Three of the people who were featured in Soldiers of Conscience — Lt. Col. Pete Kilner and conscientious objectors Aidan Delgado and Joshua Casteel — will answer questions from viewers during the week following Thursday, October 16, 2008.
Lt. Col. Pete Kilner is a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point and a former infantry commander. He has written on the subject of unit cohesion and spoken out on the necessity for enhanced preparation for soldiers in the moral justifications for war and killing in combat.
Former West Point cadet Joshua Casteel served in the Army Reserves and was later called up to active duty. He trained as an interrogator and an Arabic language specialist before being sent to the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He applied for and was granted conscientious objector status in 2005, receiving an honorable discharge. Now a Catholic, Joshua traveled with a delegation of Catholic leaders to meet with the Pope in March 2007.
After joining the Army Reserve in 2001, Aidan Delgado developed an interest in Buddhism and began to reconsider the morality of military service. After being called to active duty, Delgado served at the Abu Ghraib prison compound before seeking and receiving conscientious objector status in 2004. In 2008, Aidan moved to Washington D.C. to attend Georgetown Law where he is studying Constitutional and Public Interest law. He is currently working on a second book, a work of fiction. After law school, Aidan plans to return to Florida where he has been involved in Democratic
politics and pursue elected office.
We kicked things off by asking a few questions to Lt. Col. Pete Kilner about his research.
POV: What inspired your research into the morality of killing?
Lt. Col. Pete Kilner: In September 1994, I found myself preparing to invade Haiti. I was a captain in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, sitting on an airfield in North Carolina, waiting to load an airplane from which I would parachute into Port-au-Prince later that night.
Amid the nervous chatter, one young soldier’s sincere question to an Army chaplain caught my attention.
“Chaplain,” he asked. “We’re gonna kill a lot of people tonight. Is that alright?”
“Of course it’s the right thing to do,” responded the chaplain with confidence. “We’re soldiers. The President told us to do it. That makes it right.”
I remember feeling terribly disappointed in that response, thinking to myself there’s got to be a better answer than that.
As it turned out, the parachute assault was canceled at the last moment when diplomacy prevailed. Two years later, I had the opportunity to revisit the question when the Army sent me to study philosophy at Virginia Tech. Away from the hectic pace of a combat unit, I relished the opportunity to look up the answer to this most basic moral question for a soldier — what makes killing in the context of war morally right? To my surprise and dismay, I could not find the answer. No one — not the chaplaincy, the Army, the Department of Defense, academia, not even the Catholic Church (which over the past 2000 years has arrived at an answer for almost everything) — provided a rigorous moral justification for killing enemy combatants in war! Having joined the MD National Guard as an infantryman soon after high school, and subsequently having become an infantry officer, I had always assumed that what I trained myself and others to do was a morally justified action. I knew that I needed either to discover the answer or to become an anti-war activist.
What I discovered in my research was that the Just War tradition justifies the moral permissibility of war at the international level and includes principles for individual soldiers’ conduct in war, but it does not provide a moral justification for the combatant-on-combatant killing that characterizes war. In contrast, the War Pacifist tradition focuses its lens at the level of the individual soldier, claiming that killing another human being in the context of war is morally unjustified, and thus wars among states are unjustified. In my masters’ thesis, I combined a war-pacifist framework for justifiable killing with my own understanding of the nature of war to produce a moral justification for killing in war.
Two other influences deseve mention. First, LTC (RET) Dave Grossman’s book On Killing, which I read while writing my thesis on the morality of killing in war. On Killing broke the taboo on talking about killing, and it provides great insight on the personal experience of killing. Of course, Grossman examines the issue from a psychological perspective; he taught psychology at West Point. When I read the stories and examples in On Killing, I read them from an ethicist’s perspective. The book opened my eyes to the huge need to address the morality of killing with those who kill rightfully.
Second, I have been motivated to continue my work by the encouraging responses of soldiers, especially those who have killed in war.
POV: In the film, you talk about how your work has been received with some controversy within the military community. Has that changed since filming ended?
Lt. Col. Kilner: Yes. At the time of filming, I had never been invited to address soldiers on the issue. In the past two years, I have had the privilege to lead seminars on the morality of killing in war with soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division, the 101st Airborne Division, and the 25th Infantry Division; with many cadets here at West Point; and with all the staff and faculty at the Marine Corps’ Command and General Staff College, which I have been invited to do again this May.
Last week, I was told that the Army course that trains Infantry officers is interested in adding the subject to their curriculum. The Army’s Command and General Staff College has included “Military Leaders’ Obligation to Justify Killing in War” in its curriculum for several years.
In sum, my fellow soldiers and military leaders are near-universally supportive of my work.
POV: Has your work influenced the way that the military trains new soldiers?
Lt. Col. Kilner: Not that I’m aware of. I have addressed plebes at West Point. But, to be honest, I think that new recruits need to spend their precious time learning how to kill; they need to be socialized into being able to do something they haven’t done before. Once the soldiers report to their units, their leaders there can take care of the rest. When all company-grade officers and senior NCOs are empowered to talk with their soldiers about the morality of war and killing, my mission will have been accomplished.
POV: Are there any books that you’d consider as recommended or required reading for people interested in enlisting in the military?
For books to provide insight into killing, I am a fan of Dave Grossman’s books On Killing and On Combat. As for books on the morality of war, I recommend Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, Brian Orend’s The Morality of War, and Richard Norman’s Ethics, Killing, and War. As for the psychology of war, I recommend Chris Hedge’s War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.
Added November 10, 2008: Aidan Delgado and Lt. Col. Pete Kilner answered viewer questions in the comments of this post. Unfortunately, Joshua Casteel did not have time to participate. Read on for responses to questions about Ghandian non-violence, the difficulties of being a conscientious objector and more.