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Military Ethics in the Wake of Haditha

January 25, 2012 1:09 p.m.


Dr. Martin Cook, Stockdale Chair of Professional Military Ethics, US Naval War College and author of "The Moral Warrior: Ethics and Service in the U.S. Military"

Related Story: Moral Ethics In The Military


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: You're listening to Midday Edition on KPBS. I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. The subject of military ethics is very much in the news this week as we grapple with the conclusion of the longest running criminal trial stemming from the Iraq war. The Haditha trial right here in San Diego at Camp Pendleton resulted in just a demotion. The nation is also trying to come to terms with a video of marines urinating on Taliban corpses. We are fortunate that a prominent military ethicist, doctor Martin Cook is in town today. Doctor Cook is also the editor of the journal of military ethics and the author of the book "The Moral Warrior." Thanks so much for being with us.

COOK: My pleasure.

ST. JOHN: So first of all, tell us, you're giving this lecture and you'll be talking about admiral Stockdale.

COOK: One of the things I want to explore in the lecture is why is it that everything in the Navy that has to do with ethics and leadership is named after him. It's a long list. And it's odd because he didn't command at a very senior level. His highest command was as a commander when he was shot down over Vietnam. If you're looking for people who had been great Navy leaders, you might have picked Halsey. But what makes him distinctive is two things, he was the senior prison of war in Vietnam, and he was horribly tortured in doing that. And he maintained a very high standard of self-discipline, and good leadership with the other POWs while in prison. So that's an impressive thing. But I think even more important than that is the fact that he wrote a great deal afterward. He's sort of a military philosophy. He has a book called thoughts of a philosophical fighter pilot. And he attributed his survival of the POW experience to his study of philosophy when he was in Stanford to get a different degree. But he studied philosophy, and became impressed by the works of the Roman stoics, in particular. Epictetus, and he writes a lot about the word of Epictetus.

ST. JOHN: I wanted to quote one of the quotes from admiral Stockdale. He says character is probably more important than knowledge. Of course all things being equal, knowledge is to be honored. But what I am saying is that whenever I've been in trouble spots in crises, and I've been in a lot of trouble and in a lot of crises, the sine qua non of a ladder lays not in his style of management, not in his still of processing information, but in his having the character, the heart to deal spontaneously, honorably, and candidly with people, complexities and principles. Do you think that the military is instilling these kind it is of thoughts in their training adequately?

COOK: Well, there's a lot of attention to it, but the service are still primarily technical. There's a great deal of emphasis on technical knowledge. So how the character development is woven into the training and the discipline is a topic of much discussion. Now, the U.S. Army for the last ten years has been writing quite a lot about this, and they have an entire center for this, the center for army profession and ethic, that has done excellent training materials, including video games. Listeners could go to their website, And all of those materials are publicly available. In the Navy where I work now, frankly, are we haven't done a very good job. But the current CNO has tasked a little organization I'm in to specifically begin addressing these questions. Just in the last three weeks.

ST. JOHN: Interesting.

COOK: Now, a lot of it, be I would say, even though if you don't explicitly talk about character development, an awful lot is embedded in training itself. Protection of noncombatants and things like that should be and is part of routine training for fire discipline of a team or identifying targets and rules of engagement. I don't want to sharply distinguish ethics from everything else that goes on in military training, all of which bares on how people behave.

ST. JOHN: Well, we have to apply this to the big story here in San Diego this week because the Haditha trial has just culminated up in Camp Pendleton. And it's an international story. Sergeant Frank Wuterich, who was originally charged with murder and then with manslaughter for his role in killing 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children in Haditha back in 2005, this week he pleaded guilty to charges of negligent dereliction of duty. And his sentence, a demotion to private. No jail time. I wanted to ask you. Why do you think Stockdale would have made of what happened in Haditha?

COOK: Well, he would have been horrified by it, of course. And I want to make clear I can't comment on the details of the case from a legal point of view. But one of the fundamental jobs of a squad leader like Wuterich is to try and maintain the technical term, fire discipline. And what's reported in the news is he said just don't hold back. Feel free to use fire fairly indiscriminately. And they were told to positively identify all targets, and according to the press reports that didn't do that. They just went into houses shooting. If that's indeed the case, then that is a fundamental failure of his job as the squad leader to enforce fire discipline on his guys.

ST. JOHN: This was his first experience of combat. But he got it wrong. Shouldn't he be punished for that however much we feel compassion for him?

COOK: Again, I don't want to comment on the legal case.

ST. JOHN: We're talking more ethics here.

COOK: I understand. But his training certainly should have prepared him to handle this better than he appears to have done. And the mere fact that it's his first time in combat shouldn't have affected that. He was trained better than that.

ST. JOHN: He said at his hearing that he felt no emotion, he felt almost like a machine.

>> Yeah.

ST. JOHN: How do you think ethics play into that situation? How could training have made a difference to this?

COOK: Part of the job of military training is in fact to get people in that state so they respond instinctively. And the people who are extremely reflective in a combat situation are often quite dangerous. There's nothing inherent he wrong with the fact he goes into a machine-like -- or the training takes over is the way they usually describe it. That's perfectly fine. The trick is that the training should embed the fire discipline that you would expect, and should have. So it's not the particulars of how we reacted emotionally at the moment that matter it is. It's the fact that the training didn't lead him to behave the way we would have train him to do so.

ST. JOHN: And when you're arguing that the Navy needs to include more of this character training that admiral Stockdale embodies, what kind of training do you think could have prevented this, could actually be something that would prevent this tragedy from happening?

COOK: One of the things I'm going to talk about tonight is Stockdale's own answer to that, which is quite a remarkable one. He member brought up as an aviator in the Navy. Will so his focus was entirely on technical things. Until about mid-career. And he came to believe that it was the study of the humanities, and in particular philosophy, that was the key to this. So when he became the president of the naval war college where I now teach, he created a course, which is still called the Stockdale course, which I teach every term, and its philosophy for officers. He thought that was the key. There was too much focus on technical stuff, and not enough on discovering ONE'S self and being self-reflective. That's an odd answer in a military context. It's a tough sell. But one of the things I'm going to argue in the talk tonight is we should take his word seriously on this point.

ST. JOHN: It's interesting that you're talking about the training in terms of philosophy, whereas doctor versus admiral Stockdale was talking about character. And do you really feel like the study of philosophy in the military would take it deep enough to be looking at those issues of character that he is emphasize something.

EVANS: Well, in fact, he thought only that would do it, that it would deep reflection that was really required. For enlisted folks like sergeant Wuterich, I don't think we're talking about sitting around reading Plato with them. But what you would hope they have is a fairly deep understanding of what they're there to do, right? So regardless of what the rules of engagement were or their response, if there's this moment when they think what is our mission here, and what are going to be the consequences for the overall success of US effort, if we lose fire discipline or if we have an Abu Ghraib or Haditha. And those things go fundamentally not just to accomplishing this little task before you, but you have a more comprehensive sense of who you are, and how you fit into this overall picture. And if you look -- again, the army is ahead of the other services on this. But if you look at what they have been doing, they're working this down to how do you get this down to the private level?

ST. JOHN: Now, there has in the news been this other incident in which there have been videos of marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. And I need to mention that there was mention of a similar incident of this the first day of the Haditha trial, in which it was mentioned that staff sergeant Frank Wuterich had addressed one of his squad members who was urinating on the bodies of the five men who were killed in the white pickup and told him to cut that out. And that was used as evidence that in fact he still had a sense of dignity about him.


ST. JOHN: At the same time, it's kind of interesting that that same behavior occurred in Haditha. Do you have something to say about how the public should be reacting appropriately to this incident? There's been so many different reactions. Should civilians have the right to judge soldiers in these situations?

EVANS: Oh, civilians definitely have the right to judge them. They're our agents. They represent us. Insofar as they dishonor us, they have failed in their duty. So absolutely. On the other hand, if you want to ask how we psychologically understand how people end up doing this, the mutilation of the dead goes back to Achilles dragging Hector through the dirt of Troy. This is a phenomenon we know happens in war. People get angry, frustrated, react with violent emotion. And we know that's going to happen. So it's back to the training question.

ST. JOHN: Yes.

EVANS: You have to be trained that you're going to have these emotion, and we need to help you figure out how to channel them in ways that are legally and morally acceptable. And we can't prep tend they're not going to happen.

ST. JOHN: Does this kind of behavior show failure of leadership at the top? And if so, what can be done?

EVANS: Well, at some level, it's always a question of leadership. But here, in this case, you have a small squad of enlisted people out by themselves, are right? And that's the kind of conflict we're in now. So the old notion used to be that you could let the officers be responsible for all this, that they would control their enlisted people. That's no longer the case. It's one of the reasons all of the serves are thinking much more deeply about how to push the training that's required down to the lowest levels little.

ST. JOHN: I see.

EVANS: We have people of very low rank operation independently, making their own judgments. The low ranking person who was going to make a decision that could have strategic consequences for what you're trying to accomplish in your overall mission. And we've got strategic privates at this point, down at the lowest level. If that's the reality of the kind of operation environment we're in, then the kind of training that lets it reside in the annual legal brief and rules of engagement and leadership by officers, except in the role the officers have in giving realistic training, so when the enlisted folks find themselves in that situation, they have been trained to know how to respond. They do get armed conflict training every year. But I did ask around to a number of jags and military lawyer, would they ever be told explicitly about the treatment of dead bodies? And the consensus seemed to be no, probably not. The focus would be more on noncombatant immunity, who you can shoot at, and things like that. So you hope they would know it.

ST. JOHN: James Amos, the head of the Marine Corps has said it's unacceptable. The US is seen as a world leader. Are we reacting appropriately or are we lowering ourselves in the world's eyes by not really holding anyone accountable in the case of Haditha and the urinating on the Taliban?

EVANS: Well, again, the specific cases I don't know any more than you know from the news. So I don't want to speak with any authority about this. But yeah, you would want to really try to find out who is responsible. And one of the temptations in the past when we hold anybody accident accountable, we keep it at the lowest levels of accountable. A book I would recommend is called black hearts, one decent into chaos in Iraq, or something like that. And it's a study of a unit in react that formed a conscious plan to rape an Iraqi girl and murder her family. Of and the book is great because it shows the failures of leadership over a fairly long period of time that ended up with this 1 unit of enlisted guys doing this. Upon but the point of the book is they didn't get there by themselves. There were people above them who knew there were problems with that unit, they were under-resourced, overstressed. So it was a failure at many levels. So to really dig into these things and how we got there is always a mistake just to focus on the bad apple theory.

ST. JOHN: And you have been asked to introduce ideas. Give us specifics about how what you're doing might affect training in the Navy.

EVANS: In the Navy, historically, there's almost no direct attention to leadership questions. The tendency has been to think that successful operation of ships and equipment is the main goal. For juniors officers, for example, on their first department tour on a surface vessel, they're body studying a lot of technical information to get what's called their service warfare officer qualification. And that's what they're spending most of their time doing. The notion that the captain of the ship might after dinner convene a discussion about professionalism, for example, is almost a nonstarter in the Navy. This is not true in the army. In the army, commanders think of that as part of their -- I think it's true of the Marines. Of so one of the cultural changes that we're going to be looking at is how to change that cultural element so that commanders at every level think the development of their people as professionals is part of their command responsibility.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Well, I'd like to thank you very much for spending a little time with us. That's doctor Martin Cook. Thank you for being with us. And doctor Cook will be giving a lecture in San Diego's USD's theatre tonight at 6:30. Reflecting on admiral Stockdale's legacy and ethics.