Military Moral Injury Sociology

The Ethic of ‘Humanity’


“…any conscious warrior of the future is going to be a person who sees all humanity as brothers and sisters.”  – Karl Marlantes in What It Is Like to Go to War

The more we are conscious, the more we engage the conscience. In human evolution, instinctual drives recede like melting ice, exposing the fertile ground of consciousness. Rather than responding to instinctual reflexes, we now have the conscious ability to contemplate the ethical consequences of our actions.  But with this development, like the spring thaw, comes the increased responsibility of cultivation. As this consciousness expands to embrace an ethic of universal humanity, we are driven outside selves and our local group. With increased mobility and global communication, it is becoming increasingly difficult to discount outside groups as subhuman. This consciousness forces us to respond.

One response to this may be to rebuild walls. But this merely works to cut ourselves off from our own humanity by neglecting that of others. Another response is to embrace the ethic of universal humanity by seeing in ourselves and others a common humanity. But the ethic of ‘humanity’ is a double-edged sword. Consciousness of universal humanity opens up a dilemma of the conscience; how do we engage in military conflict against our brothers and sisters? Karl Marlantes illustrates this very issue in his book, What It Is Like to Go to War where he accounts a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna in the Mahabharata:

Arjuna cast his eyes on the grand spectacle. He saw the heroes ready for battle, and he saw there all those who were dear to him. They were grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, dear friends, comrades. He was overcome with compassion for all of them. His voice shook with grief and he said: “Krishna, I feel an awful weakness stealing over me… Krishna, my head is reeling and I feel faint. My limbs refuse to bear me up… I look at all these who are my kinsmen and I feel that I cannot fight with them… I do not want to win this war… For the passing pleasure of ruling this world why should I kill the sons of Dhritarashtra? They have been greedy, evil, avaricious, covetous. I grant all that. But the fact remains that they are my cousins and it is a sin to kill one’s own kinsmen. I would rather turn away from the war. It will even be better if I am killed by Duryodhana. I do not want to fight.”

Krishna eventually persuades Arjuna to fight by appealing to ‘justice’ by responding:

It is not right to stand by and watch an injustice being done. There are times when active interference is necessary.”

To stand by and not intervene is to do injustice to ‘humanity’ since he would allow the violations to continue. Violent intervention is warranted so long as its goal is the protection of universal humanity against closed groups whose goals violate this concept. For example, it would be worth engaging in violence against groups who commit racial genocide. Although the above dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna is from c.AD 400 in India, it illustrates a common struggle today that has been dealt with in Christian ‘just war’ theory. The humane ‘justice’ approach provides a good rational for engaging in violence, but it also increases the likelihood of moral injury.

The “conscious warrior” may have a good reason to serve in conflicts they deem just, but once on deployment, the fog of war can easily force the individual into a moral dilemma. In an ideal world, wars are engaged with clarity and surgical precision. Since this is not the case, an individual may decide to fire at a suspicious person who turns out to be a civilian. The more a conscious warrior is committed to justice, the heavier they bear the weight of conscience. The more our serving members are committed to an ethic of humanity, the more they will be forced into an internal conflict when faced with the fog of war. We must not see an individual returning from deployment with these internal conflicts as ill or disordered. Rather, we should see them as someone deeply committed to justice based on an ethic of humanity.

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