The Impact of War

Training U.S. Troops in Core Values

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How are U.S. troops trained in the rules of war before they are sent into battle? The rules have not changed for more than 60 years. Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor (retired) lends Lynn Neary his insights.


The military says ethics training will remind the troops of the values that separate us from our enemies. But battlefield ethics have become increasingly complicated for the U.S. military as they operate in areas populated by both civilians and insurgents alike. Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor joins us in the studio. He and Michael Gordon co-wrote the book Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. Thanks so much for being with us, Gen. Trainor.

Lt. Gen. BERNARD TRAINOR (Retired): Nice to be with you, Lynn.

NEARY: Let me ask you about this ethics training. First of all, is it just part of regular training for troops? And is this going to be in addition to whatever training they may have in values and ethics already?

Lt. Gen. TRAINOR: Yeah, that's a good question. I don't know exactly what they plan on doing there. But I will say this. There is an ethics program that is established from the time a youngster goes in the military and so drilled into them that thou shalt not do this or thou shalt not do that, and it's reinforced through all their period. Let me given an example. Marine, you're going through a village and you look up and there in the window of one of the houses is a terrorist with an AK-47. He's aiming at you. But he also has a baby in his arms to protect him. What do you do, Marine?

NEARY: What is a Marine, what is a soldier trained to do in a case like that?

Lt. Gen. TRAINOR: Well, the thing is, you have a right to defend yourself. But you have no right to kill the innocent. Now, he has to make a judgment in his own mind. If he can kill the insurgent, obviously, that's the thing for him to do without harming the child. If he has to duck out of the way and get at the insurgent another way, that's what he has to do.

NEARY: Do the rules of engagement, do the ethics of war change? Are they evolving as wars change?

Lt. Gen. TRAINOR: No. You know, we have a tradition, the Just War tradition, in this country, which goes back centuries in its evolution. But one of the foundation elements of it is that you do not deliberately harm, kill innocent people. You protect them. And this applies whether it was in this war or whether it was in Vietnam, Korea or World War II.

NEARY: Do you think there are some situations in Iraq that are really different from any that have occurred before?

Lt. Gen. TRAINOR: No, there's nothing new here. You have to understand that people can become overwhelmed by the tragedies that they find themselves facing and the frustration that they're facing. But that is not an excuse. That's extenuating mitigating circumstances, but it's not an excuse for murder.

NEARY: Yeah. And what about the fact that it looks as though not only was there an incident in Haditha, but there was a cover-up as well. And I would imagine that part of that ethical training needs to be the reinforcement that when something occurs, people shouldn't be covering it up, people should be reporting it.

Lt. Gen. TRAINOR: You hit on a very important point. There are two issues here. One, was murder committed? And issue two, was there a cover-up? And that's also being investigated. Now, let's be realistic about this. You have a team out there, maybe four men led by a young NCO, and perhaps they do this. They've been overwhelmed by what they've see and so forth, and they overreact. And there's deliberate murder out of a sense of frustration or what have you. Let's take that as kind of a given for the hypothetical case that we're dealing with. Now, it's not likely that that outfit, which is operating semi-independently somewhere, it's not likely, at the end of the day, that they're going put themselves on report and say, oh, by the way, we committed cold-blooded murder. No, they're going to put the best face on it.

Okay. Now, I will also tell you this from 40 years of experience in the Marine Corps, that when that unit gets back, it's not long before the rumor gets around, something happened out there. Now, it's the job of the next level leadership along the line, whether it's a platoon leader or a company commander, if he smells something fishy and he starts to hear these rumors, it's his obligation to check into it. And if he doesn't, if it still smells as it goes up the line, the next level should be doing it. Now, if that is not done, then that's a case of dereliction of duty on the part of the leadership.

NEARY: Thanks very much, General.

Lt. Gen. TRAINOR: Thanks very much, Lynne. It's been a pleasure to be on with you.

NEARY: Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor is co-author of the book Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq.

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