On the suffering of innocents in war


In armed conflict of any kind, people suffer. Soldiers suffer directly, and their suffering can be both physical and mental. The trauma of war also extends inexorably to those on the periphery, such as widows and orphans, civilians who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and society in general, as the ripple effects of an economy at war take hold. The question of whether or not this suffering is justified depends almost entirely upon the nature of the war itself, and in this paper, I shall demonstrate how this is the case.

 Before soldiers are even deployed, they are trained to overcome their natural resistance to killing. In combat training, techniques such as using lifelike targets for small arms practice are employed. These methods, called “operant conditioning,” gradually desensitize personnel to the psychological effects of killing. (Grossman and Siddle, 9) Conditioning an individual to kill others is essential to success in warfare, but becomes a psychiatric liability once the shooting stops and the veteran returns home, where even the threat of violence can be punishable by law. This complication of military service, while rarely discussed, must be seriously considered when discussing the impact of war upon the nation.  

When service men and women are eventually deployed in combat, they are exposed to constant physical threats. Psychologists also tell us that soldiers enduring close-range continuous combat are at high risk in terms of becoming psychiatric casualties (Grossman and Siddle, 3). This form of casualty can be as debilitating as physical injury, and requires evacuation from the front lines. (Grossman and Siddle, 2) Once the serviceperson has returned from combat, they must experience a “purification ritual” of sorts to assist them in coming to terms with their actions in war; those denied this ritual often suffer long-term incidences of psychiatric disorders, most commonly Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. (Grossman and Siddle, 10-11)

Veterans who repress memories of warfare and suffer in silence are at high risk of psychiatric disorders; new techniques that help veterans confront and reprocess traumatic events from their tour of duty are now used to avert the onset of PTSD. (Schaffer, 1) Unfortunately, these advances will not help all veterans, however. Because they are unwilling to confront their behavior in the field, those personnel who committed acts that they consider unforgivable or inhumane are far more likely to become victims of PTSD. (Grossman and Siddle, 9) It is clear that policing our soldiers, with a goal of preventing atrocities, must become a priority if we are to prevent high incidences of disorders such as PTSD, which places long-term stresses on those who return from war and therefore society in general.

Key in avoiding atrocities in combat is assessing what individuals in the military chain of command are responsible for, and to whom. Personnel who issue orders are responsible to those both above them and below them, as they must dutifully carry out their orders and at the same time reduce risks to those they command. (Walzer, 23-24) It is also argued that they are responsible for those civilians impacted by their activities, and that the lives of civilians must be valued by those in authority. (Walzer, 25, 31) If an army is trained to protect the defenseless in war zones as a matter of the strictest discipline, the incidences of wartime atrocities can be expected to drop, benefiting both the civilian population and the long-term health of those in combat.

In the present conflict, the war on terror, it is clear that this training is not in place in a substantive way, as many reports of violence against civilians has been reported, and some military personnel have faced legal repercussions from their actions in the field. Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote a stinging indictment of this lack of training in the May 2007 issue of Armed Forces Journal. Yingling accuses American senior officers of failing to adequately prepare American armed forces for a war of counterinsurgency, and failing to advise the nation’s policy makers properly before the conflict. (Yingling, 1) He claims that the military miscalculated “both the means and the ways” that would be required to achieve final victory in Iraq, as well as the “conditions of future combat.” (Yingling, 2) The predictable result of this general lack of preparedness is an undermanned, overstressed force that does not always act with the strictest of discipline. It may be expected that veterans of this war will suffer, to some degree, the same post-war psychiatric disorders as did those who returned from Vietnam over a generation ago.

While this outcome is certainly regrettable, it does not, in and of itself, make the war on terror unjustified, any more than the psychological benefits of war make a war justified. These benefits include a reduction in stress as aggression is displaced, self-doubts and hatred being projected upon the “enemy”, life being given new meaning and purpose and the need to belong to the larger group being satisfied. (LeShan, 73)  These benefits are on display in spontaneous demonstrations of public enthusiasm by nations at war as they give themselves over to the conflict. Conversely, there is a price to be paid in times of war by those who do not share the nation’s embrace of the conflict, as they are alienated from social groups and are even considered “outsiders.” (LeShan, 95) To fully participate in the war effort relieves the stress of the uniquely human need to be both an individual and a part of a larger group, and therefore “something larger than oneself.” (LeShan, 23) While these benefits drive the human need to engage in and sustain war, it falls far short of legitimatizing war in general or a war in particular.

What makes a war justified is the legitimacy of its cause, the intentions of the military force who fights that war, and their commitment to the reestablishment of peace. For warfare to be morally sustainable, it must have been provoked by an attack or lethal threat, it must have been a choice of last resort and it must be fought with the singular intention to restore the status quo of peace and stability at the least possible cost. War cannot be waged for war’s sake and remain justified.

In every war, there are human costs, both in terms of military and civilian casualties, and physical and psychic casualties. We usually think of these costs in relation to battles and campaigns, but it is equally important to consider the gradual impact of war upon a population. As a society shifts its energy and resources from peaceful pursuits into the support of war activities, it begins to realize costs even before a soldier leaves for the front. Economic, intellectual and human resources are diverted and slowly the nation becomes less productive, its labor force less diverse and its treasury less bountiful. Compounding these factors is the loss of manpower that will, in turn, have a ripple effect throughout the coming years as the nation is robbed of the productive capacity of casualties and their offspring. Some nations, such as England and France, never completely recover from these losses, as was seen after the world wars of the twentieth century. War is not only the most destructive of human endeavors; it is also the most expensive.

 Still, there are moments when the evil to be sustained in seeking peace dwarfs the evil to be endured in making war. Had France attacked Nazi Germany in the spring of 1936, when Germany violated the Treaty of Versailles by reoccupying the Rhineland, Hitler would have been defeated, World War II likely avoided and perhaps tens of million saved. Instead, the Western Powers sought the path of peace in their dealings with the German Führer, who used their pacifistic sentiment to further his own plans for domination of Europe and the destruction of “Untermensch”. War is hell, but sometimes, war is better.


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