Category: military ethics

WikiLeaks response

April 15th, 2010 — 5:27pm

As Americans anguish about the graphic WikiLeaks video of civilian killings and the adrenalized cockpit chatter from the two pilots in the Apache helicopters as they open fire in that July 2007 attack, I am reminded of a different kind of helicopter pilot and a different cockpit conversation.

A little over 40 year ago, Hugh Thompson, at the time, a twenty-five year old reconnaissance pilot, was circling above a small hamlet in Vietnam called Tu Cung by the Vietnamese and My Lai by the Americans. The area was quiet during his early morning fly over, with no sign of enemy action. An hour later, when he flew back over, what he saw was a swath of devastation and a ditch piled high with bodies, all unarmed. Then he noticed a group of civilians held in a bunker at gunpoint by American GIs.  Thompson had had enough. He blurted to his crew, Lawrence Coburn and Glenn Andreotta: “Dammit, it ain’t gonna happen. They ain’t gonna die.” He landed his aircraft, instructing his crew to fire on the GIs—“open up on’em and kill them”—if they shot at him as he tried to rescue the hostages. Some 350 persons were massacred that day, but Thompson’s interventions may have stopped the massacre of thousands more living in the My Lai area at the time.
In Thompson’s case, the cockpit offered neither moral distance nor emotional insulation. For the good soldier, holding onto one’s full humanity, not only in the moment of rescue but in “the kill” is the critical mission.

—Nancy Sherman, April 15, 2010

The writer is the author of “The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers.”

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from TIME.COM – Is the U.S. Army Losing Its War on Suicide?

April 14th, 2010 — 1:22pm

The following article on the Army’s battle against suicide highlights the dilemma of a smaller Army fighting long term wars. Our soldiers and their families who have served multiple deployments carry enormous emotional and moral stress. As a nation, we need to come to terms with this and figure out a way to reduce the number of back to back deployments we send our soldiers on.

Military Suicides Up Among Soldiers in Repeat Army Tours – TIME

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Comment » | military ethics, moral weight of war, recommended reading


April 9th, 2010 — 4:04pm

The recent publication of the gun-camera video of the tragic deaths of two Reuters camera men in July of 2007 has generated quite a bit of discussion on the New York Times blog pages.  This incident captures the troubling issue of pilots’ moral insulation and humor on the battlefield.  Anthony Martinez, an infantryman and an experienced  aerial footage analyst, provides an interesting perspective on the wikileaks video.

Benedict Carey takes up the issue in his recent New York Times article, “Psychologists Explain Iraq Airstrike Video.” His article has generated scores of comments.

How do you weigh-in on the issue?

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Recommend: How to Treat Those Who Aid Torture

March 6th, 2010 — 6:21pm

For more on the roll of doctors in interrogations, I recommend reading the letters to the editor in NY Times, March 4, 2010: “How to Treat Those Who Aid Torture”

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Mind games at Gitmo

March 4th, 2010 — 4:30pm

The issue of the role of psychiatrists and psychologists in interrogation has been in the news this week. In Fall 2005 I was part of an independent observer team brought to GITMO to review the question. I wrote the following opinion piece for the LA TIMES when I returned.


MIND GAMES AT GITMO: Psychiatrists and psychologists should have nothing to do with interrogating prisoners.

I RECENTLY visited the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center with a small group of civilian psychiatrists, psychologists, top military doctors and Department of Defense health affairs officials to discuss detainee medical and mental healthcare.

I am a military ethicist. The unspoken reason for the invitation to go on this unusual day trip was the bruising criticism the Bush administration has received for its use of psychiatrists and psychologists in the interrogation of suspected terrorist detainees.

We disembarked from our Navy jet to find an island lush and green from the recent storms. A small boat took us from the airfield to the naval hospital. From the boat there was no sign of Camp Delta, where the detainees are actually held. No sign of prisons or barbed wire or the detention facility’s 505 inmates.

Our host was the commanding officer of Gitmo, Maj. Gen. Jay W. Hood (an artillery officer by training), who replaced Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, implicated in the “migration” of torture methods from Gitmo to Abu Ghraib. Dressed in fatigues, Gen. Hood briefed us using PowerPoint. His intelligence director told us that interrogators have not used harsh “fear up” tactics — the ones designed to terrify — since 2003.

We went by bus from the naval hospital to the detention hospital for quick briefings from a psychiatrist and a physician. Still, we were not permitted to see any detainees or any of the hunger-striking inmates in the hospital, despite our requests. During our six hours on the ground, we had only a fleeting glimpse of a few detainees outside their cellblocks behind barbed wire and screened fences.

Indeed, when I got home and saw the play “Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” (by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo) I had the disquieting feeling that I had absorbed more about detainee life at the theater than I had from actually being at Gitmo. This only amplified my anxiety that what I heard and saw during my VIP visit sidestepped the central moral issue of whether abuse is still occurring at Gitmo and whether health professionals are, or have been, a party to coercive interrogation.

The question that the Pentagon leadership has been focusing on, and which was a key subject of discussion during our day at Gitmo, is whether there is an ethical difference between using psychologists rather than psychiatrists on interrogation teams.

What some in the Pentagon would like is to have doctors and psychiatrists, who are bound by the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” be the clinicians treating detainees. Psychologists, who do not swear to such an oath, would consult with and advise interrogators.

But this is a red herring. It is hair-splitting that detracts from the real issue of whether health professionals of any stripe can ethically be involved in interrogations that may involve coercive techniques or torture. The answer is clearly no. They should not be involved, directly or indirectly, in situations that may lead to the breach of confidential medical records, to torture or to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, or to exploitation of fears or phobias. Mental health professionals simply should not be collaborating with interrogators in inflicting psychological torture.

-  written for the LA TIMES

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