Military Ethicist Addresses Duke Audience

on December 16, 2011

West Point instructor Pete Kilner (left) addressed Duke Divinity School on the ethics of modern combat. (Photo credit: Command Company Forum)

West Point instructor Lt. Col. Pete Kilner addressed Duke Divinity School’s Milites Christi organization on the “morality of killing.” As part of the “After the Yellow Ribbon series of lectures this Fall, Kilner’s presentation at Durham, NC defended war outside the bounds of traditional just war theory.

Commissioned in 1990, Kilner went on to receive advanced degrees in education and philosophy. He now teaches at West Point, training cadets to become an efficient, mentally-stable, and moral fighting force. Since his initiation into military life, Kilner has sought to answer: “Is it ok to kill people?” This quest overlaps with Duke’s Milites Christi, which devotes itself to the spiritual and psychological health of veterans.

“We [in the military] never talk about the morality of killing…[and many soldiers] have never even conceptualized the question,” Kilner admitted. “You’re not in the Army if you don’t kill,” he noted. “You’re going to have to justify yourself eventually.”

“Soldiers too often are driven to despair by regretting their actions,” Kilner said. The ethicist valued those who do question the morality of war; ethical rightness and mental health pivot on the conclusion. But Kilner takes exception to both pacifist and just war positions. The former, he seemed to believe, ignores the problem of evil. The latter “gives no moral autonomy to the other side.” Just war theory functions through the “moral equality of soldiers” principle. All combatants are equally innocent and guilty in the war, forbidding attacks on innocents and allowing for noble bloodshed between the two parties.

Kilner deemed the just war stance the moral equivalent of gang warfare; no one is truly the protagonist. “You can’t have two just sides,” he argued, “One really is and the other merely thinks it is.” An audience member contested with the example of World War II Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, a relatively chivalrous and humane German commander. Kilner replied that Rommel was on the “wrong side” and a “bad guy—he is not a good man.” He did think that the lines were quite clear in Iraq and Afghanistan, where “the other side is taking ambulances, filling them up with explosives, and driving in to town to blow up everyone.”

“All of us have the right not to be killed,” Kilner said, arguing for an alternative negative conception of rights. There is no right to life (since men suffer accidents and disease outside the control of other men), nor is there free speech (since some people are mute). Rather, men have the right not to be murdered or the right not to be silenced. In other words, freedom is based on not being meddled with—it is freedom from rather than freedom to. “We also know people can forfeit that right,” he continued, “The way you lose your right is by violating or threatening the right of someone who possesses it.”

The enemies of one’s country have to have forfeited their right not to be killed in order for a soldier to attack. Rights are not permanently lost; they abscond only as long as one is a threat by “intent and capability.” The unarmed prisoner or parleying warlord should not be killed on the spot.

In the context of battle, situations are still messy, Kilner said. America’s recent wars serve as an excellent example. Insurgents would dress as women or exploit children to do their bidding. The most virulent enemies of America cannot be found. Kilner pointed out, “The men who are fighting are not the ideologues, who are never on the front lines. They’re back in Pakistan training.”

Information and legality further complicate matters. “In war, it’s a matter of information,” the West Point instructor claimed, “If I only knew everything, then I would make the right decision.” Likewise, legal jargon is nearly worthless in combat situations: “In war, there is no higher authority than the military forces. Everything else has failed—that’s why you’re fighting. Also, it’s not a personal thing.”

Government leaders generally neglect the insight that, “War is one of the most weighty moral decisions possible. On the other hand, it is the least autonomous decision you’ll ever make [as a foot soldier].” Because of this, one’s country must be clearly in the right before attacking. “Nothing can justify killing people in an unjust cause,” Kilner argued, “If it’s an unjust war, you’re the bad guy.” When an audience member wondered if war was often the best option for a nation, the professor replied, “Is it worth it? In most cases, I don’t think so.” He added, “Ultimately, we have a duty to protect the innocent.”

As many military historians would note, Kilner assumes a tradition of American warfare that sprung up at least by the Civil War under Union generals William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. Sometimes, according to Kilner, soldiers have to kill those who are not clearly morally culpable. “That’s what sucks about war,” he exclaimed, “No one feels good about it.” He concluded: “There is this problem of evil in the world. It stinks because it ruins it for the rest of us.”

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