Professionals and Torturers

The key moment in many revolutions comes when police and militaries refuse to fire on crowds. But what is difficult to explain about those moments is their infrequency. Soldiers and police come from the same society as the crowds. Why do they kill them? Why are elites and authorities able to rest so comfortably in the knowledge that in the final analysis, thousands of armed men will do what they are told? I think this is one of the most important questions we can ask, and not enough of us ask it.

One person who has asked it is Jessica Wolfendale, a philosophy professor at West Virginia University, who wrote a book called Torture and the Military Profession (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007). It is a very philosophical book in that it takes you through its arguments in a very systematic way.

Wolfendale asks: if torture is contrary to the laws of war, and if the military profession espouses honor, integrity, and self-sacrifice, virtues that are defiled by torture, then why do so many militaries torture? If orders to torture run against professional and legal values, why are they not disobeyed more frequently?

To begin, Wolfendale defines a profession. Without going into all the details, professionals (for the purpose of this argument) are bound by special codes of conduct, have special responsibilities, and are therefore able to do things as part of their professional duties that others are not allowed to do. Lawyers can file court papers, doctors can perform surgeries, soldiers can kill. But if professionals are going to claim special powers as part of their purview, they must also be bound to higher standards of conduct. A military professional's permission to kill as part of his or her duties must be accompanied by much higher standards of reflection, integrity, and ethical action, if a soldier is to be able to make a claim to be a professional. Otherwise, the military is not a profession, and can claim no special moral status.

Next, Wolfendale shows how torture contravenes any sense of ordinary or professional morality. This is an excellent section of the book for those who have been in frustrating arguments with proponents of torture (for example, those who have watched too much Jack Bauer and 24). One of the most interesting refutations of the "ticking bomb" pro-torture argument Wolfendale quotes is the point that in order to successfully elicit a confession from a terrorist in a "ticking bomb" scenario, the military or police would have to capture the terrorist, know that he knows the location and codes to disarm the bomb, know they have the right person, and know exactly how to torture him to elicit the confession, and then know that he has given the right information and not misinformation. All of this requires an extensive torture infrastructure and extensive torture practice – which a society can't just generate from scratch while a bomb is ticking, but instead has to generate by torturing in a more widespread way. So, torture tends to expand. There is much more in this section, but this was my favourite part of it.

But if torture contravenes professional and ordinary morality, how is it that most militaries use torture? Wolfendale argues that the process of military training – its desensitization to one's own and others' suffering and death, its narrow focus on technical tasks, its in-group bonding including through brutal hazing, its splitting of agency between those who give orders and those who carry out the tasks – is geared towards, and largely successful in, creating unreflective obedience – people who will obey orders to kill without thinking about their morality or legality. Perhaps this is necessary for efficient military functioning, but if it is, then the military cannot claim to be a profession or virtuous. It can, at best, claim to be a necessary evil, but not the noble profession it claims to be. If creating an army of obedient killers is not necessary for proper military functioning, then our societies have locked themselves into a very non-virtuous pattern and it's time to try to think about how to get out of it.

How to get out of it? Wolfdendale offers a few suggestions to an interesting challenge – can militaries demand reflective, rather than unreflective obedience? Can militaries reward soldiers who carry out legal interpretations of orders rather than punish them? Can militaries train their soldiers to behave this way?

It seems to me that these questions are far too important to be left to militaries. In the best and worst scenarios, soldiers at all levels claim to be acting as agents of the civilian government whose decisions, in nominally democratic societies, are society's responsibility. If we don't live in military dictatorships, where militaries have taken away the power, we have power and therefore responsibility to constrain and direct our militaries and help define their professional and legal boundaries and responsibilities. Wolfendale's book is a good place to start thinking about these problems. It is very rich in detail and a short review like this can't do it justice.


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