The Embedded Morality in FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency
June 25, 2009
Today's Army Doctrine describes a new era of "persistent conflict" in which military professionals must apply their skills in "complex" and "multidimensional" environments and conduct operations "among the people." Marines and Soldiers trained in the nuances of attack, defense, and movement-to-contact must become, in General David Petraeus's words, "pentathlete leaders comfortable not just with major combat operations but with operations conducted throughout the middle- and lower-ends of the spectrum of conflict.
The profession of arms once demanded a strict separation between war and politics. Young leaders today have become politically savvy deal makers, agenda framers and setters, and economic planners. Senior military leader do not consider these young professionals' ability to be above and beyond the call of duty. On the contrary, Field Manual (FM) 3-24 <i>Counterinsurgency</i> states, "Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors."
The world's heightened complexity as an ethical component. Remote desert warfare poses mostly instrumental challenges related to the synchronization of means. Operations conducted among and with the people demand that U.S. forces continuously demonstrate ethical judgment. Although the scandal of Abu Ghraib signifies failure, innumerable successes occurring daily in Iraq and Afghanistan show that the overwhelming majority of military professionals are meeting the ethical challenge.
Nevertheless, the Military Health Advisory Team IV survey yielded troubling results when it became public in May 2007. The survey queried fewer than 2,000 Soldiers and Marines who had served in units with "the highest level of combat exposure" in Iraq and found that:
- "Approximately 10 percent of Soldiers and Marines report mistreating noncombatants or damaging property when it was not necessary.
- Only 47 percent of Soldiers and 38 percent of Marines agreed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.
- Well over a third of all Soldiers and Marines reported that torture should be allowed to save the life or a fellow Soldier or Marine.
- Less than half of the Soldiers or Marines would report a team member for unethical behavior."
Although Army doctrine specifies that "preserving noncombatant lives and dignity is central to mission accomplishment" in counterinsurgency, the survey reported that between one-third and one-half of the Soldiers and Marines who answered the survey's questions dismissed either the importance or the truth of the dignity attendant to noncombatants.
Shortly after the publication of the MHAT's findings, General Petraeus urged troops to use the survey results to "spur reflection on our conduct in combat." He stated, "We should use the survey results to renew our commitment to the values and standards that make us who we are and to spur re-examination of these issues." This essay follows General Petraeus's call to reflect on the values "that make us who we are" and reexamine our commitment to them by focusing on human dignity.
Army doctrine explicitly emphasizes "human dignity," although it is not immediately clear whether the Army posits that preserving human dignity as an intermediate end (or means) or as an ultimate, moral end. Also not readily apparent is the relationship between human dignity and the military ends sought. Nevertheless, FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, contains an ethical subtext and entails an implicit but substantial morality. This implicit morality raises two questions:
AcaEUR"A? How does the military professional come to accept these implicit obligations'
AcaEUR"A? How is this morality relevant to our current military struggles'
Reading Between the Lines
There are two ways to understand the declaration that "preserving noncombatant lives and dignity is central to mission accomplishment."
In one sense, this counterinsurgency tenet is utilitarian; that is, we ought to preserve lives and dignity because it pays, or is in our interest, or is conducive to mission success. If a Soldier fails to preserve the dignity of indigenous persons, enemy insurgents will reap success. Preserving the dignity of indigenous people increases the probability of a counterinsurgent's tactical, operational, and strategic
success. Similarly, the nation-builder may choose to become culturally appreciative merely as a means to mission accomplishment. This concern-for-consequences approach to cultural awareness is certainly present in our doctrine:
<i>Cultural awareness has become an increasingly important competency for small-unit leaders. Perceptive junior leaders learn how cultures affect military operations. They study major world cultures and put a priority on learning the details of the new operational environment when deployed. Different solutions are required in different cultural contexts. Effective small-unit leaders adapt to new situations, realizing their words and actions may be interpreted differently in different cultures. Like all other competencies, cultural awareness requires self-awareness, self-directed learning, and adaptability.</i>
This text suggests that respect for the human dignity and culture of the other is a way to develop a militarily expedient solution and end state.
Nevertheless, a non-utilitarian understanding of the declaration that "preserving noncombatant lives and dignity is central to mission accomplishment" also emerges from the doctrine. Inherent is the claim that the human dignity of the other is in fact the ultimate end that determines (or makes sense of) the vast array of tactical and operational ends in military orders and campaign plans. Such dignity is both central to military success and a fundamental moral end.
Field Manual 3-24 considers military action to be in the service of human dignity. Yet it is not explicit about this relationship. I must therefore justify my interpretive approach, which is-to put it plainly-to read between the lines and thereby draw out the implications of the language. FM 3-24 introduces the terms ideology and narrative as concepts useful for analyzing enemy insurgents. Hence, "ideology provides a prism, including a vocabulary and analytical categories, through which followers perceive their situation."8 Moreover, "the central mechanism through which ideologies are expressed and absorbed is the narrative. A narrative
is an organizational scheme expressed in story form. Narratives are central to representing identity, particularly the collective identity of religious sects, ethnic groupings, and tribal elements . . . Stories are often the basis for strategies and actions, as well as for interpreting others' intentions."
The FM's discussion of ideologies and narratives occurs mostly within the context of the insurgent's thought. Yet political philosophers and theorists have long recognized that all persons and groups possess narrative self-understandings. At times, these self-understandings become explicit. President George W. Bush's first inaugural address in 2001 provides an example of a self-consciously produced narrative:
<i>We have a place, all of us, in a long story-a story we continue, but whose end we will not see. It is the story of a new world that became a friend and liberator of the old, a story of a slave-holding society that became a servant of freedom, the story of a power that went into the world to protect but not possess, to defend but not to conquer. It is the American story-a story of flawed and fallible people, united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals.</i>
Wherever there is a we-be it a political party, a football team, a town, a movement,
a nation, or an insurgency-there is an accompanying narrative that describes one we in contradistinction to another we. Bush's narrative resonates with most Americans as Americans, irrespective of political stance, since his narrative is merely a variation of the typical American narrative.
Political theorists and social scientists agree generally about the role that explicit narratives play within communal and political life. They also agree that we possess implicit and often un-articulated beliefs about how we understand ourselves, others, and the world. These background premises enable or sustain our explicit narratives. Our narratives, in turn determine the reasons we choose to perform such actions as waking up in the morning, seeking employment, praying, or developing
a national security strategy.
The political theorist Stephen White approaches this intangible but decisive aspect of reality with two related concepts. One concept is the lifeworld, which he describes as "the unthought of our thought, the implicit of our explicit, the unconscious
background of our conscious foreground." White employs a second, related concept, which he calls an ontology. By using this term, which has a contested pedigree, he means to put his finger on a person's "most basic sense of human being" or a person's "most basic conceptualizations of self, other, and world."
My argument relies on three social-scientific claims. First, I rely on the plausibility of FM 3-24's conclusion that a group's self-generated meanings, strategies, and goals are in large part a function of the group's aggregate narratives. Second, I rely on the plausibility of White's claim that narratives are in large part a function of implicit, unarticulated premises that sustain (or make possible) our conscious
thoughts and outspoken declarations about ourselves, others, and the world.
I rely on a third claim, which is that our often unarticulated premises determine what we hold to be morally right and wrong. Thus, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's version of White's "unthought of our thought" is the "social imaginary" (or "image of a moral order"), which "is an identification of features of the world, or divine action or human life that make certain norms both right and (up to the point indicated) realizable. In other words, the image of order carries a definition not only of what is right, but of the context in which it makes sense to strive for and hope to realize the right (at least partially)."
A concrete example illustrates the plausibility of these three claims. No one in the West entertains the Divine Right of Kings doctrine partly because John Locke's First Treatise of Government demolished it in the 1600s. Moreover, Locke's Second Treatise has shaped our political self-understandings insofar as such notions as political rights, private property, political consent, and church-state separation roll trippingly and without controversy off our tongues. Today, Americans never need to articulate general arguments against kingship and in favor of rights, property, consent, and secular politics because these principles have become part of our implicit intellectual baggage. These implicit and taken-for-granted notions are part of our equally implicit ontologies. We are Lockeans, even if we don't know it. It is precisely the ontological depth of the human being that drives the requirement for cultural-awareness training, explains the substance of our military and national security strategies, and shapes our ethical stance toward innocent human life.
Reflection on the relationships among ontologies, narratives, and our actions may serve as a way to evaluate moral commitments. Yet the Army's ethical training does not focus on narratives or ontologies. The Army's institutional approach to ethics hinges on lists and models. The Army Values, the Soldier's Rules, the Code of Conduct, the Warrior Ethos, the Law of Land Warfare, and specific rules of engagement and escalation-of-force requirements clearly prescribe rules of behavior. Some Army leaders receive additional instruction in the Army's Decision Making Model and the Ethical Triangle.
Yet the implicit morality discernible in our doctrine is more expansive than simple rules or decision criteria.
A Soldier's rules are not encapsulated, stand-alone structures. Rules only exist and are fully intelligible when considered in the wider context of a person's (often inchoate) notions about himself, others, the world, and symbols of ultimate meaning. Such notions, overlapping matrices of self-understanding, are often barely perceptible.
Ethical decisions involve not simply the application of rules and models, but an orientation. The philosopher Russell Hittinger reveals this fact when he describes the situation of a professor returning home from an academic conference:
An agent who is seriously inclined to, and who actually deliberates about, marital infidelity might make the "correct" decision according to rules advocated by one or another theory, yet the correctness of the decision does not alleviate, and indeed can obscure, the specifically moral dimension of the quandary. We can imagine, for example, a professor who returns from an academic conference and confesses to his wife that although he felt strongly urged to commit a marital infidelity, he deliberated about the moral significance of the action and concluded that it was a violation of the golden rule (if he is a deontologist), or perhaps that he came to his senses and saw that such an action would not bring about the greatest good for the greatest number (if he is a utilitarian). None of us would blame his spouse if she were as much or more concerned with the man's character than with the fact that he successfully resolved a quandary according to a rule.
If our ethical choices involved nothing more than a cut-and-dried application of rules or theories, Hittinger's observation would not appear as strange as it does. The hypothetical professor appears to us as morally depraved despite his fastidious application of venerable ethical rules and theories.17 Our ethical selves do not "kick into gear" only during those moments of ethical decision; we carry a lifetime's worth of implicit baggage into these moments.
The Ethical Subtext of Field Manual 3-24
Stephen White's technique is to unearth the underlying premises of a thinker's or group's narrative.
He explains: "I want to shift the intellectual burden here from a preoccupation with what is opposed and deconstructed, to an engagement with what must be articulated, cultivated, and affirmed in its wake." White holds that "conceptualizations of self, other, and world" are "necessary or unavoidable
for an adequately reflective ethical and political life." If he is right, one way for the military professional to reflect on the place of human dignity in military theory and practice is to examine the implicit claims of our doctrine, particularly insofar as that doctrine takes a definite moral stand.
We can tease out our doctrine's unarticulated premises by attending closely to FM 3-24's critique of what it describes as the "all-encompassing worldview" of the extremist. Applying White's technique enables the careful reader to discern what FM 3-24 leaves in the wake of its critique of the extremist's worldview. It turns out that Army doctrine is demanding and stern, ethically speaking; that is, the manual is no specimen of moral relativism.
Counterinsurgency doctrine takes a strong normative stand against the narratives and goals of the enemy we have fought and are fighting against: Religious extremist insurgents, like many secular radicals and some Marxists, frequently hold an all-encompassing worldview; they are ideologically rigid and uncompromising, seeking to control their members' private thought, expression, and behavior.
Seeking power and believing themselves to be ideologically pure, violent extremists often brand those they consider insufficiently orthodox as enemies.
Whether our enemies are religious (e.g., bin Laden) or secular (e.g., Stalin and Hitler), they adopt worldviews and narratives that-
AcaEUR"A? Eschew compromise in favor of violence.
AcaEUR"A? Advance an all-encompassing or totalitarian worldview that specifies licit and illicit private, public, and political activity.
AcaEUR"A? Encourage the control of a person's private thoughts, expressions, and behavior.
AcaEUR"A? Applaud the application of violence against persons whose worldviews differ from theirs.
Field Manual 3-24's description of the extremist's intellectual and spiritual habits includes a subdued but integral normative preference for non-extremist or reasonable worldviews and narratives that-
AcaEUR"A? Prefer compromise to violence.
AcaEUR"A? Acknowledge a difference between private life, public life or civil society, and politics.
AcaEUR"A? Value freedom of thought, freedom of conscience,
and freedom of action.
AcaEUR"A? Tolerate or even rejoice in the fact that a plurality
of peoples, each with a distinct complex of worldviews and narratives, exists in the world.
Army counterinsurgency doctrine distinguishes between the extremist, who calls for the forceful imposition of his worldview on others at the price of death, and those whose worldview cherishes the free flourishing of moral and cultural diversity.
Let us be clear about FM 3-24's preferences. Throughout the field manual, the reader (i.e., the warrior) comes to appreciate the prohibition against "causing unnecessary loss of life or suffering." In fact, the manual asserts an aggressive preference for life: "Under all circumstances, [the American warrior] . . . must remain faithful to basic American, Army, and Marine Corps standards of conduct of proper behavior and respect for the sanctity of life." Each and every life, whether belonging to the American warrior or an indigenous person encountered during deployment, has "sanctity." The sanctity of life and human dignity extend even to those whom the warrior rightly aims to destroy or capture, as we can see in rules specifying the treatment of captured, wounded, or killed enemies. The prohibition against desecrating the enemy dead or dehumanizing enemy prisoners makes no sense apart from a narrative that specifies the sanctity and dignity of each human being.
A substantial understanding, or ontology, of the person and the world begins to emerge from and between the lines of FM 3-24: the world entails diversity. It is not surprising that diversity arises when persons are free to live, think, and act.
Moreover, each person individually possesses sanctity and dignity simply by virtue of his or her existence. If not restricted by extremist ideologies or crushing poverty, persons think and act in ways that sustain and multiply a vast array of narratives, worldviews, and cultures. A multiplicity of moral norms, religious attitudes, and voluntary civil associations flourish because of the free exercise of moral and cultural freedom. They produce diverse political attitudes and systems. Field Manual 3-24 values freedom of thought, conscience, and activity by espousing the democratic principle of consent. Regardless of the specific governmental system that arises, in its implicit and often utilitarian fashion, the manual acknowledges the value of consent: "Long term success in COIN [counterinsurgency] depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to government's rule."
Whereas the extremist is "rigid and uncompromising," FM 3-24's principal advocate, General David Petraeus, in his opening remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Iraq in April 2008, stated that he hopes to see local reconciliation, an attitudinal shift against indiscriminate violence and extremist ideology, debate over violence, and "political dialogue rather than street fighting."
Note carefully that General Petraeus calls for (a) "reconciliation," (b) an "attitudinal shift," and (c) mutual antagonists' participation in "debate" and "dialogue." This approach places heavy demands on the interior or spiritual dimension of Iraq's protagonists and antagonists.
Surprisingly, FM 3-24 prescribes the adoption of an alarmingly substantive interior disposition toward the other. If we wonder whether FM 3-24's prescription to respect human dignity is an end in itself or merely a means for an end, we soon learn that the warrior assumes the "responsibility for everyone in the AO [area of operations].
This means that leaders must feel the pulse of the local populace, understand their motivations, and care about what they want and need. Genuine compassion
and empathy for the populace are effective weapons against the insurgents."
The manual directs Army leaders not to simply exhibit or portray compassion and empathy for people, but to cultivate genuine compassion and empathy for them. In this era of the strategic Soldier, it seems plausible that leaders must cultivate not only their own sense of authentic compassion, but cultivate it as well among those serving within his or her command. Hence, "Leaders at every level establish an ethical tone and climate that guards against the moral complacency and frustrations that build up in protracted COIN operations."25 Field Manual 3-24 suggests that the cultivation of genuine compassion is one way to establish this ethical tone and climate.
True to its stated norms, FM 3-24 eschews cultural imposition:
Cultural knowledge is essential to waging a successful counterinsurgency. American ideas of what is 'normal' or 'rational' are not universal . . . For this reason, counterinsurgents- especially commanders, planners, and small-unit leaders-should strive to avoid imposing their ideals of normalcy on a foreign cultural problem."
On the other hand, the FM cherishes-
AcaEUR"A? Distinctions between spheres of life (e.g., private, public, political, religious, and secular).
AcaEUR"A? Freedom of thought, conscience, and action.
AcaEUR"A? Moral and cultural pluralism.
AcaEUR"A?Political legitimacy via consent of the governed.
These norms are not utilitarian ends, but ends in and of themselves. They prescribe the cultivation of genuine compassion and empathy. Just as the manual prescribes a substantive morality or ethos for American warriors, it expects American warriors to promote this same morality among the indigenous population.
Does the Warrior "Buy In"'
A composite rendering of FM 3-24's implicit and explicit understanding of the world suggests that one's estimate of the dignity of the other during deployments is equal to that of one's friends and loved ones back home. The American warrior accepts no difference in moral worth between the elderly taxi driver who lives in the village where he patrols and an elderly taxi driver back home. The American warrior accepts no difference in moral worth between those indigenous children who nag him for pens, soccer balls, and chocolates and their counterparts back home. And, perhaps most surprisingly, the American warrior accepts no difference in moral worth between the insurgents or terrorists whom he rightly strives to kill or capture and the warrior's own best friends from home.
What are the implications of FM 3-24's embedded morality for the moral preparation of the military leader'
How ought a leader to respond when he overhears a young specialist declare: "I would torch this entire village if it would bring back my buddies"' Or when a captain recommends, "We should just blow this country and its people off the face of the earth"' Or when a major concludes "The problem with this country is Islam itself"'
Before deployment, the military professional lives within a complex of social structures and institutions, each of which demands a narrative and supporting ontology. He has intimate relationships, a network of family and friends, a job, an array of recreational activities, a political view, a spiritual orientation, and his Nation. Moreover, each of these associations and activities has some relationship to the others. Were he to ascribe consciously a purpose to his involvement in each of the relationships and activities, the purposes or ends may be sufficiently complementary such that his life is free of contradictory aims. Another possibility is that his purposes and ends are grossly incongruous. For an extreme but illustrative example, one can imagine the moral incongruity of a Nazi military officer who attends Mass on Sunday, shows up for work to the human crematorium on Monday, instructs a child's soccer team on the character-building aspects of sports on Tuesday, and engages in spousal abuse on Wednesday.
The same inter-narrative frictions would appear were an American noncommissioned officer to be a closet white supremacist, or an officer were to act on the premise that women have no place in the military.
Is it possible for someone to develop a coherent framework in which all aspects of one's life-work, recreation, love, family, friendship, household management, finances, worship -are part of a rational plan for a well-lived life' If all human actions, from the minutest to the gravest, aim to realize or preserve a specific goal or end, are the retail and wholesale ends in each of life's aspects congruent and justifiable' For instance, how does the American military officer accommodate his vocation with his religious beliefs' How does one's religious catechism mesh with the principles of the U.S. Constitution or the military requirement to obey orders'
Accommodating the retail and wholesale ends in one's life has a special urgency for the U.S. military officer, who must justify a decision to risk a life's worth of devotions and concerns as well as other persons' lives, devotions, and concerns for the sake of an ultimate end or value. Yet, the accommodation is necessary. A military officer must operate "on all cylinders" in a new era that demands that he "achieve victory . . . by conducting military operations in concert with diplomatic, informational, and economic efforts."
General Petraeus has said, "Our primary mission is to help protect the population in Iraq." To this end, over 4,200 professional warriors have sacrificed their lives. Over 31,000 American men and women have been injured. These military professionals
have sacrificed their lives and health during stability operations as well as offensive military actions to destroy an enemy. They have put their lives at risk to preserve life, improve essential services, advance civil associations, facilitate education,
help the economy, and create self-sustaining governance.
Each of these endeavors makes sense only to the extent that they enable the flourishing of human beings in accordance with the morality embedded in FM 3-24, which posits not employment, or governance, or military targeting as ends in themselves, but as ways to preserve and enhance the sanctity and dignity of human life and freedom of thought, conscience, and action.
If FM 3-24 does have an embedded morality, one of many challenges for the American military professional is to make sense of his associations at home so that he will be better able to perform his duties overseas and explain to his peers and subordinates why they must perform their duties as well.
The manual states, "Performing the many nonmilitary tasks in COIN requires knowledge of many diverse, complex subjects. These include governance, economic development, public administration, and the rule of law. Commanders with a deep-rooted knowledge of these subjects can help subordinates understand challenging, unfamiliar environments and adapt more rapidly to changing situations."
Thus, Army doctrine requires a fair amount of technical knowledge of economics, politics, and law in addition to cultural understanding. And (to complicate things further), today's military leader must devote some reflection to the moral purposes inherent in economics, politics, law, and the other structures that touch upon modern human life.
The Interior Dimension of Our Campaigns
General Petraeus's opening remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2008 mostly focused on the establishment of security to enable political progress in Iraq. He emphasized that the security gains were "fragile and reversible," and the political problems were significant: "In the coming months, Iraq's leaders must strengthen governmental capacity, execute budgets, pass additional legislation, conduct provincial elections, carry out a census, determine the status of disputed territories, and resettle internally displaced persons and refugees. These tasks would challenge any government, much less a still-developing government tested by war."
Clearly, we have a series of obstacles to surmount if we are to achieve peace in Iraq. There are the problems of establishing security against a variety of enemies, and achieving political consensus on a variety of questions whose resolution is necessary to establish self-governance. Yet, if the embedded morality in FM 3-24 is correct, in the long term the key to resolving the security and political challenges
is promoting widespread acceptance of FM 3-24's values.
Having established local security, our forces may pacify an area by spending large sums of host-nation and U.S. money on reconstruction efforts to improve employment, governmental legitimacy, and the quality of life, but a bigger challenge remains. Do Arab youths refrain from violence out of a respect for the sanctity and dignity of all life or merely because we pay them to do so'
If too many young persons are motivated by the latter incentive, then our reconstruction spending equates to a policy of peace through placation. Rational-actor analysis simply does not exhaust the full range of politically relevant variables at play. For this reason, Iraqi reconstruction must be more than just paying people not to slaughter innocents.
A robust, deeply rooted, and long-term peace will require what General Petraeus calls an "attitudinal shift." Put simply, either we shall see an attitudinal shift that rejects extremist ideology and embraces the sanctity, dignity, and flourishing of human life, or the attitudinal shift will remain but only amidst "fragile and reversible" improvements. Fleeting decisions not to forgive, not to reconcile, not to respect the dignity of life, not to respect life's flourishing will drive diplomatic, informational, military, and economic decision making. If this is true, is the key to reconciliation and campaign success principally a military, or even a political, matter'
Socrates tells us that true statesmanship consists not in deliberation and lawmaking, but in the cultivation of souls. Hence, in Plato's Gorgias, true statesmanship requires the desire to serve, curiosity about the highest good as an end in itself, and reflection on how to make people into good citizens.
If political leaders oblige the Soldier to be a student and a practitioner of politics, elected servants and military professionals must consider the implications arising from the insight that true statecraft provides more than mere security and essential services. True statecraft is soulcraft.
To use General Petraeus's term, we will know we have achieved the best effects of our political and military art when we finally observe the attitudinal shift that our young military professionals await with hope, even as they continue to fight and build.