Military Ethical and Moral Dilemmas in Afghanistan

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In the twenty-first century, militaries all over the world must navigate and operate within unfamiliar societies. In the case of Afghanistan, circumstances can arise where what a military member was told to do conflicts with what he or she believes to be morally or socially right. This essay will present two instances involving military personnel that pose moral and ethical conundrums, and it will compare and contrast these instances in terms of what should be done in terms of morality, ethics, and the law. In the first scenario, an American Marine Major was confronted with the historical Afghan practice of bacha bazi (boy play, or as it is known in the West, child molestation) which is a generally accepted practice despite being illegal under both Afghan civil and religious laws. The question to be answered here is how to correctly handle this type of situation given the moral, ethical, cultural, and political implications of the military member’s actions. The Marine Major must report the incident to his/her superiors, as Cook (2015) explains “the individual soldier must report the misdeeds and must act to stop them within the limits of his commander’s intent, but that may well have no perceivable remediating or deterrent effect.” Asking the Afghanis respectfully not to do such things in the presence of Western military members may be enough to resolve the situation morally and ethically for the Marine Major but ultimately, as Cook points out, even doing this may have no remedial effect on the behavior of the Afghan nationals. However, this action is probably the least objectionable to all parties. Physical intervention in the incident by the Marine Major would be seen as an affront to Afghan culture and traditions and standing by and doing nothing, gives the impression that the Marine Major sanctions this kind of behavior, which would not be in line with operational and strategic concerns and would not instill confidence in the locals. The overriding concern here is, as Jensen (2013) points out, “the moral code that governs modern western military service is not fully developed” which leads to many situations like the one above.

The second scenario involves the same circumstance of witnessing child molestation, this time by an Army Special Forces soldier. The soldier contacted the local police only to find out that they were the ones allowing the behavior to continue. The soldier decided to intervene after local Afghans complained of the perpetrator’s immoral behavior. The soldier was discharged later for having “body slammed” the perpetrator several times. The Special Forces soldier was responding to complaints by locals but did his duty require him to intervene on behalf of the Afghani locals? This situation seems to fall into the category of “insoluble dilemmas” which, as explained by Schulzke (2013), are “impossible to resolve using moral or ethical decision procedures” because “the outcome of these decisions is largely a matter of luck.” For example, the soldier in question could have been lauded by local officials for reporting and stopping a morally reprehensible act which is against the civil and religious laws of Afghanistan, but instead he was seen as having overreacted to a situation which could have been handled differently. Even though the soldier upheld the Army Value of integrity by doing what was morally and ethically right as he saw it, he also failed to uphold the Army Value of respect which expects soldiers to “treat people as they should be treated” (U.S. Army, n.d.), by “body slamming” the perpetrator several times, an excessive use of force on the soldier’s part. While the locals asked that the act be stopped, they never asked for the soldier to repeatedly “body slam” the assailant. This overuse of power by the Special Forces soldier also violated the Core Values of the Army’s Special Operations Force in the areas of cultural awareness, character, and professionalism (Federation of American Scientists, 2001).

The above two incidents show clearly that there is a thin line to be tread when it comes to balancing Eastern and Western cultural values, moral and ethical standards of behavior, and obeying military, civil, and international law for military members serving in Afghanistan. While doing nothing, as the Marine Major did, is the comfortable, expedient, and most in keeping with operational, strategic and other considerations. It leaves a bad impression of Western militaries that are constantly espousing the duty to protect the rights of the innocent and oppressed with the local populace. However, the second example of the Special Forces soldier who tried to do the right thing by reporting the incident to the local authorities but then decided to take things into his own hands, also was detrimental to because of the excessive force that the soldier used in subduing the perpetrator. The incident probably gave the soldier’s commander a figurative black eye with the locals because of the improper way which the soldier reacted. Overall, the actions of both the Marine Major and the Special Forces soldier were improper in one respect or another. This leads to a quandary for military members in Afghanistan as to which set of rules are more important than the others.

The above two examples illustrate how difficult fighting a modern war against guerrilla forces can be for standard military members who are taught, for the most part, to fight a conventional war against a conventional, state-sponsored foe who obeys the same rules of warfare that you do. It is no longer a simple matter of “there’s the enemy, kill them.” All manner of legal, ethical, moral, military, civil, local, and international laws must be considered in so many combat situations, it is almost impossible for the average military member to make the right decision all the time. The only viable solution is ultimately not to wage war but discounting that as a feasible possibility, then the best outcome will be to constantly the methods by which the rules of warfare are interpreted in view of the new kind of warfare being fought.


Cook, J. (2015). A Moral Tower of Babel? Journal of Military Ethics, 14(3/4), 280-281. doi:10.1080/15027570.2015.1128665

Federation of American Scientists. (2001). Special Operations Forces Field Manual. Federation of American Scientists website. Retrieved from

Jensen, M. N. (2013). Hard Moral Choices in the Military. Journal of Military Ethics, 12(4), 341-356. doi:10.1080/15027570.2013.869897

Schulzke, M. (2013). Ethically Insoluble Dilemmas in War. Journal of Military Ethics, 12(2), 95-110. doi:10.1080/15027570.2013.818406

U.S. Army. (n.d.) The Army Values. U.S. Army website. Retrieved from

July 15, 2023
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