
      B) the commitment of the top brass to following the rules of war
      It’s those armies that vigorously enforce the rules and punish their contravention that behave the best. It might take ethics to originate those rules/laws, but not to maintain them. Once ethics become codified into laws, morals and values become a secondary consideration to “What can I get away with?”…

  7. Compassionate killing. I’m not sure that the idea that the guy who killed me had compassion for me would really be much comfort as I bleed to death on the ground.

    I would have thought that if you’ve got to kill people compassion would be the last thing you’d need.

    • Hi marella,

      “I would have thought that if you’ve got to kill people compassion would be the last thing you’d need.”

      You are right. This is where the individual troop needs to compartmentalize. There IS a whole lot of compassion involved…for the man on either side of you. Compassion, love, brotherhood. In a firefight, the guys you’re trying to kill (and who are trying to kill you) aren’t fully people…at least not at that moment. If you were to give their humanity any thought, you’d hesitate. You’d become combat ineffective.

      • There IS a whole lot of compassion involved…for the man on either side of you. Compassion, love, brotherhood.

        Right up until they drag you behind the tree line and beat you to their heart’s content.

        Save the moto bullshit. There is no brotherhood. It’s more ‘well I’m fucking stuck with you shits. Might as well make the most of it.’

        • You are quite wrong about this. I’m a combat veteran with considerable experience (Google ‘CIB’, I have two of them). I’m also about as much of a flaming liberal peacenik as you will ever find, largely because of this experience. Still, I am closer in some ways to the men I fought with than any other human beings, for reasons that I can’t really explain to anyone who doesn’t have the context to understand. War is an obscenity, and trying to civilize it is a profound waste of time. TR was right, the best thing to do is talk softly but carry that big stick. If the stick has to be used, use it to maximum effect and without any hesitation. Compassion can begin once the fight is over. Any other approach is noble, but misdirected and will just prolong everyone’s suffering.

  8. “Who knew torturing and killing could ‘set an example to the wider society’ on the ‘importance of moral and ethical standards.”
    Former military and former private military/security contractor here. The military may be able to give instruction on leadership and honor, but ethics? I could carry away just as much ethics from a cosmetology school.
    The ability to kill an enemy with no remorse one moment and then interview prisoners according to the rule of law the next involves just as much cognitive dissonance (if not more) as ethics. More importantly, let us not forget the deterrent factor of knowing what will happen if you are caught behaving badly.
    The certainty of punishment is a great deterrence to behaving in a criminal or unethical manner in a combat theater. Those military organizations that have demonstrated a commitment to consistently investigate and prosecute violations of the rules of war have troops that are better behaved. Funny how it works that way. :-)

  9. “…a ‘way forward for rebuilding a society based on values and virtues”

    But who said society needs rebuilding? and who decides the model?
    The army? I think not! There’s not much moral guidance to be had from people whose job is to kill other people because that’s what they are ordered to do; especially when those people have volunteered for this line of work.

  10. Defining Western military as “torturing and killing” is an insult to men who have served honorably and their families, also unlike you’ve they’ve actually made a impact against tyranny