When Morality Demands Winter Soldiers


February 4, 2008 – In March of this year, the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) will convene the Winter Soldier hearings in Washington, DC. “Winter Soldiers,” according to Thomas Paine, are those who step up in behalf of their nation when things seem most bleak. With this in mind, IVAW members and others will courageously provide eyewitness accounts of their experiences of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though I do not speak for IVAW, it is their intent and hope, I suspect, that by telling the truth about these occupations, to provide, at the very least, the impetus for a long overdue national debate on the morality and legality of America’s alleged “War Against Terrorism.” Many who pride themselves as “patriots” will, I am sure, accuse these veterans and anyone else who actively condemns the war as immoral and advocates an immediate and total withdrawal, of being un-American, unpatriotic and even treasonous. Even among those who have become disenchanted with the lack of progress in Iraq and skeptical regarding its justifiability and necessity, there is an “intuition” that since we have committed our soldiers and treasure to the effort, patriotism requires that we support our troops, our president and ,ultimately, the war. At the very least, these “patriots” continue, if we truly love America, we should keep any misgivings to ourselves and just remain silent. Is it the case, therefore, that at least with regard to America’s war in Iraq that morality and love of country are in conflict? That patriotism demands immoral behavior, or morality demands behavior that is unpatriotic even treasonous? It is the intent of this essay first to establish moral clarity regarding the war in Iraq and then to argue that morality and patriotism, correctly understood, require members of the military and their civilian counterparts to become Winter Soldiers and step up to end this immoral and tragic war.

    Moral Foundations

    Civilized nations and individuals accept, at least theoretically, that human beings have inalienable human rights, among them the right to life and to live in a nation that enjoys political sovereignty and territorial integrity (sometimes referred to as national rights). Such rights provide a natural immunity from, among other things, being injured and killed unjustifiably and having one’s nation invaded and occupied without warrant. To kill an innocent person is murder, and “the (unprovoked and unjustified) invasion or attack by the armed forces of a State of the territory of another State, or any military occupation, however temporary, resulting from such invasion or attack” is aggression. We believe as well that aggressed individuals and nations have a right of self- and national defense, i.e., to use violence, even deadly force/war, all things being equal, to assert these rights. Morally, we justify such a response with an understanding that the aggressors, by virtue of their violation of the rights of their victims, have forfeited their own (their immunity) and have become liable to be resisted – warred against – in justified self- and national defense.

    The Iraq War

    In the intervening years since the invasion of Iraq, it has become clear to all, with the possible exception of Fox Television Network viewers, that the attacks of September 11 were neither prosecuted nor supported by the people and/or the government of Iraq. While Saddam Hussein was a ruthless tyrant, at the time of the invasion, Iraq neither sought nor possessed weapons of mass destruction. Further, Iraq posed no real and immediate threat to the United States, Israel or any other Middle East nation. Nor were the Iraqis aggressors or terrorists. Nor did they support aggression or terrorism. Nor were they linked in any way to the aggression or to the terrorist attacks. Consequently, and this is crucial, the nation of Iraq and its citizens are innocent, having done nothing to warrant forfeiture of their natural immunity, i.e., their rights to life and to live in a nation that enjoys territorial integrity and political sovereignty.

    Consequently, regardless of whether the decision to invade and occupy Iraq was the result of an honest mistake or something more insidious, the preemptive attack against the sovereign nation of Iraq, the killing of its citizens and its continued occupation are morally unjustifiable – an act of aggression and murder.

    Clearly, President Bush and his cohorts – those who planned and initiated the invasion and misrepresented it as a just war against terrorism and to preserve freedom – must bear the preponderance of responsibility and, hence, culpability for the aggression. That having been said, however, the invading troops, despite their being mislead into believing their cause to be just, are agents of unwarranted, immoral and illegal violence – they violate the rights of the Iraqis. They are what I will term “unjustifiable combatants/innocent aggressors.” Consequently, the invading/occupying troops must suffer the sanction of forfeiture of their natural immunity and become liable to be justifiably resisted and warred against by the Iraqis in self- and national defense.

    The fact that the invaders and occupiers allege to target only Iraqi combatants, and discriminate and afford immunity to noncombatants (though many instances of collateral damage have been reported), is irrelevant both to a determination of whether the invasion is just and to judgments of the liability of the aggressors. The opposing combatants, despite being termed “insurgents” and “terrorists” by our political and military leaders, maintain their immunity and, this is crucial, their right to self- and national defense. Consequently, the Iraqi combatants and their allies do not forfeit the very rights they are justifiably and morally struggling to assert. They are justifiable combatants. It is not the case, therefore, because of a fierce “insurgent” resistance, that the aggressors can now claim their actions are morally justified by reasons of self-defense. All combatants are not moral equals.

    At this writing, many in our country are celebrating the “success” of the surge and of the “new” military strategy in Iraq. However, military success and improved strategy do not afford a moral and legal basis for continuing, even escalating, the occupation – the aggression against, and murder of, the Iraqi people. How could achieving “victory” in such a scenario, i.e., the triumph of the aggressors, the murderers, over their victims, be morally justified?

    The Moral Obligation NOT to Support the Troops Qua Warrior

    Consider next the effect that recognizing the invasion and occupation of Iraq as aggression and the American troops as aggressors have upon the moral duties of all American citizens. To do so, I will refer the reader to the brutal and heinous attacks of September 11. It is clear that those who carried out these attacks were acting immorally. This is so, despite they, and others of their ilk, having been influenced, programmed or deceived into truly believing their cause to be just, and their attack to be a legitimate act of war – Jihad – against a nation and people that have, and continue in their view, to exploit, oppress and kill their fellow Muslims.

    Further, these terrorists were willing to endure great personal sacrifice in behalf of others and possessed the state of mind and spirit that enabled them to face danger, fear and death with confidence, steadfastness, perseverance and resolve. Under very different conditions, perhaps we would regard such qualities as virtuous and worthy of admiration. However, theirs was an act of terrorism and, as such, unjust, immoral, unwarranted and a violation of the rights of those they attacked. Consequently, we do not characterize their behavior as courageous, noble and heroic. Nor do we find admirable their willingness to sacrifice themselves for others and for a cause in which they believed. Since aggression is the unjustifiable killing of innocent human beings (murder), I see no morally relevant difference between national aggression and terrorism prosecuted by sub-national groups such as Al-Qaeda. Consequently, the acts of the terrorists and those of the American aggressors and occupiers are similar enough morally to warrant comparison. Both the terrorists and the aggressors believed, erroneously, in the justice of their cause and in the culpability and liability of those they were targeting and killing. Both were well-intentioned – neither acting from greed or self-interest – and motivated by a sense of duty to members of their community.

    Most importantly, both the terrorists and the aggressors violated the rights/immunity of innocent human beings. By parity of reasoning, then, despite their intended altruism and their willingness to face danger, fear and death with confidence, steadfastness, perseverance and resolve, the efforts of the aggressors, like those of the terrorists, are neither noble nor glorious. Nor should Muslims and the American citizenry feel gratitude and appreciation for their misguided benefactors’ willingness to endure great personal sacrifice “in their behalf.” Finally, immoral acts are not heroic, and the terrorists and the aggressors are not heroes. Based upon these observations, we can draw conclusions about the moral duties of American citizens relative to the war and their troops.

    Given the nature and moral value of the invasion, the American citizenry (including members of the military) is morally obligated, first and foremost, not to participate in the aggression, that is, to avoid enlisting into the military or refusing to fight (what I term the moral duty of “non-participation”). Further, they are morally obligated not to support the troops in their aggression, that is, what I will term “qua warrior.” Neither should they praise their aggressive actions, nor admire their personal qualities, nor appreciate their efforts, nor celebrate their accomplishments (the duty of non-complicity). If anything, they are morally obligated to sympathize with, support and admire the efforts of the victims, the Iraqis, in their struggle against aggression, since morality demands that we respect the rights and dignity of all innocent human beings.

    The Moral Obligation to Support the Troops Qua Human Being

    As in any war, even a just war, there may be individual soldiers whose questionable motives and intentions affect the morality of their actions or the degree of their responsibility. For the most part, however, no one joins the military or fights in war (or even uses terrorism as a tactic) to commit murder. Further, I think it is fair to say that a goodly number of those who serve in the military – especially during a war – are either the conscripted and the coerced or the underprivileged and the destitute. Their motivation in serving is only to survive and return home or to improve their standard of living and receive job training or financial support for college. Even of those who willingly enlist and consider themselves professional soldiers, the vast majority, though sometimes misguided (as is the case in Iraq), sincerely believe they are doing moral things for a moral nation.

    Given the gravity of the endeavor in which they are to engage, however, we do expect soldiers, before participating in the fighting, and civilians, before accepting conscription or volunteering, to evaluate, morally and legally, the war in which they will engage. Further, it would be meritorious, perhaps even morally required, depending upon the severity of the sanctions, for soldiers and civilians to have the moral courage and fortitude to refuse to participate in or support wars that are immoral. Finding out the truth about war, however, is very difficult and seldom certain.

    To appreciate the ability of governments to deceive, convince and coerce citizens into supporting an immoral war, one need only consider recent history and the plethora of sincere and astute intellectuals, clergymen and women, scholars and politicians (some of whom are currently vying to become president) who were convinced that war with Iraq was warranted because they possessed weapons of mass destruction, were complicit in the attacks of 9/11, and posed a real and immediate threat to the survival of our nation and all we hold dear.

    It is not only a lack of information, however, that makes the decision not to support or to fight the war so problematic and tragic. The magnitude of the social pressures (real or perceived) brought to bear upon young adults is such that, for many, deciding not to serve while others “go in their place” may require even more courage and determination than facing injury and death on the battlefield.

    In regard to the preemptive invasion of Iraq, members of the military have been influenced, manipulated and coerced by the president into believing the threat from Iraq to be real and their cause to be just and necessary.

    Further, given the sophistication of the deception and the unavailability of accurate information, they were not derelict in their responsibility as soldiers to morally evaluate the case for war. There is a real sense, then, in which they are themselves victims, deceived into risking injury and death for a mistake or to forward their president’s illegal and immoral agenda. These morally relevant circumstances entail that the members of the military are not fully responsible for their aggression, hence their status as “innocent” aggressors. They are what I will term “diminished culpability combatants.”

    Let us be clear. Diminished culpability does not mean that the aggression is justified, or that the aggressors are morally blameless (non-culpable and non-liable). Nor does it mean that they are excused (absolved of all responsibility) for their aggression. Blame and latent responsibility of the troops for their aggression is indicated by their liability. That is, their aggression warrants their suffering the forfeiture of their immunity – they can justifiably be resisted, warred against, in self/national defense. What the recognition of diminished culpability does suggest is an understanding and appreciation of the persuasive and coercive power of governments and the socialization pressures in a political community.

    Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, it recognizes the moral relevance, first, of the adolescent/young adult soldier not being in a position to make an informed judgment about the war and, second, that the level of coercion that soldier experiences makes it difficult, if not impossible, to decide otherwise than to serve and to fight.

    Consequently, given these extenuating conditions, their moral and legal culpability may be ameliorated post bellum. Further, while citizens are morally obligated not to support the troops qua warrior, compassion and respect for persons does require a moral obligation to act in the interest of all those victimized by war – whether they be innocent Iraqis or American diminished culpability combatants. This duty to assist, or what I term “supporting the troops qua human being,” entails doing what is truly in the troops physical, psychological, emotional and moral interest. Most importantly, citizens must strive, through protest, dissent and condemnation of the immoral war, to influence policy and bring pressure to bear upon their leaders to end the aggression against – the occupation of – Iraq and the exploitation and victimization of their own troops.

    Further, they should discourage troop participation in the war by, first, exposing the war’s immorality and the deception of their leaders. Secondly, the troops should be reminded that, at least since Nuremberg, their moral and legal obligations as soldiers require neither blind obedience to orders nor unquestioning trust in the decisions of their leaders. Third, they must strive to create an environment in which adolescents/young adults feel empowered to act upon their moral convictions and refuse conscription, enlisting in the military and/or fighting. Fourth, moral refusers and deserters must be supported and provided protection either through selective conscientious objector laws, legal defense funds or, more drastically, by providing sanctuaries from military apprehension and prosecution.

    Finally, compassion and the principle of respect for persons requires that the American citizenry strive to ensure that the troops receive the necessary care and treatment for the physical, psychological, emotional and moral injuries that are the inevitable consequences of their experiences in war, especially an immoral war. Overall, therefore, citizens, military and non-military alike, are morally obligated to become Winter Soldiers.

    Patriotism and Love of Country

    I am certain that some who will listen to the testimony of the Winter Soldiers will be outraged regarding the insinuation that the atrocities committed by Americans in Iraq go well beyond Abu Ghraib and Haditha. I am certain as well that some reading this essay will be outraged that I dare equate the war in Iraq to the attacks of 9/11, members of the American military to the Al-Qaeda terrorists, and that I advocate not supporting the troops qua warrior. I am also sure that this outrage will lead many readers to question the veterans’ and my patriotism and love of America, perhaps even to accuse us of moral treason. In response, I would remind these critics that their version of unquestioned “patriotism” and “love of America” entails an indifference to, and disregard for, the principles of morality and the tenets of International Law – the very characteristics of a rogue nation that we point to when proposing and justifying military action.

    Further, it ignores justice in favor of a might-over-right philosophy, betraying an arrogance that brings our nation neither honor nor prestige in the world, but rather hatred and righteous indignation. Most tragically, perhaps, it denigrates the very foundations and all we hold sacred as a nation – justice and fairness for all.

    Further, I would point out that morality is not a means of gaining strategic or tactical military advantage, to be abandoned or manipulated should its tenets prove inconvenient to furthering the national interest, or even unsupportive of the actions of those with whom we share allegiance. If morality is to have any meaning and if individuals and nations are to avoid hypocrisy, morality must be universally and fairly applied without prejudice, bias or consideration of national identity.

    To feel an impetus to support our country’s actions and an attachment and concern for fellow citizens serving in the military is understandable. Further, once the fighting has begun and our troops placed in harm’s way, it is also understandable that citizens may be motivated to ignore, overlook and/or rationalize the immorality of the war and of their soldiers’ actions. They may even hope for their troops’ speedy victory and triumphant return even at the expense of the deaths of their innocent victims. However, their support for aggression and murder and for the troops qua warrior, their hypocrisy and arrogance, and disregard for justice and morality, while perhaps understandable, is morally unjustifiable, un-American, unpatriotic and integral to the question they themselves pose so often but seldom answer: “Why do they hate us?”

    The true patriot, therefore, does not blindly follow and obey, but questions the actions of his leaders and, when necessary, brings attention to the defilement or abandonment of the values we hold dear. Consequently, in times such as these, morality and patriotism demand Winter Soldiers. That is, true patriots who, despite great personal sacrifice, struggle tirelessly and courageously, to restore America’s integrity and moral standing in the world, and hold accountable those political leaders who have violated the public trust by acting not in America’s interest, but in behalf of wealth, power and empire.

    Camillo “Mac” Bica, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His focus is in ethics, particularly as it applies to war and warriors. As a veteran recovering from his experiences as a United States Marine Corps officer during the Vietnam War, he founded, and coordinated for five years, the Veterans Self-Help Initiative, a therapeutic community of veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is a long-time activist for peace and justice, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and a founding member of the Long Island Chapter of Veterans for Peace. Articles by Dr. Bica have appeared in Cyrano’s Journal, The Humanist Magazine, Znet, Truthout.com, Common Dreams, AntiWar.com, Monthly Review Zine, Foreign Policy in Focus, OpEdNews.Com, and numerous philosophical journals.

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