Timothy Kuo’s recent essay, “How we learned to kill”(in the New York Times, 2/27/2015) is just the latest searing gift we are receiving from returning soldiers about the ghastly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are laying bare realities we shudder to acknowledge. Horrors were not only inflicted on supposed enemies but on our soldiers — our own decent, innocent sons and daughters — whom we allowed to “learn to kill” (or as General Omar Bradley reminded American mothers during the Second World War, “we are converting your sons into killers”). Kuo tells us “killing became banal” and “If this war ever ends, and we emerge from the slumber of automated killing to the daylight of moral questioning, we will have to face a reckoning.”
Just what is that RECKONING? What must we learn? Is the process of “learning to kill” so murky that we cannot disentangle it into something we can realistically confront and control before it destroys more decent, innocent people?
First of all, behind “learning to kill” is the reality that the physical techniques for “learning to kill” is a minimal part of the actual practice of warfare. Far more important is the moral component of killing — “claiming the moral sanctity of killing” as Kuo reminds us. In their civilian life most of our soldiers were brought up to honor the sanctity of human life. Yet they now find themselves in situations where killing of designated enemies is supposedly morally acceptable, where killing is sanctified. Just how does that moral component work?
We humans are morally guided creatures. We get our sense of identity and purpose in life from moral contexts. These contexts can be our country, our family, and any other association or group to which we belong. From all of them we receive codes of conduct that specify acceptable and laudable behavior. “Other” moralities are sometimes defiantly excluded from the morally acceptable. I have been calling this the Closed Moral World phenomenon.
Yet there is also quite another characteristic of Closed Moral Worlds. Their content can be drastically changed, and still demand our full allegiance — even excluding as “other” Moral Worlds our own upbringing and our former allegiance. Here is an example: In a previous Blog I pointed out that at the beginning of the Second World War the Allied countries expressed moral outrage that Germany was targeting civilians. Yet toward the end of that war these same Allied countries were firebombing and dropping atomic bombs on entire cities — and claiming moral justification for doing so. Here, surely, was a drastic moral transformation. The moral outrage against targeting civilians, so loudly voiced a the beginning of WWII, was now silent. A new Closed Moral World was asserting itself.
When such a moral transformation happens, is the old morality destroyed or is it merely held in abeyance, shunted into a silent niche? Within the individual soldier, do drastically incompatible Moral Worlds co-exist, giving rise to such issues as Post Traumatic Stress Disorders? It may well be that PTSD is primarily a moral dilemma, based on incompatible, but co-existing Moral Worlds asserting themselves within the individual.
Kuo gives an insight into the collision between what one might call civilian and military morality. In the war zone the military Closed Moral World prevails. Yet the civilian Closed Moral World may unexpectedly re-emerge. Kuo tells us that after a successful battle against the enemy, members of their group boisterously expressed satisfaction — military morality was being honored. But if the soldiers realize that they have just killed civilians, there is only silence. For these soldiers who have just killed civilians, Kuo tells us “there is no absolution” — just as there was “no absolution” for American soldiers returning from the Viet Nam conflict. In both situations a civilian morality awkwardly, but disturbingly speaks up.
Summarizing — We are left with a deep moral dilemma:
1. Shared morality, what I call Closed Moral Worlds, is the very core of human life in a social context. It makes it possible for a large number of people to live together. They have a sense of community because of that common moral core.
2. Closed Moral Worlds claim to provide definitive guidance for people’s day-to-day behavior. It may deliberately exclude different moralities.
3. The actual content of a Closed Moral World may change drastically. And demand that the “new morality” be fully accepted and implemented.
4. (a) With the arrival of a new Closed Moral World, the previous one may disconcertingly assert itself, producing great pain for individual participants (as in PTSD among soldiers?) and fissures in a society, as happened in the United States in the late stages of the Viet Nam and Afghanistan wars.
4. (b) Discredited Closed Moral Worlds may stubbornly persist in a dormant state — and be available for subtle and spasmodic activation. I am thinking of the moral components of the culture of Slavery in the American South before the Civil War — and its partial re-activation after Reconstruction and in subtle forms of racism in contemporary attacks on President Obama.