Can’t say I was crazy about the headline, which aside from the awkwardly split infinitive seems to presume aberration as the norm (probably unintentionally). But I found the idea intriguing:
Can soldiers be trained to not become war criminals?
Halfway through a 15 month, high-intensity combat deployment in Iraq, soldiers were shown videos of ethically dicey situations they might encounter with civilians. The question researchers wanted to answer was: can soldiers who are already suffering enormous amounts of stress — literally fearing for their lives — be trained to stop and think long enough to prevent unethical behavior?
The answer, happily, is yes. In a study published in the Lancet, researchers concluded that a combination of videos and leader-led discussion groups led to “significantly lower rates of unethical conduct of soldiers and greater willingness to report and address misconduct than in those before training.”
From the paper:
For example, reports of unnecessary damage or destruction of private property decreased from 13·6% before training to 5·0% after training, and willingness to report a unit member for mistreatment of a non-combatant increased from 36·0% to 58·9%. Nearly all participants reported that training made it clear how to respond towards non-combatants.
You wouldn’t think “sensitivity training” or its equivalent would work in the highest stress environment on the planet, but apparently it does. One caveat: soldier’s ethical or unethical behavior was self-reported, so it’s possible that soldiers who had the training were simply reporting less of it because they had been made aware that it was wrong. But isn’t that exactly the mechanism by which ethics training works?
Of course, it sort of militates against the training of U.S. soldiers since the Korean War — training in acquiring targets rapidly and firing immediately and accurately (which makes our soldiers deadlier than any since the introduction of firearms, but leads to a lot of PTSD, since it leads to shooting first and thinking about it later).
But with the kinds of conflicts we face these days, it’s more important than ever to be sure to shoot at the right targets — not only morally, but in terms of eventual effectiveness. One of the greatest pitfalls in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is alienating the civilian populace through mistakes.
So while I’m not entirely convinced that such training works, I hope it does. We need soldiers to shoot straight, but they have to be more sure than ever it’s the bad guys they’re shooting at. For their sakes and the sake of the country as well as for the innocent bystanders.