Warrior Transitions: From Combat to Social Contract


By Shannon E. French, Ph.D.

United States Naval Academy

January 2005 JSCOPE



I.          Introduction: Penance and Purification


Warriors must not feel that they are stepping into an entirely separate moral universe when they enter a combat zone and that they will never be held accountable for what they do there.  As Bernard J. Verkamp explains in his important work, The Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors in Early Medieval and Modern Times, in the early Middle Ages, Christian knights returning from war were required to do penance for acts committed during wartime that were seen as “sinful” (including injuring and killing other humans), even if the war had been judged to be a just war by the Church. As Verkamp explains:

[T]he Christian community of the first millennium generally assumed that warriors returning from battle would or should be feeling guilty and ashamed for all the wartime killing they had done. Far from having such feelings dismissed as insignificant or irrelevant, returning warriors were encouraged to seek resolution of them through rituals of purification, expiation, and reconciliation. To accommodate these latter needs, religious authorities of the period not infrequently imposed various and sundry penances on returning warriors, depending on the kind of war they had been engaged in, the number of their killings, and the intention with which they had been carried out.[1]



On the surface, this seems a bit unfair. You go off to fight a war in what the Church has declared to be a just cause, you survive the horrors of war, and when you return the Church wants you to do penance and ask forgiveness for what you have done? At first blush, this practice seems only designed to produce self-loathing warriors.

In fact, however, those who created the practice did not do so to punish warriors or make them regret their calling. They simply thought they understood what a warrior returning from war needs to do in order to transition successfully back into civilian life. Warriors need to recognize that what they did in service of their country was outside the norms of human existence and cannot be allowed in civilized society. The power of life and death that they were asked to exercise over others for the good of all must be relinquished (at least until they are called to war again). However necessary the evil in which they participated might have been, it was still an evil. By asking for forgiveness, warriors acknowledge that the rules that generally govern the social contract are valid and do apply to them. They accept ownership of their actions and symbolically ask to be allowed back into the fold of their community, released from the guilt of the acts they committed in the “fog of war.”

A vast array of cultures across the globe have understood the need for some form of spiritual cleansing and ritualized transition for the warrior passing from the world of war into the world of peace. In ancient Rome, the Vestal Virgins would bathe returning soldiers from the Legions to purge them of the corruption of war. In Africa, returning Maasai warriors had purification rites, and Native Americans of the Plains tribes conducted sweat lodge ceremonies for their warriors before they could rejoin their tribes.[2] Embedded in these rituals are essential lessons from history about what we need to do for those who have transgressed the moral lines of civil society in order to protect and defend civilization for the rest of us.


II.                 Different Moral Spheres?

It is tempting to view the warrior’s transition from combat to civilian life as a movement between two distinct moral spheres.[3] We often talk about war as if war itself were an otherworldly territory in which the attempted application of ordinary moral laws would either simply be ridiculous or outright impossible. Declarations such as, “This is war,” or “We are at war,” seem to carry as subtext the idea that at least some of the rules that normally govern us are suspended or are of no use in the context of war. Killing other humans is wrong, yes, but this is war. Of course we value the preservation of civil liberties, but we are at war.[4]

On the level of the individuals asked to do the actually fighting in a war, this notion of separate moral spheres is frequently reinforced. Military trainees at boot camp are told that they are leaving their old world behind, that they now belong to whatever branch of the service they selected, and that they should forget everything they thought they knew. As they are about to transition from training to combat, they are told again that war will be another world, like nothing they have ever experienced.

Certainly, our warriors need to be prepared for the realities of combat. They will be required to do things that we hope will not have been any part of their pre-war world, such as taking lives, destroying property, and causing a great deal of pain and suffering. To do such things is not normally thought of as morally desirable or praiseworthy, but in the context of war they are regarded as necessary actions.  When our troops are ordered to do what they would be forbidden to do back home, how can they not think of themselves as being in a different moral sphere?  What is right on the streets of Mosul is not what is right on the streets of Pella, Iowa.

Interestingly, this distinction between the world of war and chaos and the world of law and order is a formal component of Islamic thought. Islamic ideology divides the world into two spheres, the dar al Islam and the dar al harb.  The dar al Islam is the Islamic world, where Islamic law is obeyed and the teachings of Muhammad are followed.  The dar al harb is the world of war, and it includes everything that is not part of the dar al Islam.  The dar al harb is seen as a godless region where Islamic law does not apply. Some Muslims thus contend that what a believer does in the dar al harb does not affect his soul in the same way as do his actions within the dar al Islam.[5]

This example of “two spheres” thinking sheds some light on its potential pitfalls. If a Saudi prince gambles, drinks, and carouses during his visits to countries outside the dar al Islam, he may believe that this behavior has no effect on character. What he does in the dar al harb, from his perspective, does not “count.”  It is another world.

We are right to be suspicious of this line of thought. Regardless of how many different worlds he believes he travels among, the Saudi prince is the same man in all of them. When he returns to the dar al Islam, he retains the memories of whatever he did in the dar al harb. While he is in the dar al harb, he retains the capacity to recognize how his actions would be assessed if they were evaluated using the moral principles he claims to embrace. He knows when he has violated his values. If he clings to the view that the violations do not matter because they did not occur in the dar al Islam, he must accept either that he is an out-and-out hypocrite or that his values are merely relative and not universal (a curious conclusion, if he believes the source of those values to be Divine Command).

It could be argued that the analogy between the use of “two spheres” reasoning in the case of the Saudi prince is very different than in the case of the warrior. After all, there is no necessity driving the prince to engage in hedonistic pursuits whenever he visits the dar al harb. In contrast, the warrior may justifiably believe that remaining strictly faithful to his pre-war values will put him and his comrades at increased physical risk and may even make victory harder to achieve.

However, the fact that holding the moral high ground may be particularly difficult or costly under certain circumstances does not mean that moral principles no longer apply. As Walzer notes when warning against overuse of the “Supreme Emergency” justification for suspending moral rules in wartime, being at war or in combat rarely, if ever, excuses the abandonment of all restraint in the name of necessity. He reminds us that:

[E]very war is an emergency, every battle a possible turning point. Fear and hysteria are always latent in combat, often real, and they press us toward fearful measures and criminal behavior. The war convention is a bar to such measures, not always effective, but there nevertheless. In principle at least, as we have seen, it resists the ordinary crises of military life.[6]



We should not lightly encourage our warriors to believe that any measures that serve our war effort are permissible, for “a great deal is at stake here, both for the men and women driven to adopt such measures and for their victims.”[7]

Those high stakes include the very values for which we send young men and women to fight. If we signal our troops that anything goes in the world of war, we fall into the same trap as the Saudi prince who sets aside his principles when he sets foot on non-Islamic soil. Either we are training our troops to be hypocrites who claim to represent values while blatantly betraying those values, or we are telling them that our values are not, in fact, universal. This is even more troubling when the point of sending our troops off to war in the first place is supposed to be to spread our values (freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, etc.) to other nations precisely because we do think these values are universal. If we consistently suspend our basic moral principles because we are at war, they will become eroded beyond recognition and we will no longer be able to claim that they are the foundations of our society.

This point is explored in the excellent BBC mystery series “Foyle’s War,” which follows a fictional British police detective as he solves murders and other crimes in the coastal town of Hastings during World War II.  In one episode, a captured German spy expresses fascination at the fact that Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle is bothering to investigate a domestic murder in wartime. The German is surprised, but he clearly admires Foyle for what he does. “Foyle’s War” writer Anthony Horowitz has explained that one of the major themes of the series is that Foyle is performing an absolutely essential service for his country by endeavoring to maintain law and order and preserve the social contract even while England is in a desperate struggle for its very survival as a sovereign nation.[8]  Murder remains “most foul,” even when other types of killing are condoned.

In the peacetime world, we routinely recognize distinctions among different kinds of killing. There are times when killing another human being is seen as morally permissible. Killing in self-defense is not the same thing as murder. Killing in war can be seen as a form of killing in self-defense. And just as the line between self-defense and murder can be crossed in the civilian world, it can be crossed in combat. The Vietnamese villagers killed in the My Lai massacre were murdered. Prisoners of war can be victims of murder. Identifying what is a legitimate act of defense and what is murder in the context of war or combat may at times be immensely challenging, but it is a comprehensible task. “Murder” still has meaning, even in war. Similarly, placing them in the context of war does not alter the moral permissibility of rape, theft, betrayal, and other reprehensible acts.

The warrior occupies the same moral sphere in Iowa as he does in Iraq. We place the character of our troops and our fundamental values at risk if we encourage our warriors to imagine themselves entering another realm governed by divergent moral laws (or, worse, by no moral laws at all) whenever we ask them to face combat for us. If our goal is to protect our warriors, we do them an unintentional disservice if we invent a fictional divide between our moral universe and theirs.


III.               Issues that Complicate the Warrior’s Self-Perception

If the world of war is not a separate moral sphere at all, why do warriors need any assistance transitioning in and out of it? If killing in war is a species of killing in self-defense, there should be no attending guilt with which our troops must wrestle. Nor should there be any need for forgiveness or ritualized cleansing.

There are at least four flaws in this conclusion. First of all, there has never been a war in which innocents – noncombatants – did not die. Even if we view killing combatants as a form of self-defense, our troops still have to reckon with the fact that their actions also directly or indirectly cause the deaths of noncombatants. These people do not represent a clear and present threat to the warrior’s survival. Does killing them make our troops into murderers?

The traditional argument is that it does not, so long as the noncombatant deaths were not intended, were not avoidable (although that is often a prickly point), and were not the means to an intended end. In Natural Law Theory, this is known as the Doctrine of Double Effect: 

The principle [of Double Effect] holds that…an action [that produces both good and bad effects] should be performed only if the intention is to bring about the good effect and the bad effect will be an unintended or indirect consequence.  More specifically, four conditions must be satisfied:

1.      The action itself must be morally indifferent or morally good.

2.      The bad effect must not be the means by which the good effect is achieved.

3.      The motive must be the achievement of the good effect only.

4.      The good effect must be at least equivalent in importance to the bad effect.[9]



In other words, it may be permissible to cause noncombatant deaths as a foreseeable, regrettable, but unintended side effect while in the course of killing combatants. This is what we typically call “collateral damage.”

There is a problem, however, with relying on the Doctrine of Double Effect to ease a warrior’s conscience over causing civilian deaths. It depends on assessments of proportionality and just cause that troops in the field may not be in any position to make. Does the individual warrior causing the collateral damage know for certain that the “bad effect” for which he feels responsible is actually “at least equivalent in importance” to the good effect he was ordered to produce? Can our warriors have supreme confidence that their actions are producing any “good effects” at all? So long as there is doubt, there may be feelings of guilt that should not be too lightly dismissed.

A second consideration is that even some clear-cut cases of killing enemy combatants may not feel like self-defense to those doing the killing. Two videos from the Iraqi conflict illustrating this point made the rounds on the Internet in 2004.  One showed an Iraqi insurgent being essentially obliterated by a single shot from an American tank. Another showed a crowd of insurgents reduced to nothing but a crater in the earth by U.S. ordnance dropped from the air. The tank crew probably felt that their vastly superior firepower had no effect on the legitimacy of their kill, but it is not uncommon for members of the superior force in an asymmetric engagement to experience some uneasiness (if not outright guilt). In particular, distance warriors, like those who shattered the pack of insurgents in the second video, may have trouble equating their actions with killing in self-defense when they recognize that those they killed were not really in a position to threaten them.

This objection may be addressed by realigning such acts not with self-defense, but with the defense of a vulnerable third party. After all, surely the insurgents killed by the tank and air crews were a direct threat to the lives of nearby ground troops. Nevertheless, there still could be some impurity to these acts from the perspective of those in control of the overwhelming force. However good they feel about helping their comrades on the ground, they may yet be discomfited by the idea of causing the deaths of others without risking their own safety – especially when those rescued by their actions are not innocent bystanders but combatants (and therefore legitimate targets for attack).

The third point to consider is that according to Natural Law, killing in self-defense and killing persons who have forfeited their right to life are at best morally permissible actions.  They are not mandatory, nor are they praiseworthy. Having to take lives in this way is not a cause for celebration. Regardless of what philosophers may say about the morality of it, having taken lives in this way may make some warriors feel psychologically or spiritually damaged and in need of some kind of cleansing.

The fourth and final point to consider is that those of our troops who are not troubled by killing the enemy or causing collateral damage may yet hold themselves accountable for violating their values if they do not regard their mental state at the time of the killings as appropriate. This is something like the old Church distinction between sins of thought and sins of action. If at some point in their combat experience they felt intense personal hatred for their enemies or if they enjoyed taking lives (if it gave them a “rush”), they may wish to atone for those feelings and release them so that they will be able to feel like a regular citizen again. A quote from St. Augustine comes to mind: “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst to vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, …the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”[10] Some warriors may not feel fit to rejoin their families, or the civilian world in general, if they are still filled with rage or a sense of being god-like in their ability to take or save lives.


IV.              Conclusion: Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Warriors do not need assistance with transitions in and out of combat because their calling forces them to move between different moral spheres. In point of fact, warriors require transitional assistance because there is only one moral sphere, and their actions in war and peace are judged against the same set of values and principles. Warrior transitions are essential precisely because many of our troops admirably resist the temptation to ignore the morally troubling aspects of what they are asked to do on our behalf. They judge themselves to a greater or lesser degree to be violators of a social contract that is worth preserving. Therefore, they need some way to free themselves from anything they did or witnessed that seems incompatible with the values to which they are committed.

Transitional practices that involve some kind of confession or purification do not create guilt or self-loathing in warriors; rather, such rituals allow warriors to release any guilt or shame with which they may be burdened and cleanse away any sense of being tainted or “unfit” to be a member of the civilian community from which they came.[11] Ultimately, healthy transitions give warriors a chance to forgive themselves, so that they can move on with their lives.

Due to the religious diversity among our troops, finding a “one size fits all” transitional practice may be neither practical nor desirable. Catholics who have served in combat might get what they need from a modern version of the confession and penance rituals that were beneficial to their knightly ancestors. Native Americans in uniform may wish to undergo the purification rites of particular tribes. An agnostic service member might prefer some form of psychological counseling. A variety of religious and secular transitional programs could be made available, and time granted for the specific purpose of allowing warriors to reflect upon their wartime experiences and, if they wish, discuss them with others who are familiar with the realities of combat. The U.S. Marine Corps has already created a Warrior Transitions program run by chaplains and military psychologists for marines serving in Iraq. Perhaps other communities will soon follow suit.

Offering our troops the opportunity to reconcile with their wartime actions before thrusting them back into civilian life is not a punishment, but a gift. This is what ancient and medieval warrior cultures understood, and what we would do well to remember if we want to give our troops the best hope for mentally, morally, and spiritually sound lives, should they survive the horrors of combat we have asked them to endure.



[1] Bernard J. Verkamp, The Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors in Early Medieval and Modern Times (Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 1993), p.11.  I am indebted to my colleague David Perry from the U.S. Army War College for directing me to this excellent resource.

[2] See Shannon E. French, The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values, Past and Present (Lanham, New York, and Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Press, 2003).

[3] I owe a debt to my USNA colleagues George R. Lucas, Larry Lengbeyer, and Visiting Ethics Fellow Robert Fullinwider for helping me focus my thoughts on separate moral spheres by their contributions to the discussion at my works-in-progress colloquium in the fall of 2004.

[4] Notice that when the government dubs any sort of campaign a “war,” many tend to interpret it as a signal that the rules for the prosecution of that campaign have been changed – usually in the direction of permitting possible infringements on individual rights and large commitments of resources (e.g. War on Drugs, War on Terror, etc.).

[5] I am grateful to James Turner Johnson and Laurent Murawiec for clarifying this distinction between the dar al Islam and the dar al harb and its implications. See James Turner Johnson, “Jihad and Just War,” First Things 124 (June/July 2002), pps. 12-14.

[6] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977; pagination from 2000 edition), p. 251.

[7] Ibid p 251.

[8] In one case, Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle is forced by the British government to suspend his pursuit of an American murderer, because the American is vital to negotiations that will establish the Lend-Lease agreement between the U.S. and Britain. Yet even in this case, it is made clear that the American’s crime is not excused by the war. The war has not created a separate moral sphere in which the cold-blooded killer of an innocent man does not need to be punished. The punishment is merely deferred. Foyle assures the American that he will be tried for his crime after the war: “You have not escaped justice, merely postponed it!”

[9] “An Overview of Aquinas’ Natural Law Theory,” by Ronald Munson, reprinted in George R. Lucas et al., Ethics for Military Leaders (Simon and Schuster Custom Publishing, 1998) p. 397.

[10] St. Augustine, Contra Faust. xxii, 74; quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas, “Is It Always Sinful to Wage War?”

[11] I am reminded here of psychiatrist Jonathan Shay’s moving comment: “The painful paradox is that fighting for one’s country can render one unfit to be its citizen.” Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), p. xx.