Battlefield ethics in Iraq

Good news, and bad, from a survey of U.S. troops in Iraq. Less than half think their officers and NCOs are physically courageous.

1. I’m glad the Defense Department wants to know about the battlefield ethics being practiced by our troops in Iraq.

2. I’m glad to know the results got published (albeit with a delay, apparently for political reasons).

3. I’m glad to know that the vast bulk of the soldiers and Marines have gotten a clear message from their commanders that maltreating civilians is a no-no.

4. I’m not surprised that 30-40% approve of torture under some circumstances; after all, that means the average grunt has better morals than the average Senator or the average Bush crony, and the folks in the field are under a lot more pressure.

5. I’m not surprised that only half of them say they would report theft or assault by a comrade; that means the average grunt has better ethics than the average Congressman or the average cop.

6. It is surprising, and distressing, that only 30-40% think their NCOs and officers have moral or physical courage.

7. It is not reassuring that a twentieth report having hit or kicked civilians “when it was not necessary” and a tenth report having destroyed civilian property “when it was not necessary.” Remember, that’s when they didn’t think it was necessary. I suspect some of the respondents were giving themselves the benefit of the doubt. Precisely when would it be militarily necessary to kick a civilian?

8. It’s really not reassuring that between a quarter and a third admit to having insulted or cursed Iraqi civilians. Does the term “honor culture” ring a bell? (That’s why kicking is so bad: it’s a deadly insult.)

9. The survey asks whether the repondent would report a comrade for stealing from a civilian; the responses were about the same as for assault and destruction of property. Respondents weren’t ask whether they, personally, had stolen anything, but from the fact that the question was asked it seems likely that it’s been a problem. That’s bad news. Assault and destruction of property are wrong, but the line between justified and unjustified behavior isn’t perfectly clear. Theft is theft. And theft from the occupied population is likely to bring the mix of hatred and contempt that is most toxic to our cause.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: