WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 15, 2014) – “Would you kill a POW?” Dr. Shannon E. French once asked a Soldier.
“Of course not,” the Soldier replied.
French then elaborated, describing the hypothetical prisoner of war as someone who had, as a sniper, just killed most of the Soldier’s platoon.
“Well, I should hope I wouldn’t kill him,” the Soldier replied again, this time with a qualifier.
French, an ethics professor at Case Western Reserve University and author of the book “The Code of the Warrior,” spoke to more than 100 senior NCOs at the Sergeant Major of the Army’s Professional Development Forum at the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army, Oct. 14.
SOME CODES INEFFECTIVE?
Soldiers have killed POWs in past wars, she said, either because the POW was still perceived as a threat, or out of revenge for the POW having killing one’s comrades, or out of guilt for not having killed the POW before he killed one’s comrades.
Natural instincts such as revenge, anger and self-preservation can be extremely difficult to control without an effective code of ethics, French said.
Why do Soldiers need a code anyway? she asked. A code can tie Soldiers’ hands, such as when the enemy is blending in with civilians and killing them all would get rid of the enemy. Some militias would deem that to be acceptable.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a British soldier was charged with shooting a POW. His defense at the trial, she said, was “reciprocity,” meaning he believed “they would do the same thing to us.”
The jury “understood his pain,” French said, but they also realized that he “just didn’t get it,” meaning that he had not internalized the code of ethics. And, he was convicted.
French first described how to implement an ethics code that doesn’t work.
The best way to ensure Soldiers don’t adhere to a code of ethics, she said, is to publish orders and regulations directing them to abstain from certain activities that are deemed undesirable or criminal.
Another ineffective way to do it, she said, is to simply let Soldiers figure out what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t. The shame or implication of having an incident go viral on social media, for example, should stop unethical behavior. That won’t work either, she said.
Such perceived ethical restraints, she said, likely won’t have enough force to overcome one’s fear of death or injury or even a desire for mission success.
WARRIOR CODE DECIPHERED
French studied warrior codes that were effective throughout history, including the famous code of the samurai warrior. Other societies had similarly effective ones, she said, including the Spartans, Native Americans, Chinese warrior monks, the Vikings and so on.
Effective warrior codes are not imposed by policy makers or the judge advocate general’s office, she said. The code must be understood, accepted and internalized at all times, off duty as well as on. The code has to become more than a list that’s memorized. It has to become a part of one’s own identity, even one’s soul.
While the codes of great warrior groups themselves may have differed, she said they had similar things in common.
Ownership of the code is so strong, that no matter what provocations the enemy might make, they can’t steal one’s code. “If the enemy decapitates, we won’t do that,” she said, citing an example.
Soldiers would rather die than break their code. That’s how strong it is. “It becomes part of your DNA.”
“Those who do cross those lines (spelled out in the code) suffer profound damage” to the psyche and a “sickness of the soul,” she said, referring to case studies, including from returning Vietnam veterans who betrayed their code. Some were affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, others by alcoholism, and some committed suicide.
If warriors in various armies see one of their own breaking the code, it can result in the offender being shamed, ostracized or even killed, she said.
Once the code is broken, it is possible to return to the code, but it’s a very, very difficult journey, she said.
However, the code isn’t meant to harm the Soldier. It is there to protect them, she said. It becomes a part of who they are and what they fight for.
Some might say that having the code and showing restraint in behavior is a sign of weakness. It’s not, she said. “Having the capacity to show restraint is a sign of strength. It’s telling the enemy that we’re better than that. That there’s lines that won’t be crossed no matter what.”
Think about it, she said. “Everyone you’ve ever admired has a code they live by. These are your heroes.”
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III reminded everyone that seminars like these will be wasted unless the NCOs bring the messages back to their Soldiers.