Ethics and Insights
By: George Lober, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School
I have been thinking lately about mercy and the limitations we put on who can render it and who can receive it, and whether those limitations can ever be morally justified. Mercy, I'm discovering, has become a complicated subject, particularly in armed conflict. But should it be? Consider, for example, the two cases I describe here.
In the first case, a NATO platoon in Afghanistan engages in a high-speed pursuit of a vehicle fleeing a city checkpoint. The driver of the vehicle has refused repeated orders to stop, and since the car is believed to be carrying a high-value enemy leader, the platoon, as ordered, fires on the vehicle, causing it to crash into a wall. The surviving occupants of the car immediately flee into the neighborhood. As the platoon approaches the vehicle, the soldiers discover the driver still inside, mortally wounded by a round that tore away part of his skull. The platoon medic pulls the driver, who is barely alive, from the car, assesses his condition, and informs his young captain that the driver "isn't going to make it." There is nothing further, the medic tells the captain, that he can do for the man. The captain, looking at the driver, who is gurgling up blood into the dirt of the road and clearly suffering, pauses a moment and then discharges a pistol round into the man, instantly killing him. He does so, he will later testify at his court martial, to put the driver out of his misery. It was, he will say, "the right and honorable thing to do."
The entire incident is caught on video, and the young captain—allegedly an exemplary officer and religiously devout soldier—is subsequently brought up on charges of murder and is eventually convicted by the military court. In the verdict, he is found guilty of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter and immediately dismissed from military service. He is not sentenced to any prison time.
Whenever I've introduced this case to my students, their reactions have been uniformly unsympathetic to the captain. Typical responses have ranged from "He clearly violated the rules of engagement" and "Who is he to play God?" to "If he feels sympathy for the enemy, he's sick!" Almost all have agreed that the captain must serve some prison time, to set an example for other military members who may be tempted to indulge similar feelings and actions. A significant number have doubted whether the captain, as a true military professional, could truly feel mercy for the enemy at all.
I understand there are both long-standing international laws of armed conflict and sections of the numerous international codes of military justice—in addition to the rules of engagement that existed at the time—that forbid the young captain's actions, regardless of whether they were motivated by genuine human compassion. I've also inferred from my students' responses that such mercy has no place when it comes to the enemy. So let's say for argument's sake that I get all that. And then let's consider a second hypothetical case.
Imagine that you and three others of your unit are being overrun by a much larger, although less well-armed, enemy force in a mountainous area of Afghanistan. You are essentially surrounded, and evasion and escape are impossible. However, the four of you are holed up in a location where the only way the enemy can reach you is to assault your position in human waves, and they have started to launch such attacks at you. You've radioed for close air support and rescue, but you're told such support is not available for various reasons and likely won't arrive for another 24 to 48 hours. You're told you'll have to hold out and repel the attacks yourselves. Your group has enough ammunition for the moment, provided you use it sparingly, and the four of you have been able to turn the assaults back, although some have broken into your position and resulted in intense hand-to-hand combat. Finally, in one assault, a member of your group is taken alive by the retreating enemy and pulled into their main force. There is no doubt that the enemy's objective is to kill you all. There is also no doubt that any attempt to rescue your friend will be met with a storm of weapon fire that will result in your immediate death. From your position, as you look down upon the enemy, you see that your friend, now badly beaten, has been brought to an open area where it becomes obvious the enemy fighters intend to mutilate him to death within your sight.
You realize that although you cannot rescue him, you could with one shot kill your captured friend and spare him the terrible suffering he is about to endure. As though sensing your dilemma, your friend raises his head and looks at your protected position. Should you take the shot to mercifully spare him the pain he is about endure? If you do, is that murder?
When I recently presented the second case to my students and asked them the above questions, they responded almost overwhelmingly that (1) yes, they should take the shot; (2) if they were the captured prisoner, they would want one of their group to shoot and spare them from torture; and (3) no, that is not murder, that is a mercy killing. One particular student, however, a deeply religious colonel who had been fighting terrorists in his country for over 20 years, offered the opinion that if one truly believes in a God and a divine plan, then only God should determine the time and manner of the captured colleague's death. "Who are you," he asked his fellow students, "to interfere in that plan?" The question brought a silence to my class and actually changed a couple of students' minds.
Setting the spiritual implications of the colonel's remarks aside, I confess that I'm inclined to agree with the majority of my students on all fronts. But what is it about the two cases, I wonder, that makes the one decision appear morally questionable at best and the other feel morally right? I admit that I'm not sure. I want to believe it's not just that we selectively restrict the giving and receiving of a final act of mercy to those like ourselves, and deny it for others. And I certainly recognize that there are codified laws of conflict to prevent the summary execution of captives, detainees, and unarmed, non-threatening combatants under the captor's false pretense of rendering mercy. Yet the two cases still strike me as disturbingly similar. Both involve the unavoidable suffering and imminent death of a human being under humiliating, dishonorable circumstances; both involve an unarmed and defenseless combatant/ captive; and if the young captain in the first case is perceived to be sincere, then the decision to shoot in both instances draws on a sense of compassion.
If intentions matter, it would seem that both cases come close to suggesting that the act of killing in each circumstance would be an act of virtue. Why then the difference in reactions from my students? What is it about the first case that troubles so many of the professional service members I teach, and what is it that allows them to accept the second killing as morally justified? Again, I don't know the answers, but I suspect the difference may lie in the circumstances. In the first case, the platoon captain appears to be making a personal judgment on the appropriate "honorable" circumstances under which a fellow human being should die. Who is he, my students may be asking, to determine what those circumstances are, or whether that individual's actual moment of dying is in fact imminent, or that his last moments have no personal value? In this case, their sentiments may well be closely aligned with the religious colonel's. It may well be part of some divine plan for that enemy driver to die writhing in the dirt road—it could even be what that driver deserves according to divine judgment. Furthermore, there are laws to prevent his being shot. By these criteria, then, the right thing to do is to leave him there to die in his own time.
In the second case, again I don't know for sure, but I suspect that the shooting of the captured teammate could assume the dimension of both a rescue and a final act of loyalty. Unable to physically rescue the captured friend, the final act of loyalty could be seen as a duty to spare him further unnecessary agony at the hands of those who would cruelly inflict it until his inevitable death. If that's so, I believe most of my students could see the two cases as distinctly different. The degree to which they would be interfering in some divine plan—if they even considered that an issue, and many of them don't—might not matter as much as their perceived obligation to act as a loyal brother-inarms to a friend in peril. In cases like the second one, that loyalty, I suspect, trumps other moral considerations.
Such a conclusion, though, demands that we ask ourselves whether we restrict such acts of mercy only to those to whom we feel loyal. I'm uncomfortable with that implication, just as I'm uncomfortable with the question that someone occasionally has asked: What if, in the first case, by unfortunate circumstance, the individual dying in the street was a fellow member of the platoon instead of an enemy driver? Would I hesitate to condemn the apparently compassionate captain if he shot his dying companion because it was "the right and honorable thing to do"? My gut says, "No, I can see where that would be wrong." How then, you may ask, is that different from the second case? Good question. One final aspect to consider in these cases is the matter of consent. Neither the driver in the first case, nor the friend in the second, is capable of giving his explicit consent to be killed. Yet the shooter in both cases is inferring that death is what those men would prefer. I'm generally uncomfortable with that inference. To act on what you think other people would want when it comes to ending their life seems presumptuous and dangerous. At the same time, I'm also strongly sympathetic. I know if I were the friend being tortured in the second case, I'd definitely want you to pull the trigger.
Mercy, as I said at the beginning of this essay, is complicated. Maybe that's because it should be.
About the Author(s): George Lober teaches ethics and writing at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.