Dirty Hands and Drone Strikes

Dirty Hands and Drone Strikes October 9, 2010

This post is one in a series on sin and immortality.  You can read the entire series of linked posts here.

During the Vietnam war, the Army was responsible for training new draftees for combat.  Recruits were trained to aim their guns by practicing with bulls-eye shaped targets.  Although the men met the standards for marksmanship in training, when they went abroad, only about 20 percent fired their guns in combat, even when they were under fire.

Although the men were technically proficient, when they looked through their sights at another human’s face, they couldn’t pull the trigger.  The army’s response was practical; soldiers today are trained in marksmanship by aiming at human shaped targets that fall when they are hit.  The firing rates surged.

One of the reasons I am usually opposed to war is because the entire process of preparing soldiers depends on eroding the natural sympathy we have for other humans and our reluctance to cause them harm.  This kind of damage can’t be easily undone (as the high rates of suicide and PTSD among veterans make clear).

War today strives to remove soldiers from the battlefield, for the sake of their safety and, perhaps, the sake of their souls.  It is easier for a man to kill by pressing a button to launch a drone strike rather than killing with a gun, or, worse, a bayonet.  Culpability shouldn’t be expected to diminish, but soldiers do feel more disconnected from the consequences of their actions.

Once again, we’re facing down the dilemma of balancing guilt with functionality.  If our goal is to win a war, it makes sense to obscure the moral weight of operations from troops to help them manage, even if it makes it difficult for soldiers to reason clearly about the stakes of their decisions.  I believe it is always dangerous to keep knowledge of consequences from the relevant moral actor, so I am put off by drone strikes.

I’m even more disturbed by the sanitized coverage of our two wars.  Voters and politicians get to make the decision to put soldiers in an impossible position, making lose-lose moral choices that we would give anything to avoid making.  And we make the decision to expose them while being almost entirely insulated from the true costs and horrors of war.  It’s a recipe for disaster, and the souls we’re gambling with are not our own.

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  • B. R. Lind

    A couple of questions:-Wow, that's an amazing statistic about only 20% of army soldiers firing their weapons in combat. I haven't heard/read that before. Could you post the source?-It is not clear to me that veteran suicide and PTSD are the result of "eroding [their] natural sympathy for other humans" as opposed to the experience of mortal danger – being shot at and seeing their buddies holding in their intestines. The articles you linked to both discuss *combat* veterans, not people who only went through basic training. Also, sexual assault victims experience PTSD, and they certainly haven't been trained to kill.-To what extent do drone strikes "keep knowledge of consequences from the relevant moral actor"? Are the soldiers unaware of civilians living in the area? Or do they just not have to SEE the civilians?I do agree with your point that soldiers are forced to sacrifice even more than their blood and their lives… that to survive in combat, they are forced to deny a part of their humanity. And I couldn't possibly agree more with your last paragraph. So very, very true.

  • B. R. Lind

    Oh, and you make an excellent observation about drone strikes. We seem to run into a conundrum: are these soldiers' "souls" more protected, since they can maintain (to some extent) their aversion to killing other human beings? Or are they more damaged, since they are killing with less awareness of the fact that they are killing?Not that it makes much difference to the dead.