Sunday Sermon: Shooting Back

(Content Warning: war, death)

I’m going to begin today’s sermon with a transcript from a podcast I recently heard. It’s David Wood, speaking at Politics and Prose on “What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars.” Wood’s view is that wars can cause “Moral Injury” – a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder to our sense of right and wrong. The bit that stuck in my mind, which I went back and replayed and bookmarked, was an example that he gave – an example that is very typical of the experiences of many soldiers:

I was telling the story about Nick Rudolph. So Nick’s a really nice marine, comes with a pretty intact sense of moral values. Gets in a firefight – a bad firefight that went on for hours and hours and hours and at one point the taliban were holed up in a farm compound surrounded by an adobe wall, and they were firing at the marines who were advancing trying to flush out the bad guys. And at one point, Nick sees someone coming around the corner of the building, shooting at him and his marines with a semiautomatic rifle, gets that person in his sights, and realizes that it’s a 12-year-old kid, and shoots him dead.

So, in that circumstance, it was the perfectly legal and tactically correct thing to do. There’s an enemy combatant taking you under lethal fire, you have the right to defend yourself, you can even say it was the morally correct thing to do because Nick is protecting himself and his marines. Remember, ‘take care of your buddy, no matter what!’ – even if it means killing a child? Yeah. So you can argue it was the morally correct thing to do. But he killed a child and that’s not OK and in Nick’s moral code you don’t kill children. And so Nick now is someone who goes forward into life with this bruise on his soul that doesn’t go away.

Here’s the problem: it’s maybe a “perfectly legal and tactically correct thing” to shoot some kid who tried to shoot you, but not when you’re part of an occupying military power.

Self-defense only applies when you are unquestionably under attack, which means you’ve got to be someplace you belong or have been invited to be. In the case of Afghanistan, knocking over one government and replacing it with your own, which then tries to dis-invite you (but you ignore) does not make you a guest resident. Going out on armed patrols into “enemy held territory” is turning things on its head: the armed patrol is an occupation force invading the places where people live and have lived for centuries. If they shoot at you, you are not morally OK if you shoot back – they’re trying to defend themselves against you and the patrol is doubling down on its aggression not defending itself.

Basically, the situation is this: imagine a bunch of criminals are robbing a bank. One of the customers in the store has a gun and decides to take a chance, pulls the gun, and shoots one of the criminals, who return a hail of fire obliterating the customers, tellers, and most of the bank’s lobby. We would probably say that the customer who shot the criminal was stupid, but that the criminals were the wrong-doers in the scenario. That’s pretty close to the scenario of a military occupation, except that in terms of warfare, we’d find the first customers’ actions completely acceptable (though unwise) if they were in uniform.

Now that I have led you deep into hostile territory, you've got to fight your way out. Psych!

Now that I have led you deep into hostile territory, you’ve got to fight your way out. Psych!

Why do we privilege war so much? If we contextualize it as any other criminal behavior, a lot of it makes sense: people show up and murder uninvolved people, then blame them for getting murdered.

There are many philosophers that are thinking about the morality of warfare, and – amazingly for philosophers – there seems to be pretty solid agreement that wars of aggression are immoral. After that, it all falls to pieces. Many seem to think (as I do!) that pre-emptive wars, as they are fought, are immoral – they’re actually wars of aggression attempting to gain military advantage of surprise while claiming the moral high ground. But the morality of defensive war is also challenged by some philosophers. There are interesting and complicated questions that cut to the heart of nationalism: if a nation has a right to defend itself (since it represents the will of some percentage of its people) who is the right-holder of the national defensive right? In the case of the patrol in Afghanistan, they’d say they were there representing the Afghan government and that the government had, in effect, given them permission to go into harm’s way – and permission to shoot their way back out.

It’s necessary to expand rights to nation-size in order to reason like states do, so that an entire state can make war on an entire state. This, of course, is extremely sketchy reasoning – if a state is made up of individuals, the actions of the individuals are where the moral questions arise. So if country A attacks country B, we can say country A is engaged in a war of aggression and that country B’s military are within their rights to kill or harm country A’s military. But is that correct? Let’s suppose that Supply Sergeant J, from Country A, is killed by artillery fire from Country B’s attempt to defend itself from Country A’s XIX Armored Division. Supply Sergeant J was responsible for making sure the XIX Armored Division’s vehicles had their oil changed regularly – is Sergeant J’s nominal contribution to Country A’s war effort sufficient to justify killing them for changing the oil? We can probably excuse some anti-tank gunner who fires a missile at one of the tanks of the XIX Armored Division, as it roars across Country B’s fields. Can we excuse the tank commander for returning fire if they survive the missile? After all, their tank was attacked and have a right to self-defense. Actually, they don’t.

Suppose Country A now occupies Country B, and Country B’s heroic resistance fighters place a bomb in the mess hall of the evil XIX Armored Division. The soldiers who die and are maimed in the explosion are probably members of the victorious XIX Armored Division that sowed death and destruction across Country B. But there will also be crew-members that are new recruits – who haven’t even seen battle, who never do: they were killed simply for being there. National-level warfare, as opposed to common murder, collectivizes guilt and escalates violence to the point where uninvolved people who are practically civilians are “legitimate” military targets.

“The most profound objection to the traditional conception of national self-defense is that it permits, and often mandates, the mass wastage of individual rights in order to support the formal rights and status of political entities.” – David Rodin*

David Rodin gives a fascinating example of a state-versus-state conflict in the form of Kraft Foods versus Cadbury. He describes the different corporate cultures of the companies, the different finances and worker benefits, the different management styles and product sets: Cadbury was founded by Quakers and was intended to be a company embodying the Quaker values of hard work, peace, dignity, and equality. Kraft is a giant conglomerate that constantly buys other companies and sheds them after squeezing out operational expenses and profits. So, Rodin asks, “why did it never occur to anyone that Cadbury should have been defended against Kraft’s takeover bid by force of arms?” When we look at that situation, we immediately begin to load in other considerations, such as that the employees of a company don’t have the same sort of vested ownership as citizens of a country, that they don’t live in the factory, that Kraft’s takeover was nonviolent so that resistance would be a disproportionate response, etc. Yet, the US marines in Afghanistan had less vested interest in what was happening there than the Cadbury or Kraft workers did in their corporations’ battles.

When I think of these things, I simply wind up puzzled. I think it’s obvious that war is a crime, period. Self-defense makes sense in personal context where some individual is trying to hurt another individual and they act to prevent it, but we need to stop accepting the idea governments push: that a “people” make war on a “people” – it’s suspiciously like “collective punishment” which is generally recognized as a moral wrong not a right.

Governments hack our emotions – especially those of young men – and place them into dangerous situations where their only survival option is to kill other people. It’s a trick that governments play, and they play it deliberately: people are most dangerous when you convince them that someone wants to hurt their friends, so take a group, train them together so they can establish friendships, and drop them somewhere where their loyalty to their friends sublimes with their perception of the state and it’s “us versus them.” Every aspect of the military indocrination I observed one hot summer at Ft. Dix, New Jersey (D-5-3, Class of July 1983) encourages small group cohesion and group identity. Once you’ve built an armed “band of brothers” they’ll shoot back if they’re shot at, and the rest is simply a question of positioning the pieces on the board and dusting it lightly with propaganda. Military training regimes are planned around this, and therefore are deliberately and knowingly wrong because they are intended to produce dangerous individuals out of otherwise decent well-meaning human beings. Indeed, they weaponize the “decent well-meaning” part into making them killers: they’re decent to their band of brothers, they mean well for their band of brothers.

If we were to try to reason our way toward a moral doctrine of defensive warfare, the results would look very different from what we have today. Since we are defending ourselves against attack, the most culpable person involved in the attack is the leader of the attack. I don’t think it’s right to put a bomb in the XIX Armored Division’s cafeteria, but perhaps we are justified in putting a bullet through the head of the president of Country A. Oddly, “kings do not kill kings”** and it’s the kings who cooked up that idea. I’m sure it’s coincidence that the kings came up with that rule. The cost of warfare should fall squarely between the shoulder-blades of those that start the wars.


David Wood on Politics and Prose Podcast

David Wood: What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars

*Cécile Fabre et al: The Morality of Defensive Warfare

(** Saladin to Guy of Lusignan at the battle of Hattin. My guess is that Saladin spared Guy’s life so that Guy could go on to lead more unsuccessful wars. Any sufficiently incompetent enemy is an ally.)


  1. obscure1 says

    General “Mad Dog” Mattis: “It’s fun to shoot some people.”——–Corporal “Skip-a-Rope” Stumble: It’s fun to frag some Generals.

  2. John Morales says

    I don’t think it’s right to put a bomb in the XIX Armored Division’s cafeteria, but perhaps we are justified in putting a bullet through the head of the president of Country A.

    The system accounts for that. Diffusion of responsibility, collective responsibility.

    The rulers (I’m looking at you, USA) only (ahem) enact the will of the people.

    (Kill that president, justify the aggression)

  3. malefue says

    I want to thank you for these posts, Marcus. I’ve long thought along those lines but could never express it nearly as clearly as you do in your posts regularly. Everytime I talk to someone about my feeling that war in itself is immoral, all I ever can come up with is a vague notion of “inflicting mass death and trauma is wrong!”
    Of course I then get railroaded by all the usual threat-scenarios which are supposed to justify suffering, to the point where I stopped speaking up about it at all.

  4. says

    Andrew Molitor@#1:
    It is a remarkable fact that every single war of the modern era has been won by the defenders.

    I’ve been head-scratching over this and have concluded it depends what we understand “winning” to be, and “war” and “modern era” and perhaps “defenders.”

    For example, I could say Belgium and Poland and France “lost” to the 3rd Reich during WWII. But – when all the dust had settled and the bodies were buried – the national lines went back to where they were and the power structures in charge were more or less returned. So, who “won”? I could also ask “who won?” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some people might say that those wars were “won” but others might say they are “ongoing” and a few might say “they are inevitably defeats.” When all’s said and done, Afghanistan will still be Afghanistan so did the Afghanis “win”?

    I love this question, especially because I asked it myself regarding cyberwar (“what does winning a cyberwar look like?” – here) I am aware that there is considerable theory regarding deconfliction but most of the academic treatments of the topic I’ve read seem to treat war as an endless spectrum of conflict – nobody ever wins because wars only end in genocide (and even then: ask the Assyrians about blowback)

  5. says

    Corporal “Skip-a-Rope” Stumble: It’s fun to frag some Generals.

    I admit I am leading up to an argument that fragging generals is a sacrament, and shooting politicians is excusable as self-defense.

    When I interviewed Sazz (here) about his experiences in Vietnam one of the things we talked about was fragging. He said it definitely happened and he personally knew one lieutenant who was injured by a vietcong grenade thrown by a “sapper” who was probably a GI that saw an opportunity to remodel his chain of command.

  6. says

    My remark was somewhere tongue in cheek. Define ‘winner’ as whichever side writes the history, sometimes it both

    The point being that everyone claims be the defender. I suspect that words like ‘defender’ and ‘attacker’ are on fact meaningless at war scale, and really provide cover for ‘your leaders have decided to have a war’ which is still not it. Wars seem to simply be a peculiar outcome of human behavior. Related to bureaucracy. While you often have evil men involved I suspect that they are often not prime movers, merely opportunists.

  7. says

    John Morales@#3:
    The system accounts for that. Diffusion of responsibility, collective responsibility.

    I agree that the prevailing ideology is that the state can collectivize our responsibility and diffuse the responsibility of its leaders. If I may channel Robert Paul Wolff for a second, I don’t see how collective responsibility can be achieved unless the state is a democracy and there is a unanimous vote. Even if the vote were a majority, there would still be people who could say (as I do!) “I did not vote for that!” – I did not vote for Bush either time, so I do not accept responsibility for his war on Iraq.

    While the principle is that the leaders “enact the will of the people” that’s clearly not the case. The US population was about 80% in favor of the Iraq war, but it had been lied to, so it’s hard to even get a grip on the rough percentage of Americans who were responsible for that war. I am not one of those.

    With regard to killing the president justifying aggression: yes, they would want it that way. In Marcus’ alternative universe, it would be:

    As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
    as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
    valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
    slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
    fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his

    Today, the Vice President announced that it was necessary to cull the President…
    (and that’s the problem with that idea)

    I’m sure you’ve noticed that I am mounting a fairly broad attack on the authority of the state. I don’t know if I am doing a good job or not, but I’ll keep trying.

  8. says

    Everytime I talk to someone about my feeling that war in itself is immoral, all I ever can come up with is a vague notion of “inflicting mass death and trauma is wrong!”

    The Fabre book in my reference links is excellent, but it’s really hard reading; there’s a lot of theoretical philosophical stuff with a few solid nuggets of gold. It’s also a pretty expensive book but you might find it cheap on ebay.

    It’s hard to find people who are willing to be overtly antiwar. The US has severely propagandized its people as part of its construction of a militarized society geared for perpetual war. I find that arguments at the personal level (i.e.: the bomb in the XIX Armored Division’s cafeteria) tend to expose things fairly well. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to realize that that’s exactly what the Vietcong and now the Afghanis were thinking.

    PS – you are very welcome. It’s good to know I’m not wasting my time here.

  9. says

    Andrew Molitor@#7:
    The point being that everyone claims be the defender. I suspect that words like ‘defender’ and ‘attacker’ are on fact meaningless at war scale, and really provide cover for ‘your leaders have decided to have a war’ which is still not it.

    Yes!!! So here’s what’s going on: by saying “WE MUST DEFEND OURSELVES AGAINST THE AGGRESSION BY COUNTRY B!” Country A’s leaders are attempting to hijack the moral high ground of a “defensive” war. That’s why pre-emptive wars are immoral – not only are they wars of aggression, they’re deceptive of their own side.

    To me, the Russian occupation in Crimea was a perfect example of this problem. Guys with guns and heavy gear started showing up and took over. There was no grand assault, no “invasion” just a sort of massive something-or-other. And you can see the consternation it caused in the US, which is fairly used to abusing power by having big wars with lots of trumpets and (of course) jets dropping bombs on hospitals.

    Wars seem to simply be a peculiar outcome of human behavior. Related to bureaucracy. While you often have evil men involved I suspect that they are often not prime movers, merely opportunists.

    Again, agreed. It’s what I think of as an “emergent conspiracy” – enough people want such-and-such to happen and all make little moves toward it happening: it happens. There’s no meeting in a secret smoke-filled room. It just … happens. The Wannasee conference is rare, in that it was so pivotal and well-documented, but if that meeting had not been held, what was going to happen would still have happened.

  10. Jake Harban says

    Regarding your bomb in the cafeteria example, there’s a big difference between a soldier and a civilian. A soldier who has volunteered to conduct a war is part of it, even if he personally hasn’t committed an act of violence. The new recruits weren’t just in the wrong place at the wrong time; they were within range of the bomb specifically because they chose to become part of the war and accept personal responsibility for conducting it.

    It’s not fundamentally different from a conspiracy to commit murder; if I agree to talk with Alex until all their friends have left the building and you agree to put up caution tape at the front entrance to convince them to use the side door and Andrew Molitor agrees to make sure no one approaches the side door and obscure1 agrees to kill Alex once they arrive at the side door assuming no outside witnesses are present, then all four of us are equally responsible for Alex’s murder even though only obscure1 actually killed them.

    As for the morality of a defensive war— if Country A declares war and its army invades your country, what is the appropriate response of your government? Or, if your country has no government, what is the appropriate response for people living there?

    Note that when I say “defensive war” I mean defensive war; a pre-emptive war is a war of aggression. Moreover, even if a defensive war is justified, that doesn’t mean any action is justified in the conduct of same; for example, even if fighting a defensive war is justified, targeting civilians is not.

  11. says

    Even in a volunteer military like the USA’s there is not always a lot of choice about joining the army.

    Family history and straight up poverty drive a lot of young men to the army who might well have made different choices had they been available.