Notes from the Front Lines: Reporting on the 2012 Lutheran Ethicists Gathering

[1] Major David Buffaloe spoke about ethical challenges to soldiers. Much of his training focused on high intensity conflict, but there are many other areas in which a soldier encounters ethical challenges. In his own training at West Point, Buffalo spent a fair amount of time on Michael Walzer's book Just and Unjust Wars, and it proved influential to his thinking.

Notes from the Front Lines: Reporting on the 2012 Lutheran Ethicists Gathering by Kaari Reierson

[2] As a professional soldier, Buffaloe sees his job as attending to the morality of his own actions — fundamentally just wars can be fought unjustly, and unjust wars can be fought justly. He shared some of the lessons he learned in training and education, and as a commander.

[3] Firstly, displaced morality can lead soldiers to commit immoral acts if they are ordered to. A soldier may commit an atrocity if he believes someone else shoulders the moral burden — therefore, it is a special responsibility of the commander to engage in moral discernment. From a course in cultural anthropology at Syracuse University, Buffaloe learned to remember that he had his own perspective, and not to "look at people with Western goggles."

[4] The training in high-intensity conflict was of limited use in police work, and in discerning nuances of tribal rivalries and cultural differences. Many decisions Buffaloe had to make went far beyond the training he'd had. The counterinsurgency in Afghanistan he referred to as "the graduate level war." Fighting an enemy that blends into the population, and acting as a police force in a country where you are a foreigner presents a level of challenge not necessarily addressed by just war theory.

[5] Putting the challenges into their context, Buffaloe reminded his audience that Afghanistan has seen thirty-plus years of war, with the result that might is the path to respect. By demonstrating that he could control the airplanes patrolling the region, calling off low-flying sorties if the elder showed himself cooperative and requested so, Buffaloe demonstrated both respect and power. If nothing suspicious was found upon searching a compound, Buffaloe would change tone and apologize for intrusion and be sure to leave humanitarian aid of some kind.

[6] Though some American soldiers may have dehumanized the Afghan population, Buffaloe was philosophical about the war and the political conditions. Viewing someone an enemy combatant was not dehumanizing, but a legitimate state. Local people were trying to survive, and not end up on the losing side of the conflict.

[7] Buffaloe described some of the dilemmas faced by his unit. Using the example of delivering health care, he demonstrated that cultural sensitivity can change the outcome of moral decision making. To wit: though in Western culture the life of a child is valued highly, the much lower childhood survival rate in Afghanistan meant that older citizens were valued highly. Upon entering a village, American troops might see an urgent need to attend to a child, but if they did not attend to the elder first, there could be long-term repercussions for the child and its family. An elder who was shunted aside in favor of treating a child might have to re-establish himself at the top of the social order by withholding food or medicine from the child's family. In the long run, American troops found, it was better for the child to treat the elder first, no matter how minor the ailment of the elder and how serious the condition of the child. In the short run, it was challenging to lay aside the moral impulse to treat a more seriously ill child first.

[8] In another example, Buffaloe illustrated the challenges all soldiers face in life-or-death situations. With some troops caught in an intense firefight, the commander called in air support. The munitions landed in the wrong spot, leveling the compound of an innocent family. The soldiers sent to help the survivors began digging in the rubble. The crying one soldier heard turned out to be a baby goat. Hearing more crying, he dug frantically again, only to unearth another baby goat. The third time he heard cries, he dug again, but without the same sense of urgency. This time, it was a child, who had stopped breathing by the time he reached her, and could not be resuscitated, despite the soldier spending an hour trying. The soldier was left to wonder if he could have saved her if he'd dug harder and faster.

Panel Discussion
[9] The group heard presentations. David Baer on how the Geneva Conventions address some of the issues. Martin Cook presented, and Stewart Herman presented on vulnerability. (DAVID — STEWART PROMISES A PAPER ON MARCH 15) Wollom (Wally) Jensen gave a response (LINK).

Question and Answer Period
[10] A chaplain asked the respondents to consider America's history of just war, and give thoughts on past interventions. Martin Cook, using the example of American military action against the Barbary Pirates, noted that in its history, the U.S. has viewed itself before as acting on behalf of the common good. After the attacks of 9/11 and subsequent bombings, Cook had anticipated the response of the international community to be one of concern for common good. Given that terrorists can inhabit a country with or without consent, Cook thought there would be some movement of international law. The challenge posed to just war theory by 9/11, Cook said, arises from the state-centered model of thinking, an invention of Westphalia. If attackers are not states, this makes applying just war theory more difficult.

[11] David Baer cautioned to keep questions in the right category.

Small Group Reporting
[12] The first group to report discussed the concern for moral challenges or injury vs. PTSD. Moral injury might not necessarily arise out of a traumatic event. Chaplains have learned to help soldiers forgive themselves as God forgives them. Chaplains offer prayer and personal moments, acting as a listening ear. They advise commanders who are making difficult decisions that hope to produce less moral injury. They help soldiers see that in the eyes of the enemy, they are themselves enemy combatants.

[13] Addressing the adequacy of just war theory, chaplains found that approaching chaplaincy as a pastoral presence on the ground was most effective. Chaplains found just war theory helpful in informing the way they interacted with commanders. Nevertheless, just war does not address adequately many of the challenges of modern warfare, such as targeted killing and the lack of a sovereign state.

[14] Another group discussed Stewart Herman's presentation on vulnerability. They found a disconnect between vulnerability on the ground and policy decisions. This group found that the lack of vulnerability (of American ground troops) compared to other wars has changed the public response to war. On the other hand, though physical vulnerability might have decreased, emotional vulnerability remains.

[15] Speaking of chaplains giving absolution, the group questioned whether a wrong was committed that required absolution, and how to make the distinction. Soldiers experienced a re-orientation of values, and the group wondered whether that was unique to soldiers, or merely more pronounced in their lives.

[16] In response to Wally Jensen's address, the group considered that on one hand, they were reluctant to remove theistic claims from pastoral care interactions. On the other hand, they found, theistic claims can become compartmentalized to just pastoral care interactions. They worried about the instrumentalization of chaplains. They also noted, following on some observations by a Danish participant in the gathering, a difference in how American soldiers would see their vocations versus a Danish soldier.

[17] A third group reported out about their discussion of challenges to personal morality. The question of how morally unclear situations were handled was paramount. The group noted misperceptions of culture and the tendency to demonize the other. Demonization, they proposed, may be rooted in lack of solid moral grounding and temptation to act in blameworthy ways when not constrained by consequences. The U.S. military has been trying to correct this through regular training in the laws of war and an emphasis on spiritual health.

[18] The group discussed the consequences of drone warfare for the conscience. People need to do their jobs, they thought, and to have some distance, but being too distant was not beneficial.

[19] The group discussed situations where rules of engagement prevented them from correcting injustice. They discussed the consequences of whistle blowing — in an environment where teamwork and camaraderie are essential to safety, whistle blowing is difficult. The group discussed the contributions of Christian ethics to personnel actions in the field. Individuals and small groups of people can do a lot of damage. The military has concerned itself with leadership, and with instilling value into people who may serve in the military for very practical reasons.

[20] The group ended with a discussion of the importance of forgiveness and the sacraments, visible signs of God's presence.

[21] Another group mostly addressed the spiritual and practical role of chaplains. Practically speaking, chaplains understand there is a moral context to make judgments. Spiritually speaking, chaplains can help soldiers make sense of that. Chaplains illustrate the ability to transcend suffering with access to forgiveness.

[22] The problem for chaplains, this group thought, was giving guidance in the midst of an unjust war. They wondered what the response should be when soldiers ask "Why are we here?" Modeling their thoughts on the book of Job, this group thought the role of chaplains was not to give an answer, but to give a sense of God's presence.

[23] Living in the already/not yet for this group meant that ethics does not necessarily give a clear answer, but illustrates what might be possible. The group showed concern for practicing ministry to the dying.

[24] The conversation transitioned into learning about resources. Ethics boards are beginning to be viewed with as unsatisfactory by some. Participants tend to be interested more in risk management than the best decision.

[25] The group agreed that in terms of interfaith and secular faith issues, many people were using concepts of just war with different language. Some wonder whether the Christian ethics has anything at all to say to the military.

[26] The group discussed the difference between training and education. The gap between the artificial environment of ministry and ministry in the field continues to challenge. Chaplains based in science and math and chaplains trained in liberal arts and languages may have different approaches. In the Marine Corps, command training means having experienced commanders talk about their experiences. Chaplains will also talk about helping commanders made decisions. This, it seemed to the group, would be a good format for chaplain education.

[27] Gilbert Meilaender gave a presentation.

[28] James Magness responded. He used an example of an episode from his chaplaincy on the USS Enterprise as it prepared to drop bombs in the Straits of Hormuz in retaliation for mining a U.S. ship. He was strolling the deck of the ship when he encountered someone who was writing messages in a spirit of anger onto bombs as he was loading them. The next night, when Magness encountered him, the man was worried. He wondered "What if the bomb killed somebody?" He wanted to know it was all right, and he wanted to know he was going to be all right. Magness accompanied him in his doubts, without offering a simple solution.

[29] Magness had found that offering cheap grace would merely "intensify the ghost of conscience within us." Chaplains have the power and authority to forgive, but this power needs to be used judiciously. Sometimes those in the service have to do terrible things.

[30] Magness saw three imperatives for the future of military chaplaincy. First, chaplains need to help dissenting people talk to each other. Second, the military needs to provide supportive guidance for chaplains, who are challenged with balancing moral imperatives with pastoral care. Lastly, they have to provide more information and guidance to uniformed military personnel.

[31] Magness closed with a statement that "The answer to fear is not war but a deep and living faith."

Plenary Session
[32] The group assembled in plenary to discuss what resources should be developed. Among the recommendations that were made:


  • developing worship/liturgical resources
  • sponsoring ongoing conversations between chaplains and ethicists
  • finding ways to offer support for reserve troops in the transition back to civilian life
  • ongoing conversation between ethical, pastoral, and theological fields to develop resources for the "trainers of the trainers" — chaplains who are developing resources for other chaplains. The problem, this speaker believed, was in integrating over time the moral, ethical, theological, and spiritual aspects of being in battle.
  • more contact with pastors of congregations so that they are aware of resources.
  • making resources available in mp3 format. Resources named: Luther's conversations with Asa and John Michael Talbot's Lord's Supper.
  • working to make churches a safe place for those severely wounded to return to.

[33] One speaker noted that shame is as important to think about as guilt. When shame is superimposed on a culture based on honor, shame is a great weight.

[34] Some military members noted that resources have already been developed: the National Guard has put out a handbook for churches. Social services agencies (indeed, members of Lutheran Services in America) are working on resources. VA medical centers around the country have begun inviting community clergy in.

Kaari Reierson was the Senior Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and Associate Director for Studies in Church in Society of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.



© March 2012
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 12, Issue 2