Should soldiers treat non-combatants with respect?

This was one of several questions recently put to 1767 US troops recently interviewed by the Pentagon’s mental-health advisory team last September (The Economist, 12/05, p36). In response, only 47% of soldiers agreed with the Geneva Convention requirement.

Thankfully, those who disagreed did not always act on their belief. One third (33%) of the questioned soldiers acknowledged insulting or swearing at civilians, 10% admitted unnecessarily damaging or destroying property and only 4% of soldiers confessed to hitting or kicking non-combatants “when it was not necessary”.

It is worth pointing out that Marines seem a little less friendly, with only 38% agreeing that you should show respect and 7% admitting hitting/kicking when unnecessary.

About half of the soldiers said they would be willing to report a member of their unit for killing or injuring an innocent non-combatant and an even smaller number would report lesser abuse. This confirms what most sensible people already knew — that abuse is more widespread that what we hear through the media.

Over a third (36%) of soldiers think torture is OK to get important information about insurgents and 41% think torture is OK if it could save the life of another soldier. Once again the marines were a little less friendly, with 39% and 44% approving of torture under the above conditions.

The survey also found that a soldier was more likely to have mental problems or abuse civilians if they have been in Iraq for a long time, that about 20% of soldiers claimed depression, 20% were planning divorce & 72 American soldiers have committed suicide in Iraq.

Perhaps they should sell war with a warning label saying: WARNING: war may be bad for your health.

20 thoughts on “Should soldiers treat non-combatants with respect?

  1. Some of these problems may be occurring for the following reasons: –

    1. The military tends to draw from lower socio economic levels, and while many decent people are found there, a higher proportion of misfits come from here.
    2. Insularity within the military.
    3. Feelings of empowerment, from at last being in control of other people from what they feel are inferior countries. A ruling class tends to regard the people beneath them with contempt.
    4. Getting shot at tends to change ones perspective, and not in a positive way.
    5. A feeling of needing to take it out on somebody, and getting back at the wrong people.

    This should be dealt with as a matter of priority by the militaries of all countries involved. There are enough enemies now, without making more through bastardry, and stupidity.

  2. It has always been difficult for soldiers to remain neutral towards citizens in warzones, even their own citizens. It must be doubly difficult in a warzone in which citizens are the combatents in the sense that Iraqi insurgents don’t wear uniforms and blend in with the civilian population. Every single civilian the soldier meets is a potential source of death and destruction.

  3. During the Napoleonic wars, Wellington’s forces were under orders not to loot and rape when occupying previously hostile territory. Some were even prosecuted for doing so. This was quite novel and met with considerable antagonism, as looting and rape had long been viewed as legitimate spoils of war.

    During WW1, Australian soldiers would invariably steal the watches and anything else of value from captured Germans. Les Carlyon’s book “The Great War” describes it in some detail.

    So things have come a long way. We are now merely talking about relatively human responses to a hostile and dangerous environment where the enemy is rarely seen and does not play by any of our rules. I wouldn’t like to give any assurance about my own feelings in those circumstances.

  4. I certainly agree with DavidL that war today is more civilised than at any time in history.

    One of the reasons that rape/abuse had less blowback during some points in history is that the winners pursued a policy of genocide. That approach is less viable in today’s society.

  5. I wouldn’t like to give any assurance about my own feelings in those circumstances.

    I think that is a remarkably honest answer. In sufficiently adverse circumstances I suspect that most of us would probably cease to be the person we are now, at least in some ways. I think that dehumanising others is almost a necessary psychological response to certain extreme circumstances. Certainly bomber pilots would manage such detachment more easily than foot soldiers that must face the people they have the power to kill. However ultimately both are bound to frequenty view the death or harm of innocent people as merely something that occurs in the course of a mission and is remote from their own sence of humanity and survival.

    Perhaps the thing that sets these soldiers apart is that they have walked in the fog of war and are much more honest about how it is to be a human in those circumstances than many of us are comfortable to admit. I doubt that these soldiers are exceptional in their response.

    No doubt raising a soldiers self awareness of such issues must help to some extent. However I suspect that keeping tours of duty short is probably the most practical measure that can be taken. Other than avoiding the need for combat in the first instance that is.

  6. That’s why it a 6-month TOD with the ADF. The smartest decision that bureaucracy has ever made.

  7. I encounter this problem in Wolfenstein all the time! The civilians are a real nuisance! But it’s good discipline not to go near them. Better training is the key!

  8. In the game “Age of Empires II” the military utility of genocide becomes readily apparent. Unless you can assemble a troup of powerful priests to convert the civilians and have them work for your own economic ends they ultimately just make more food for the enemy.

  9. Essentially we have. The priests of secular democracy and the priests of Islamic facism both became mobilised soon after Saddam was toppled. Each side is now trying to kill the priests on the other side because the priests will ultimately dictate what the masses do next.

  10. What we need in reality and gameality is to import Voodoo priests- raise the dead to be on your side! (I think this is a trick that Howard might use later this year- he needs the votes!)

  11. I recently read Sun Tzu’s “The art of war”. These days war is no where near as ruthless. The good ancient Chinese general approached battle tactics with a high degree of rationality and good understanding of human psychology. Looting and raping were considered rewards for troops and a way of refreshing your army and their supplies. If you steal from the land, you don’t have to carry as much.
    My favourite part in the book is the tactic of sealing off all exits for your army. People fight harder when they know there is no escape.
    These ancient tactics were extremely ruthless and relied heavily on secrecy and deception (not very compatible with democracy). However paradoxically the more ruthless approach may ultimately result in less deaths over all because operations are quicker and more efficient. The ancient Chinese knew to attack cities only as a last resort and knew prolonged operations were incredibly stupid as a drain on both sides.

    Of course I think most war is totally immoral and stems from the belief that the state is a higher power than the individual. These days we have this same ideology but it’s watered down.
    I think it would be very hard for a soldier to understand where the line in the sand is on rules of war these days. Especially for minor indescretions.
    However if you’re a soldier, you’ve signed your life away (for a good price) and you have to obey orders pure and simple and as a soldier that’s all you need to know.

  12. Next Tim,

    Read Vom Krieg.

    Sun Tzu is useful in that he encourages thought with nice laconic little statements. He talks about war rather than than a simply body of knowledge including repeatable tactics, operations and strategies.

    One commenter called his work on war a “distillation” of war.

    Looting and raping were considered rewards for troops and a way of refreshing your army and their supplies. If you steal from the land, you don’t have to carry as much.

    That applies to today as well, though I would add that this looting and raping would be more like an economic exchange. Reading about the way the US prosecuted the occupation, I was astounded that they decided to “bring everything in”. There are Subway stores inside the bases!

    I would have thought they would have lightened their tail and the money and resources they could have saved be used to buy supplies off the local population. This would have injected some serious value in the economy.

    More importantly it would have developed relationships between supplier and customer. This would have been used to great advantage to tie in the need for the survival of these mechanisms to both parties. You would have had a situation where both the Iraqis and the Yanks would need each other.

  13. Fortunately we don’t live by the credo “Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius” – “Kill them [all]! Surely the Lord discerns which [ones] are his.”

    Unfortunately, some of our enemies do.

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  15. I see what you mean Eljiah about Vom Krieg. Quite interesting.

    “it follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the quantity of bloodshed, must obtain a superiority”

    “it is to no purpose, and even acting against one’s own interest, to turn away from the consideration of the real nature of the affair, because the coarseness of its elements excites repugnance”

    “to introduce into the philosophy of war itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity”

    Full text availabe at

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