Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam veteran, has a Ph.D. in psychology, and has counseled veterans for many years. He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon.
Morality, Pacifism, Killing, and Torture
In 1968 I was about to graduate from college, and I knew there was a high probability that I would be drafted into the war in Vietnam. I had been in Catholic schools for sixteen years, so I had sixteen years of religion and theology classes. I considered my options. I could go into the military, leave the country and renounce my citizenship, refuse to be drafted and therefore be imprisoned for two years, go into medical school, go into the seminary for the Catholic priesthood, or claim I was a pacifist. I did not want to be a physician, and I knew I did not have the “gift” of celibacy. As a Catholic I could hardly claim I was a pacifist. Personally I had to admit that if I stood by and failed to defend someone weak and helpless from an attacker, I would be disgusted with myself. No, in all honesty I had to admit that if I needed to defend myself or others, I would do so. Therefore I was not a pacifist.
I did not think my country had the right to draft me into a war that had little to do with our national security. On the other hand, would it be wrong to let them draft me? It seemed to me that the Catholics in Vietnam were fighting for their religious freedom, so I didn’t think it would be wrong for me to help them. That was my thinking at the time. Later I changed my opinion about that. In the historical theories of the “just war” there must be some hope of winning it. Our logic and motivations and implementation in the war in Vietnam was so FUBAR that it was immoral.
Clearly there is such a thing as a “just war.” Defending ourselves with lethal force is sometimes necessary and even good. Just as I would be disgusting if I failed to defend the helpless against attackers, so it could be disgusting to be so weak and stupid as to fail to use lethal force when it was needed. WWII is a clear example of a just war, and it is clear that we would have been weak, stupid, and disgusting if we failed to fight against Hitler. Einstein was at first a pacifist, but finally had to admit that it was necessary for people to fight against Hitler. Many pacifists make that same switch. Pacifism is fine as an intellectual theory, but when you see someone killing your friends you see a different truth. It seems that everyone would agree that killing is bad, but if you look at it from the perspective of defending against those who would harm you or others, then killing can be “good,” or the right thing to do. But of course we always want to review that situation and ensure that killing was truly the last resort.
This is the case with police officers. They occasionally need to kill people to defend themselves or others. Everyone would agree that, generally speaking, killing is “bad,” but almost everyone would also want a police officer to kill anyone who was trying to harm you or your family if there was no other option. Some police officers are extremely brave when they refrain from pulling the trigger long past the time when they would have been justified to do so. They are risking their lives in the hope of saving the other person’s life. But we don’t take killing lightly. And we don’t want any kill-happy officers on the force. So each and every time there is a killing, there is an administrative review to ensure that the officer as a last resort made a reasonable and prudent decision to use lethal force. Even imprisonment is “bad.” It is not good to deprive people of their freedoms. But sometimes it is necessary and good.
In recent years there has been much self-righteous posturing in the media about the morality of torture. People keep saying, “Torture is bad.” I keep looking for an intelligent and informed discussion of the morality of torture that is comparable to historical discussions of the morality of war and killing. I am disappointed and dismayed. Recently a retired member of the CIA who was in charge of the interrogation of terrorists was interviewed by a prominent journalist on national TV. These are both people who are at the pinnacle of their professions, but not once did they refer in any intelligent way to the morality of torture.
When I was a young man I had to ask myself personally if I could be a pacifist, and in doing this I imagined a personal situation which would be a critical test of that proposition. Could I stand by and watch if I saw my wife, sister, child, or anyone being attacked? Clearly the answer to that was no. Similarly, I now imagine a personal situation which would be a critical test of the morality of torture. If my child were being held by kidnappers and I had captured one of them, and he refused to give me information about who was holding my child and where, would I torture him? In a New York minute, yes, and I think almost everyone would do the same. People say that there are much more sophisticated psychological techniques that are more effective than torture, and as a psychologist I know this to be true. However, those techniques are time consuming, and my child would most likely be dead before they were effective. So I would torture the person to get the information necessary to save my child’s life. Furthermore, I think it would disgusting of me if I were too weak and stupid to be willing to do this when it was necessary. How could I stand by and allow my child to be imprisoned, tortured, or killed?
We authorize and train our soldiers to kill people. We begin this in high school and sometimes even in elementary school when, in ROTC, we train our young children how to use a rifle. How outraged we are when other countries train their children to kill! We are hypocrites. In theory killing should be done only when it is necessary as a last resort in order to defend ourselves or others. We authorize our police officers to kill people when it is necessary as a last resort. But we know human nature, and we don’t want any kill-happy soldiers or kill-happy police officers. If an action in war is called into question, we review it. If a police officer must kill, we always review it. So if the military or the CIA has a terrorist in captivity, and they have reason to believe that the terrorist has knowledge that could prevent the deaths of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people, torture may from time to time be necessary and “good.” It should not be routine, and we have to beware of torture-happy people such as those at Abu Ghraib. Psychological research shows clearly that this is likely to happen if we fail to guard against it and review it constantly. Those in command of Abu Ghraib failed to guard against this. Sometimes even the administrators of our domestic prisons fail to guard against guards who become sadistic. All known psychological techniques for effective interrogation should be exhausted, if time allows, before torture is used as a last resort. In most cases torture should not be necessary, and would therefore be wrong.
I know this is a bitter and terrifying pill for some people to swallow, but this is the nature of the world we live in. Thus far the human race has been unable to stop the warring, the killing, the imprisoning, and the torturing. We need to do everything we can to achieve peace in this world, but so far, the necessity of defending ourselves remains. Our enemies can be foreign terrorists, or burglars and rapists who live nearby. They may even be members of our own families. This is what we face as human beings. I think we can take comfort in the knowledge that most of the time we do in fact live in peace and love. Most of the time people obey the laws and treat each other with respect and love. We must do everything we can to live in peace and love, and do everything insofar as possible, to follow the examples of Gandhi and MLK in pursuing nonviolent resistance.
Read Part One-
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Mike Muller: MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970. Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971. In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army. I was in Vietnam for one tour.