“If my job requires me to withhold the whole truth, does that dishonesty still count as a sin?” I lost count of how many times one of my interrogators asked me this question, normally offline, around the smoke pit or in an anonymous corner of the dining facility. Occasionally, it was a question intended to stump me, or at least require some deft theological maneuvering. Most of the time, though, it was an honest question borne from a true tension which many of my soldiers felt every day when they talked to Afghan detainees and were required to develop relationships with them that were not altogether forthright. Soldiers don’t divulge information about their true identities during their interrogations. They don’t talk openly about their spouses or their children. They don’t tell their detainees where they were born or where they live now. They don’t even use their real name. It wouldn’t be safe or smart to do it any other way. However necessary it is to withhold information, the question remains, “Is this dishonestly sinful?”
As a chaplain, my primary responsibilities are to conduct religious services and ensure that all service members, regardless of their faith background, have the freedom to practice their religion. I advise my commanders on issues of ethics, morality, and spiritual health, and offer counseling to service members who are struggling with a plethora of issues from family strife to trauma stemming from combat. Some days I talk extensively about God and pray about the fears which plague members of my unit. Most days, though, are less seeped in religious rhetoric. Instead, I find myself discussing the nuances which play out between the black and white lines of the military doctrine we are ordered to follow. Because my Soldiers have been trained to read beneath the surface and capitalize on subtlety, they are not easily convinced by rote explanations to complex questions.
Over the year my unit was deployed to a detention facility in Afghanistan working as intelligence collectors, I never felt completely satisfied with my answer to their question about dishonesty. Is it or is it not a sin to lie, even when a lie may save a life? Normally, I would ramble on about how complicated this kind of question is. On one hand, a lie is a lie. Any falsehood, even when its purpose is saving lives or eradicating terror, is still dishonest. Ends don’t necessarily justify the means nor do they exonerate a perpetrator from facing consequences of his actions. Yet, some level of dishonesty seems to be a staple of human existence, even in the Bible. The Ten Commandments may instruct us not to bear false witness, but the Bible also regales stories where lying seems to be acceptable. Remember how Jacob lied to his father in order to steal a birthright and blessing away from his older brother, Esau. Because of his actions, Jacob ends up elect and favored. Dishonesty helped him get ahead, and instead of facing punishment, he gets to take his place among the greatest lineage in human history.
About halfway through our deployment, I along with an Air Force psychologist who was working with our interrogation teams, decided to address some of their questions pertaining to ethics. Convening a class on ethics in Human Intelligence Collection, we facilitated a discussion among our personnel who juggle personal convictions about morality with an often conflicting reality that the only way to get answers is to play with deceit.
The first half of the class was a simple review of ethical systems. We talked about at the ethics spectrum from relativism to absolutism and discussed three theories of ethics: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue-based thinking. In each category, we looked at real world examples which are pertinent to the military community and conducting safe, legal, ethical, and effective Military Intelligence operations. From killing in combat to lying during an interrogation, we encouraged our soldiers to draw from their experiences as they broke into smaller groups and discussed the complexities of human intelligence collection.
During the second part of the class, we discussed the challenges that arise when multiple systems of ethics converge. Throughout our deployment, we witnessed this in different ways. A detainee may have placed loyalty to family or tribe over a conflicting duty to tell the truth. An interrogator may choose not to lie to get particular answers because in his estimation the ends may not justify the means. We also noted that the Army’s system of ethics, though in part a blend of all three of these theories, drew heavily upon a Virtue-Based ethics model, evidenced in its core values, seven principles by which all Soldiers aspire to operate.
The most compelling example of conflicting ethical systems that many of us witnessed while in Afghanistan took place at a local hospital. I organized a visit so that members of our unit would have the opportunity to interact with Afghan civilians and give blankets, sweaters, and other warm winter items to the children who were getting treatment. Our first attempt to give things away nearly devolved into a riot. Children were grabbing whole armfuls of knitted hats and gloves and seemed ready to trample each other so that they could get first pick of what we were offering. Mothers pinched their babies to make them cry so that they would be sent to the front of the line. We got the impression that the children would have said or done anything just for the chance to walk away with something. They placed highest value on the opportunity to get something which might help them and their family survive the cold winter, even if it meant jumping the line and taking from other children.
Many of us were shocked by this behavior. We had never seen, firsthand, the kind of desperation and poverty which drove these children. Yet, this experience also helped my Soldiers understand the background from which their detainees originated. Though interrogators may be trained in detecting lies, having a greater understanding of what motivates their detainees to lie in the first place helped them hone their skills.
No matter how lengthy a Soldier’s career has been in human intelligence collection, every good interrogator must continually strive for self-awareness, always knowing where the line between “self” and “interrogator” lies. Because this line is often blurred and Soldiers wrestle with the heaviness of their work, good leadership and guidance is always imperative. Wisdom comes most often from more experienced interrogators and warrant officers who have had to maintain this balance as a part of their career. Commanders provide mentoring which guides Soldiers as they negotiate challenging scenarios. I hope, at least occasionally, this needed guidance even comes from the chaplain.
My theological training did not fully prepare me to tackle some of the questions Soldiers throw my way, but I know that I don’t answer them alone or in a vacuum. Instead, I join an effort of many who aim to uphold values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage while also trying to protect the world from those who play by different rules. Those engaged in this calling aren’t looking for easy answers. They know easy answers don’t exist. Rather, they are ready to ask the hard questions and tackle the complexities. A good interrogator recognizes the importance of the questions but also, even more importantly, the necessity of listening well for the answers. For imbedded in the bramble of truths and lies and everything between is intelligence which can save lives.