In times of war, traditional human values are disregarded for the good of fellow soldiers and to protect and serve the United States. This does not mean that the soldiers doing the killing do not feel ethical or moral ramifications of their actions, whether they were following orders or not. Following orders often means killing the enemy; while the offset of that means that a soldier will be killed by the very enemy they are pledged to destroy unless they follow those orders.
To this end, a look will be taken into the ethical and moral dilemmas that a soldier must come to terms with in serving their country during times of war and how those inner conflicts might affect them in their daily life once they leave the military. To begin with, the sole purpose of a soldier is to follow orders. From Basic Training through Advanced Individual Training, the soldier is drilled with the mindset that they must follow orders, any order, at all costs.
For, to not follow an order is to disgrace the commander and will result in punishment of not only the soldier himself, but his fellow comrades as well. However, for many soldiers, they enter into the military with religious beliefs and in following orders, not only do they contradict the will of God, but they may be left with conflicting moral and ethic feelings. With that said, “Christian ethics has generated much scholarly work on ‘just war’ theory, and recent literature is rich in discussions of violence—both the literal kind, and the kind embedded in institutional structures.
But there is a notable lack of attention to the moral concern most typical of early Christians: the legitimacy of military service” (Cook, par. 2). When one enters into military service, they do not break their covenant with their religion, however, their new covenant succeeds any religious beliefs—and that is to follow orders without thinking. And it is from this rationale that “many military personnel believe that their commitment to a cause larger than self, and to possible self-sacrifice in defense of that cause, is one of the highest and most noble of Christian callings” (par. ).
Indeed, in comparing Christian beliefs to that of protecting one’s country, a soldier can come to the conclusion that serving without consequences, following the orders from their superiors, protecting those who cannot protect themselves, is the higher calling—and one that, once finished with military service, a soldier can return to civilian life without grief or regrets for their actions. However, this is not “to give soldiers a moral blank check.
The permission is, rather, hypothetical: if one believes that military forces must exist to protect the common life of the state and the lives of the innocent, and if one sincerely believes that he or she serves a relatively good state, led by reasonably competent and responsible leaders, then one is morally justified in that service” (Cook, par. 19). Further, believing in the cause is the one religion that all soldiers follow. In times of great strife, like that of September 11, while the nation was furious with the President and his actions, soldiers remained loyal to their military and political leaders (Cook).
A soldier, in his loyalty, brings a power stronger than religion to his commanders and in that, a soldier’s actions in a time of war become the necessary—and uncondemnable action. Moreover, there arises the issue of defensive rights. The “right of self-defense is ‘generally thought to be discretionary rather than obligatory’—that is, it is generally assumed that the right to defend one’s life implies that one is at liberty not to defend it as one chooses “(Ryan, par. 14). Further, “this duty is most naturally viewed as one owed to God” (Ryan, par. 14). A soldier has the basic, and essential duty, to kill or be killed.
Inherent in the very act of war is the right for a soldier to defend his own, or his platoon’s own lives, to serve the greater good of their country. In his personal tale of being a soldier during the Civil War, Frank Wilkeson speaks out that the real moral choices were made by the commanders, who, he believed, often had no right to be commanders at all, indeed, that “they were commanders, but they were not soldiers” (Wilkeson, xvii). To Wilkeson, and to many other soldiers serving with him, a soldier was a man who did the work that he was ordered to do, with no consequences for his actions.
However, it is the orders that should be reviewed as to their ethical or moral value. It can be said that “atrocity, like cancer, is an umbrella term for a wide variety of aberrations with manifold causes” (Kellogg, par. 2). Indeed, a soldier is, really, a faceless hired gun, going into battle with religion in his pocket and his country on his side. But, it is the commanders who decide, in reality, which cities to bomb into oblivion and which innocents are not so innocent after all. Moreover, “the legitimacy of the killing which takes place in war is limited by its underlying justification” (Devine, 160).
The actions that a soldier takes are not given to ethical or moral values, however heinous the actions become. But, in its very essence, it is the leaders in a war situation that determine the moral value. For a soldier, there is very little judgment allowed. There is only: kill or be killed. And truly, despite their moral values, all soldiers want to return home to their families. However, it is well-known that for every soldier, once they return to daily life outside the military, there is a large period of time in adjustment.
The world of military life is vastly different from that of civilian life, leaving many veterans in a state of uncertainty or turmoil in dealing with the moral dilemmas that faced them while serving their country. What seemed the only option during war, now seems the great mistake, and often, results in potentially life-lasting conditions for the war hero, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD—which, essentially means that the traumatic events that they faced have now come back to haunt them in a variety of emotionally draining forms (National Institute of Mental Health).
Moreover, the National Institute of Mental Health makes note that while PTSD is treatable, in many cases soldiers will suffer from symptoms for their rest of their lives. Overall, a soldier does not, in actuality, have an ethical or moral choice when it comes to killing in times of war. They are given orders and expected to follow those orders, despite religion or beliefs. Even more, a large majority of soldiers are Christian, but there is religious value placed upon serving one’s country as the greater good—protecting those who cannot protect themselves becomes the greater covenant to God, and one which is also backed by their country.
Essentially, a soldier is given little choice to act outside of the orders given, and despite actions that may be ethically or morally wrong, a soldier should not be held responsible for following orders. It is the loyalty in the soldier that separates them from other killers; for, they kill to avoid being killed, and they follow orders to kill to serve their country and protect the women and children they hope to return home to.