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Humanism on the Front Line

Douglas Gearhart calls on philosophers to develop practical moral guidance for soldiers in war zones.

The rifle shot tore through the car window and possibly into the man’s arm; I couldn’t tell from my vantage point. He took off quickly, abandoning the car and scurried back across the road, clutching his arm. The bottom line that morning on the highway south of Baghdad was absolutely no one comes through. We instructed them, pleaded with them, but they kept coming by the hundreds and the Marines were growing annoyed, and perhaps a little slighted – you see our weapons, we have asked you nicely, now what’s it going to take? But as our Iraqi interpreter, ‘Fred’, explained to me, Iraqis do not fear the barrel of a weapon as instinctively as we might believe.

Since the specter of car-bombs had already reared its head, through second-hand accounts and rumors from elsewhere, there was no way the man could drive that close to the Marine perimeter without risking his life.

A Marine squad leader yelled out, “Who fired that shot?” No response came; “OK, then nothing happened here.” What he meant, I suppose, was something along the lines of: The shot did not come from my squad, therefore it’s not my problem; no harm no foul. But ‘Fred’ took it as a sign of indifference towards the lives of the people he had volunteered to help save; he went a little mad in that afternoon heat and launched a tirade against the Marine. “What the fuck you mean ‘nothing fucking happened’?” I pulled him aside quickly before something stupid really did happen. The war was only a few weeks old and nerves were tense.

Nobody came here to shoot unarmed civilians, and that is what my Army PSYOP team was employed to prevent. That is why our loudspeaker vehicle kept imploring the civilian crowd that was massing to turn around and stop trying to move north along the road, where elements were still fighting. This was a pretty typical scenario for three-man teams like ours, operating on the front lines during the opening weeks of the Iraq invasion. On the first night we broadcasted surrender instructions to Iraqi troops guarding the border. Now we were trying to help the Marines by keeping civilians away from the battlefield. PSYOP teams had the unique task in war of trying to save lives. Some days were better than others.

Guarding the road all around us were young Marines, and they faced situations like this daily. After trucking with these guys in Iraq I am convinced there is no such thing as a typical enlisted Marine; they come from so many different backgrounds. Their common trait is they have all been filtered through the intense training regimen of the Marine Corps, and they responded to situations accordingly. I met college graduates and those who had barely made it through high school; for different reasons each had volunteered to be a ‘Grunt.’ I was hardly the warrior type, being an Army reservist who had left behind a law clerk job back home. I was in good hands among these professional warriors, who brought to the table their own brand of expertise and style of erudition to share. One of the wisest things ever said to me in my life came from a Marine Sergeant; something to the tune of, “Hey dumb ass! You hear that sound? Those are bullets going over your head: Duck!”

Sometimes a warning shot does the trick. But the crowd soon masses again; another round of loudspeaker broadcasts begins, and nervous young men with rifles face the same dilemma: Is that a civilian or a terrorist? I witnessed some unfortunate acts on the job; sometimes the wrong people got killed. But these young Marines, who in the opening weeks of the invasion had the power to kill almost indiscriminately, did not. They exercised restraint even in the face of the disturbing fact that another dead body, soldier or civilian, along our line of advance would be rather mundane and quickly forgotten, at least by us. Within the rules of the morally questionable enterprise into which they had been thrust, within an absurd universe of values called war, where killing is the norm, these men behaved decently and, if I may, ethically.

In my analysis, the justification for the invasion and the extension of national policy that brought us to Iraq is not at issue. Some may begrudge this methodology. Can there be behavior that is untainted, ethical, and decent, in the furtherance of an unjust war? Do all soldiers fighting a morally dubious cause carry the taint of the ‘original sin’? I don’t want to address the rightness or wrongness of our cause in Iraq; opinion seems to run the gamut from heroic to moral abomination, and all points in between. I can only discuss Iraq from the inside out, from the bottom up, because that is where my own knowledge and experience lie. Like every other enlisted soldier and Marine on the ground, my power over events in Iraq was limited to each day’s ethically challenging moments happening in front of me. While the enlisted soldier on the ground does not make policy, the soldiers operating in Iraq carry a heavy responsibility; along with the dangerous missions they are tasked to carry out, they also act as diplomats and representatives of their nation.

At the end of major combat operations my team went to work in the city of Samawa, south of Baghdad, where we assisted in the mighty task of returning the city to stable functioning and normal life. As PSYOP, we operated fairly autonomously and had almost unlimited access to the people. I talked to and shook hands with hundreds of Iraqi citizens. As I discharged my responsibilities I believed I was doing my part to spread the virus of human decency and goodwill across cultures. It was my own private hearts-and-minds campaign and for the most part goodwill reached back to greet us in return. I am proud of the work my team did in Iraq, both as soldiers and also as messengers of humanistic fellowship.

Over a year ago I came back home and assured family and friends that the U.S. was doing good things in Iraq. I knew this from the evidence of my own eyes. But the news reports got worse: mounting casualties, the vituperative hatred that I categorically did not experience or witness, and finally, the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. This was a tremendous blow to our credibility as a nation and to hopes for creating a sense of unity and fellowship with the Iraqi people. From a PSYOP perspective, the photographs from Abu Ghraib are made-to-order for anti-American propaganda.

Like me, those enlisted soldiers who now stand accused in the wake of the scandal are U.S. Army Reservists. These soldiers left behind their normal civilian jobs and family lives to come to Iraq. I wager they never contemplated coming to Iraq with the intent to commit atrocities. So what happened? The Army’s investigation of the matter places much of the blame on the officers in charge. But the incidents of abuse cannot be written off solely as the result of poor leadership. The individuals who administered the abuse must be accountable. How could presumably decent people commit such acts? It’s an old story, of course, and one relevant for political leaders, commanders, and philosophers. Chris Hedges, in an extraordinary book everyone should read, writes about war’s perversion of decency:

“It takes little in wartime to turn ordinary men into killers. Most give themselves willingly to the seduction of unlimited power to destroy and all feel the heavy weight of pressure.” Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives us Meaning, p.87, Anchor Books 2002.

A man far from home has no neighbors. This is one of the more chilling realities of human behavior during war. For a soldier far from home, war quickly distills and separates the core ‘Self’ from the biographical self of their normal civilian identity. In Iraq, hordes of young troops unmoored from their normal worlds, well armed, and in a position of awesome power, perhaps more power over human life than they could ever have previously imagined, are thrust into a land of chaos and confusion. Normal life, the adornments and habits of everyday life that define one’s civilian identity, are packed away along with civilian clothes. When you strip away the layers of this everyday-life ‘self’, the core had better be sound. Training the core of a person is what we might call instilling a sense of ethics, morals or values. We are all ethically fuzzy and the core shows its face on war’s vast moral playing field.

The military trains soldiers and not philosophers. War is far from the secure walls of the academy. Among other things, war is exhausting, filthy, terrifying, and stressful. After you have gone through the experience, you tend to look askance at anyone who utters such things as, “Man, I really worked my ass off today”; or, “My life is so stressful,” particularly when the speaker is an academic or someone in the professional class. It is no disparagement of or diminishment of anyone’s legitimate daily struggles, but a reminder of the peace and safety we generally take for granted in the universe of our ‘normal lives.’

When a nation deploys its soldiers across the world, it is also unleashing well-armed diplomats and spokespersons for the values it represents. To the U.S. Army’s credit, during basic training every recruit is taught what are called, The Army Values. From experience, I know the lessons are not terribly deep or philosophical; there is no critical reflection or debate, and little discussion of how to apply them in real-world situations. Nevertheless the Army does teach its own ethical system and expectations.

The Army Values are Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal courage. Each one comes with a cursory definition. The Army Values and their definitions are worn around the neck, along with the metal identification tags. They read: Loyalty: Bear true faith and allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, the Army, the unit, and other soldiers; Duty: Fulfills obligations; Respect: Treats people as they should be treated; Selfless-Service: Puts the welfare of the nation, the Army, and subordinates before their own; Honor: Lives up to the Army values; Integrity: Does what is right – legally and morally; Personal Courage: Faces fear, danger, or adversity (physical and moral).

There is a motto in the Army that says, train as you fight. That is, make the training realistic as possible so that, when it’s for real, reactions are reflexive and automatic. Realistic training in ethical dilemmas should aspire to something similar, just as marksmanship training does with a rifle. It is a challenge to the Army to develop its soldiers’ ethical awareness in the context of the stressful and dangerous environments they will be thrust into. Teaching recruits to spout off one-sentence definitions is not enough. I am in no position to say what might have prevented the abuses at Abu Ghraib; it was a failure on many levels. The leadership failed to guide the young soldiers; they in turn failed to find the personal courage to refuse illegal and patently immoral orders, and to overcome war’s temptations to inflict cruelty.

Thucydides wrote in his History of the Peloponnesian War that the reality of power between states is, “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” Armies operate as an extension of state power, but in a free society where our soldiers are volunteers and not conscripts, they meet their situations as individuals with values and a moral core absorbed through a variety of sources. Their behavior affects the hopes for fellowship across cultures, languages, and religions. From the security of our normal lives, we can bemoan and criticize the invasion of Iraq. But we must never forget that everyday, essentially decent young men and women face the most challenging situations and dilemmas they will ever encounter. They are far from their homes and neighbors. What will guide them?

I challenge philosophers and humanists to develop a work that targets this audience. The soldiers need your help if they cannot get it from their leadership. As humanists and free thinkers we need to get our message into the hearts and minds of those young soldiers who are becoming the diplomats of the free world, for better or for worse.

The PSYOP struggle for hearts and minds will never be won by leaflets or crude marketing techniques. But I am optimistic for the humanist ideal of fellowship in a pluralistic world. Perhaps it begins when common human decency reaches across cultures; when people meet each other and shake hands; sit together and share stories, tea, and kindness. I witnessed it again and again. I still remain in contact by email with friends I made in Iraq. The internet and modern communications ensure that these types of friendships will continue to thrive, develop and grow. As I reflect on the hundreds of people I met and talked to in Iraq, I know that the irrational and the fanatics, on either side, do not run the world, as powerful as these elements are.

War will always bring out the worst in us; it will produce soldiers willing to perform unspeakable acts with minimal prodding or with justifications sometimes as banal as, “I was ordered to do it.” Whether it was because of natural decency, good training, a sturdy moral core, or some combination, I witnessed soldiers in Iraq hold the line against these temptations. It is tough going: The history of human nature and of destructiveness in wartime seems to refute even a modest, guarded hope. From my experience in Iraq I am optimistic that the struggle is in good hands with the young enlisted soldiers on the ground.

In the little neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad we were the first American soldiers they had met. After some initial awkward reticence to make contact, one or two folks filtered out of their homes. ‘Fred’ and I began saying hello, shaking hands and breaking the ice. Within a few hours the atmosphere seemed like that of a block party. Soldiers were talking and laughing with the citizens, who seemed always ready to share small shot-glass sized servings of tea; swarms of curious small children cheered for us and hollered out, “Mista! Mista!” We also had our antennas out for any good intelligence information from the locals.

I struck up a conversation with a young college student who spoke fairly decent English. We exchanged names and I practiced some phrases from my Army-issue Arabic language survival guide. Soon he invited me to his home which wasn’t far, and shared tea with me in his front yard. We talked throughout the afternoon, sometimes awkwardly, like a first date, but with warmth and a genuine hunger to understand each other. I liked this fellow and as we talked I had the sense that he and I were just buddies killing time on a summer afternoon. He gestured to my weapon, a ‘light’ machine gun, that was plenty heavy to lug around in the heat, my body armor with sappy plates in front and back, and my Kevlar helmet. “You must be very hot?” The posture was relaxed, but we kept our ‘full battle rattle’ on at all times.

This student of philosophy and computers was glad to see us, if somewhat skeptical of George Bush’s motives. When it was time for us to leave he told me to wait a moment while he ran inside his house. He returned with a pair of his sunglasses he wanted me to take. I retrieved a short-wave radio from our vehicle and exchanged gifts. I also gave him a small copy of the U.S. Constitution; I had picked up a handful of these in law school and carried them with me in my cargo pocket. I figured I should probably read it now and again, since I took an oath to defend it. When I left we shook hands warmly. “I hope you will come back some day, without the weapon.” As I stood saying goodbye to my new friend, far from home, I believed it was possible. I still do.

© Douglas Gearhart 2004

Douglas Gearhart is a law school graduate and member of the Army Reserve. He studied Philosophy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. In Iraq he led a three-man PSYOP team attached to the Marines. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and Navy Achievement Medal for actions in Iraq. lawnausea@yahoo

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