When, if ever, can actions performed by soldiers be heroic?
In the final episode of his long running series on the Pacific Theater of World War II, podcaster Dan Carlin (probably America’s best-known history commentator) made the following statement.
“I am not a glory guy when it comes to war. Put me in the camp of the William Tecumseh Shermans, the American general who said that war’s ‘glory is all moonshine.’ I don’t think that killing other people is glorious. But I think that surviving against incredible odds, putting up with the privation and the hardship, enduring the unendurable, for the sake of whatever is motivating you to do so can often be heroic. And it’s a shame that things like the colonial overtones, or for the Japanese and the Germans, the evil cause in which you are fighting, somehow overshadows the heroism of the troops involved. Rarely do you read combat accounts where troops are talking about [the ideological reasons for the conflict]…. You read so many accounts where soldiers are fighting for their comrades, or their unit or the esprit de corps of the group they belong to, or the desire to not let down those who depend on them. Your worldview shrinks and your lens becomes very limited.”Dan Carlin, Supernova in the east part VI, 1:00:55
As the kids these days (and recently moved parents) like to say, there’s a lot to unpack here. Carlin is not the first to draw a distinction between glory and heroism, but the distinction is a decidedly modern invention. In the ancient Greek Iliad, for example, honor and glory are essentially synonymous. Today, however, the distinction has become a lot more nuanced. As Carlin seems to define it, glory is something conferred through the commemoration of a simple, unambiguously good act. Heroism, on the other hand, is a lower bar. A heroic act involves things not necessarily righteous in of themselves, but are nevertheless morally acceptable in a particular context. For example, Carlin says that killing can never be glorious, but implies that in the context of war, killing can be part of an act of heroism.
Heroism is an inherently moralistic term. No immoral act can be heroic. When Dan Carlin says that warfare can be heroic, he is making an implicit moral judgement about combatants on all sides. He argues that because of the purity of soldiers’ motives, their actions can be morally good and therefore heroic, regardless of the soldier’s side or the ideological reasons for the war.
Moral Equality of Combatants?
In the field of war ethics, academics describe viewpoints like Dan’s as espousing the ‘moral equality of combatants.’ The basic idea is that every combatant in a war has an equal right to fight and kill, regardless of the morality of one side’s cause. Most laws concerning behavior of soldiers accepts the moral equality of combatants, as do many academics, including one of the fathers of modern just war theory, Michael Walzer.
Unfortunately, the moral equality of combatants is a seriously flawed concept.
Fighting in a war of conquest and aggression, particularly of the sort waged by the Japanese and Germans during World War II, is an immoral act, period. In the above quote, Carlin suggests that most soldiers express their motivations in personal, rather than political terms, but that does not obscure the political impact of one’s actions. Fighting to save your brothers in arms is not a heroic action if the action directly furthers the aim of a murderous regime.
Most ethicists will agree that intentionality is not the only factor in an act’s morality. Other things, like the actual effects of the action, are also important. When advocates of the moral equality of combatants say that combatants are blameless or (in Carlin’s case) heroic, they invent an entirely new moral system that only applies to warfare. In that system, basic motivation is the only thing that matters, and that individuals are not responsible for considering the greater effects of their actions. Even most militaries disagree with that idea, writing in handbooks that a soldier’s first duty is not to their officers or their comrades, but to law and morality.
Agency of Soldiers
Some defenders of the moral equality of combatants will argue that war is different from everyday life. Some subscribe to the “Gladiator” model of warfare, which portrays war as a struggle between unwilling combatants. If all combatants are forced to fight, then surely fighting can’t be an immoral act? There is some truth to the critique. All major combatants in World War Two (with the notable exception of the British Raj) conscripted large numbers of soldiers. However, these soldiers still willingly fought and killed, even when they might reasonably have deserted or deliberately avoided hitting enemy soldiers. Getting conscripted is not a valid excuse if you enthusiastically participate in the war, especially if you could have avoided participation without great risk to yourself.
But suppose we do treat all soldiers as individuals without agency, and therefore lacking any moral guilt. How can such individuals be heroic? Heroism, almost by definition, requires agency. An individual cannot be heroic while also having his or her guilt erased by a lack of agency.
Ignorance as an excuse
The other point often raised in support of the moral equality of combatants is that combatants cannot be expected to determine whether the cause of the war is just. In the words of Jeff McMahan from his superb book Killing in War, “Soldiers who fight in unjust wars tend to be poorly informed factually and tend to have one or the other of two mistaken moral beliefs: either that their war is just, or that, although their war is unjust, their participation in it is nevertheless morally permissible.” However, there is a big difference between saying that a person deserves less blame for a bad action, and saying that the action was good in the first place.
Claims of ignorance can only go so far. Soldiers often have a better idea of actions taken by their companions than you might assume. For years after the Second World War, for example, historians and the public subscribed to the idea of the ‘clean Wehrmacht,’ or the idea that Germany’s army and ordinary soldiers had no involvement with the numerous atrocities of the Nazi party. In recent years, however, historians have accepted that ordinary German soldiers played an integral role in the horrors of the Holocaust, and there was widespread knowledge of the atrocities among men in uniform.
A Moral Responsibility
I don’t mean to say that every soldier to fight in an unjust war is an evil person, or even that they necessarily deserve blame. There are plenty of valid excuses a soldier can offer for fighting for a bad cause, such as genuine ignorance or duress, but these are merely mitigating factors for a deed that is always morally reprehensible. We can respect these individuals and empathize with their predicament, but to view them as heroes goes too far.
If we accept the moral equality of combatants, saying that soldiers fighting for evil regimes can be heroic, we essentially say that no soldier has an obligation to determine if they are fighting for a good cause. Such a passive philosophy would permit more aggressive wars, and make the world a worse place.
Let’s look for heroism in people who do the right thing for the right cause, not squint in search of a few good traits in those who did wrong.