Interview: Pete Kilner

Dave Ross: Last week we talked about a film called Soldiers of Conscience. And I thought it was a fascinating interview because here was a film — I mean, you wonder, you wonder how many obvious questions go unasked in life, right? And one of the obvious unasked questions was the one that the director of this film, Gary Weimberg, decided to ask of soldiers fighting in Iraq: Would you pull the trigger and kill another human being if your nation asks you to do?

Such an obvious question and yet very rarely asked. And the film features Lt. Col. Pete Kilner, who joins us now. Col. Kilner, thanks for coming on today. I understand that you are speaking with us not as an official spokesperson of the government or the military but as an individual soldier, but part of your role has been to write about this subject, of the morality of killing in war. And I’m just curious, why does this — I mean, you’re training people to win battles, right?

Lt. Col. Pete Kilner: Yes.

Ross: Why does this even come up?

Kilner: Well, before we’re soldiers, we’re human beings. So we should only be doing anything in life if it’s the morally right thing to do. So it seems obvious [that] if we recruit people to kill, train them to kill, give them the orders to kill, that we also explain to them why that’s the right thing to do in those circumstances.

Ross: But in battle, you’re going to follow an order, right? And when you get that order to take that hill or take that building, you’re not expected to stop and think, “Well, I wonder if we’re really killing the right people when we take that hill or take that building.”

Kilner: That’s true. Now part of it is you’ll be ordered to take a hill or to take a building and that’s by a leader who should be trained and understands what’s the appropriate use of force. The typical soldier would just be trained to be very lethal but also very discriminating. So the training involves — we want to be the most lethal force out there, so that we accomplish our mission and come home alive, but also to be discriminating because that’s the right thing to do. We want to accomplish the good with as little bad as possible in war.

Ross: Okay, so you teach at West Point now, right?

Kilner: I do.

Ross: How would you characterize your role in this film, Soldiers of Conscience? What did the director ask of you?

Kilner: He asked me to do just what I do anyway, which is make the case that the killing of enemy combatants in war is a morally justified thing to do. And it strikes me as strange that we don’t use that language and talk about it that much but, you know, I came into it because I saw people who had killed justly, they had done what their country had asked them to do, and were feeling really bad about it, because it wasn’t something we had prepared them to do. And I also see some people who criticize war — and I think wrongly — or criticize the actions of soldiers within war wrongly. So I wanted to make the case of something I feel strongly about, which is the role that the soldier plays is important, is noble [and] in the terrible circumstances of war, is the morally right thing to do. And that soldiers should feel good about what they do and that society should support them in that.

Ross: Have you had soldiers come to you and say that they’re worried they didn’t do the right thing?

Kilner: Oh, yes. And you can see it a lot in the literature but also because I’ve researched this and talked with people about it.

Ross: Under what circumstances? Can you give me an example of a soldier who felt he hadn’t done the right thing after following orders?

Kilner: One soldier I talked to in Iraq had been in a major battle down on Haifa Street in Baghdad and had killed three insurgents, clearly bad people, well-armed, in a major firefight and he said it just felt so weird. In his description, we don’t have a great moral vocabulary for it. He’s like, “It just didn’t feel right and I knew I couldn’t do that again.” So they pulled him back and gave him a job where he doesn’t have to go in and do that fighting anymore. I think how sad, because if he had the right information, the right education, if he knew it’s natural to feel a little weird when you kill another human being, that he would okay [and] would be more at peace with himself. Because I’m struck that among especially the officers who expect this issue to come up now, because there is a good professional discussion on it, a lot of them said, “I expected to feel guilty, I expected this and that, and I don’t.” But I think it’s because they were prepared for the experience and they knew there were going to be a lot of emotions involved in it.

Ross: So is this something new for the Army?

Kilner: It is. It’s something new, I would say, for the international profession of arms. Well, I guess, if you look at old times, if you look at the Crusades or you look at Native American societies, they always recognized that war is a lesser of evils. For example, when the soldiers came back from the Crusades, they went through a time of penance, a time of cleansing as it were, because the society then recognized that war involves these awful things. I think in the last couple hundred years, we’ve really lost that nuance. It’s become too black and white. We think, oh, we’re the good guys, and war is somehow a clean process. And because of that I think we lost the ability to talk about the bad things in war, we lost the sense of moral vocabulary as society became more secularized, so it’s really only in the last ten years, really since 2000, that there is a growing professional discussion within the us military engaging and talking about the morality of killing, when it’s justified and why it’s justified.

Ross: Your goal is to create soldiers who are able to kill when ordered to without feeling guilt?

Kilner: Or recognizing that they probably will feel some guilt, but being able to make sense of it. So we’ll feel guilty if we’re involved in killing someone, even if we’re not at fault. So if you’re driving home today and a little child runs out in the street and you can’t stop, and you were doing everything right, you’re still going to feel terrible.

Ross: Absolutely. I know somebody who was in that situation in fact, and it’s devastating.

Kilner: Right. And that’s just perhaps a good person having their hand in the death of another human being. But we should be able to have them make sense of it. And in fact I would want soldiers, if they kill wrongly, if they kill someone they shouldn’t, to feel guilty. I mean guilt is a healthy response to something we perceive is wrong. But what we need to do is educate them so they can understand better what’s right in war, what’s wrong in war and what’s excusable. Because war just way too often, because of the fog of war, good people end up killing people they shouldn’t, where you don’t want to say it’s right, but they’re not morally blameworthy.

Ross: What about the cases we also hear about, where you’re manning a checkpoint and you see a suspicious car and you open fire, and it turns out to be a kid or a family? What do you do about that?

Kilner: Those are the most devastating cases I think psychologically for our soldiers. And unfortunately, despite a lot of good efforts to keep that from happening that continues to happen. I think what you do is you talk to the person, and hopefully your unit has the ability to talk to say that given the information that you had on the ground you did the right thing. It turned out you didn’t have perfect information. It wasn’t the right thing. That falls under the category of, maybe morally excusable we’d want to call it, where the person is not wrong, even though they’re going to feel like they did an awful thing and we just need to help them through it, through counseling. And in the same way that if you hit the child on the way home, you’re just going to feel so bad … I think it’s mostly counseling, talking with them and helping them intellectually get a grip over their emotions.

Ross: It appears that, based on what you said, you don’t really know how you’ll react until you actually go through it. Is that correct?

Kilner: I think there’s a lot of evidence, yes.

Ross: Yeah. Is there a danger if you take this moral training too far that you desensitize people in such a way that when they are civilians again they can’t turn it off?

Kilner: I think it would have the opposite effect. I mean, for the last century the main way of training has been sort of desensitizing. There’s a natural thing, you know, we’re not killing Iraqi insurgents — some people will call them hajjis, which good units don’t allow that to happen, but there was always, there was the VC or the charlies or the krauts.

Ross: Right, you dehumanize people.

Kilner: Desensitizing and automatic stimulus response training. And in itself a stimulus response training isn’t bad. I mean, that’s — as long as you’re training to discriminate between targets — that’s good. So I actually think that rather than ignoring the issue, pretending it’s not human beings that you’re killing, but recognizing their full humanity, recognizing that, hey, based on their choices this is what they get, maybe at the moment it’ll be a little more upsetting, but in the long term I think it’ll be much healthier for the people involved.

Ross: So that’s the way the training is changing? Because I got the impression after talking to [director] Gary [Weimberg] that they were — that the Army was actually moving back towards stimulus and response so that you wouldn’t have people going through a lot of moral waffling before pulling the trigger.

Kilner: We are [moving towards] stimulus response. I mean reflexive fire techniques, the pop-up target techniques are very stimulus response. We want our soldiers — these are the people that are defending our freedoms — to be faster and more lethal than the enemy. But what we’ll do reflexively — you know, at some point you’re going to reflect on it, whether it’s two hours later, two weeks later or two decades later.

Ross: So this is to deal with the guilt that may come, the guilt that may emerge after you’ve done something by reflex?

Kilner: Yeah, it’s a sense-making. We don’t need moral deliberation if you’re in a close firefight, but what you need is the education and the skills so that you can make sense of it after the fact, that when you reflect on it you say, “Yup, if I’d thought about it I would have done the right thing, but if I had thought about it I might have gotten killed.”

Ross: Okay. What about, now, there are cases though when you want troops to think about it, especially when you’re in an operation like Iraq, where you are, you’re busting into homes and you’re going to have your share of — you’re going to confront your share of innocent people. There are times in those cases where you do want an individual soldier to try and make a moral judgment, don’t you?

Kilner: Absolutely. And they’ve always had to make those kind of judgments. And if you talk beforehand, if they’re in the habit of thinking through what constitutes a combatant, what’s a noncombatant and how do we treat those people, and how do I have a judgment that can make a split-second decision, or even a split-minute decision, then they’ll be better off. So absolutely, you know, stimulus and response training doesn’t help you clear through an extended household and work through people you don’t know whether they’re good or bad. But moral decision making and thinking through what constitutes the moral use of force does help you in those situations.

Ross: Were you going though this moral training before the Abu Ghraib incident happened?

Kilner: Yes. And it’s really unrelated to that. Abu Ghraib was just a leadership failure that every soldier is embarrassed of and really angered by. You know, that’s not a question of enemy combatants. That’s a mistreatment of detainees.

Ross: Yeah.

Kilner: In the movie some of the conscientious objectors, I think two of them had been working with detainees, and that’s a really different dynamic, because at that point they’re noncombatants, [different] than the typical line soldier who’s out there taking on the insurgents who are implacing IEDs.

Ross: Yeah, you can’t argue then that you were just trying to defend yourself, because these guys were already under control.

Kilner: Exactly. And they should be treated humanely, and in those cases where they weren’t I could see where that would be very upsetting for those soldiers.

Ross: Yeah. Army Lt. Col. Pete Kilner, Pete, thanks very much for coming on. I appreciate it.

Kilner: You’re welcome.

The audio of this interview is available courtesy of The Dave Ross Show on KIRO 97.3/FM .