Warriors and Society

Scott Farrell Comments:

In the second part of her essay, Professor French points out that the warriors’ code allows soldiers to maintain an internal sense of dignity and respect for themselves and their own actions — an important part of remaining sane in an insane environment. She also explores the hazards of becoming “too detached” from the struggles of war.

This brings us back to my earlier line of reasoning. It is not enough to ask, “Can our warriors still get the job done if they do not have a code?” We must also consider the related question: “What will getting the job done do to our warriors if they do not have a code?” Accepting certain constraints as a moral duty, even when it is inconvenient or inefficient to do so, allows warriors to hold onto their humanity while experiencing the horror of war — and, when the war is over, to return home and reintegrate into the society they so ably defended. Fighters who cannot say, “this far but no farther,” who have no lines they will not cross and no atrocities from which they will shrink, may be effective. They may complete their missions, but they will do so at the loss of their humanity.

Those who are concerned for the welfare of our warriors would never want to see them sent off to face the chaotic hell of combat without something to ground them and keep them from crossing over into an inescapable heart of darkness. A mother and father may be willing to give their beloved son or daughter’s life for their country or cause, but I doubt they would be as willing to sacrifice their child’s soul. The code is a kind of moral and psychological armor that protects the warrior from becoming a monster in his or her own eyes.


Technology like missiles and fighter jets have robbed warfare of its humanity. Soldiers now can engage enemies without ever seeing them, and that may leave indelible psychological scars for soldiers who step beyond the boundaries of moral behavior.

Nor is it just “see-the-whites-of-their-eyes” front-line ground and Special Forces troops who need this protection. Men and women who fight from a distance – who drop bombs from planes and shoot missiles from ships or submarines – are also at risk of losing their humanity. What threatens them is the very ease by which they can take lives. As technology separates individuals from the results of their actions, it cheats them of the chance to absorb and reckon with the enormity of what they have done. Killing fellow human beings, even for the noblest cause, should never feel like nothing more than a game played using the latest advances in virtual reality.

In his book Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, Michael Ignatieff airs his concerns about the morality of asymmetric conflicts in which one side is able to inflict large numbers of casualties from afar without putting its own forces at much risk (e.g. by relying primarily on long-range precision weapons and high-altitude air assaults). In such a mismatched fight, it may be easy for those fighting on the superior side to fail to appreciate the true costs of the war, since they are not forced to witness the death and destruction first-hand. Ignatieff warns modern warriors against the “moral danger” they face if they allow themselves to become too detached from the reality of war:

“Virtual reality is seductive. …We see war as a surgical scalpel and not a bloodstained sword. In so doing we mis-describe ourselves as we mis-describe the instruments of death. We need to stay away from such fables of self-righteous invulnerability. Only then can we get our hands dirty. Only then can we do what is right.”1

I have argued that it can be damaging for warriors to view their enemies as sub-human by imagining them like beasts in a jungle. In the same way, modern warriors who dehumanize their enemies by equating them with blips on a computer screen may find the sense that they are part of an honorable undertaking far too fragile to sustain. Just as societies have an obligation to treat their warriors as ends in themselves, it is important for warriors to show a similar kind of respect for the inherent worth and dignity of their opponents. Even long-distance warriors can achieve this by acknowledging that some of the “targets” they destroy are in fact human beings, not demons or vermin or empty statistics.

More parallels can be drawn between the way that societies should behave towards their warriors and how warriors should behave towards one another. Societies should honor their fallen defenders. Warriors should not desecrate the corpses of their enemies, but should, whenever possible, allow them to be buried by their own people and according to their own cultural traditions. Among his therapy patients, Jonathan Shay found several veterans suffering from “the toxic residue left behind by disrespectful treatment of enemy dead.(7)” And while societies must certainly show concern for the after-effects of war on their own troops, victorious warriors can also maintain the moral highground by helping to rebuild (or in some cases create) a solid infrastructure, a healthy economy, an educational system, and political stability for their former foes.

© 2004 Shannon French, Ph.D.

About the author: Dr. Shannon E. French teaches in the Ethics Section at the U.S. Naval Academy. Her book, The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values, Past and Present (2003, Rowman and Littlefield) features a foreword by Senator John McCain. In 2000 she was awarded USNA’s campus-wide Apgar Award for Excellence in Teaching. This essay is reprinted by permission of the author.

  1. Shay p. 117. 

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