Every student of military history is familiar with the ancient adage “Hold the high ground.” The high ground offers better visibility over the battlefield. Defending on the high ground forces your opponent to make the tiring upwards climb to get at you, which can open gaps in his ranks that you can exploit. It offers the opportunity to place a part of your force where your opponent cannot see it, concealing your real total strength. The U.S. Air Force has long claimed a critical role for itself within the American armed forces based upon its possession of the ultimate high ground, the air over the battlefield. I am convinced that a battlefield also possesses a moral high ground that offers real strength and advantages to the force that holds it. The moral high ground is highly desirable and not to be lightly yielded to an enemy.
As human beings evolved and began living as members of a larger society that was but one among many societies, violence amongst this population evolved into war and warfare. But even at this stage of civilization’s development, it was understood that war meant killing and that unlicensed lethal violence could mean the death of that society. Consequently, society surrounded its warriors with rules and rituals that embody an unwritten contract between society at large and the warriors or soldiers who fight that society’s wars, often reinforced by the invocation of a higher power or Supreme Being worshiped by that society.
This unwritten contract allows chosen individuals to break the most basic rule against taking a human life when they act in the defense of that society and grants them continued full membership in that society without prejudice as long as they abide by the terms of this contract. The visible manifestations of the contract are the rituals with which we surround our warriors – today our soldiers – and the sacred places dedicated for their burial and even their veneration. In more practical terms, it is manifest in the benefits granted beyond simple salary and in the recognition regularly accorded to them and their families in our daily public life. Thus, the contract serves multiple purposes – it protects society’s members from violence, it protects the individual warrior’s place within that society by sanctioning acts of violence committed on behalf of that society, and it ensures that the warrior who fights in battle consistent with society’s rules and rituals will retain the support of the society being defended.
But the existence of such contracts also empower society to hold other societies responsible for the behavior of its warriors on the battlefield, just as it charges each society with responsibility for the behavior of its own warriors. Each society may seek redress for behaviors not consistent with the accepted practices of war, whether set down in custom or written agreement or law.
History shows, and societies long ago learned, that over a long enough period of time battle coarsens and desensitizes warriors to things that would be unacceptable in the civil society they are defending. This goes beyond the mere physical discomforts to the individual’s very interactions with and responses to death, whether of comrades or enemies. This desensitization could well be a survival mechanism, the body and mind’s attempt to preserve the individual’s mental well-being in the face of the extreme experiences of battle.
Thus, society’s contract with its warriors includes the stricture that their battlefield behavior will not embarrass, dishonor, or shame the society for which they fight or themselves as warriors. This stricture protects society in its interactions with other societies and protects it from warriors whose battlefield behavior has so greatly exceeded the limits of what is acceptable as to render them unable, in society’s eyes, to readjust to the limits and norms of civil society. The non-warrior members of society are not only empowered with but entrusted with the responsibility for declaring when warrior behavior exceeds acceptable norms – it’s in the contract.
It’s a contract that protects society from the violence that is a necessary part of war and holds all members of that society to the prohibitions against killing that help preserve society. It’s a contract that binds together society and its warriors and ensures the warrior’s place in that society once the war is over. It’s a contract that supports the warrior’s ability to return from the war with honor and accept again the constraints of life within society. It’s a contract that ensures that the warriors’ actions in battle will not dishonor or shame society or prevent it from the fullest exchange of goods, people, and ideas that are an essential element of modern civilization. And it’s a contract that, when honored, will enable the warrior to hold the highest ground on the battlefield – and in society – the moral high ground.