This question hereafter assumes the following for a 'soldier':

1. The possibility of reprisals deters a soldier against categorical resistance to fight for an evil regime, but suppose at least that soldiers could in fact partially slacken without anyone's knowledge.

2. Soldiers truly knew about and comprehended the unnecessary atrocities committed.

3. Soldiers internally oppose their country's wicked ideology and believe in more moral beliefs.

Is it fair and logical to blame soldiers who still fight tenaciously for their vile countries, for promoting evil and protracting the fight against righteousness? Are such soldiers disingenuous? Accordant with 1, virtuous soldiers ought to try to diminish their actions, essentially by 'going easy' on their 'enemy'.

For example, if Erwin Rommel or these U-Boat commanders truly despised war and wanted peace, why didn't they ease off, like Wilhelm Canaris? I ask the same for the Imperial Japanese Forces; why did Isoroku Yamamoto (who opposed fighting the US) not flout his duties as did Sōkichi Takagi? For example, a U-Boat captain could've targeted a stronger area of an enemy vessel to minimise damage to the Allies, or even pretend to a miss, so I don't understand such empathy and forgiveness as follows:

[User 'fatviking' in 2013:] I have no problem whatsoever with this chap's award. He [Reinhard Hardegen] was serving his country in what was a very perilous occupation. ...

  • 3
    Good question. But who decides? Can the US soldiers in the Middle East lay down their arms and say, "We're tired of these idiotic oil wars, tired of feeding the neocon agenda, tired of drone-bombing wedding parties. We quit." If you were a German soldier in WWII, what objective standard did you have to know you were "the bad guys?" You were an 18 year old kid sworn to fight for your country and do what you were told. How would you know that you're the bad guy? How would a contemporary US soldier know he's the good guy? IS a contemporary US soldier the good guy? Who decides, Hollywood?
    – user4894
    Feb 19 '15 at 4:10
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    ps -- Take a look at this eloquent and thoughtful article on the subject. strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/parameters/Articles/…
    – user4894
    Feb 19 '15 at 4:54
  • One of the events in history that tried to define this were the Nuremberg Trials at the end of World War II. You can google it for a lot of information on it. It was pretty much the standard for who was guilty until Bush and Cheney gutted it. Feb 19 '15 at 12:25
  • @user4894 +1. Thank you for showing me the article which I just read. About your first comment above, I meant to refer to only senior officers who would've more likely known or suspected these savageries (and not to naive recruits). I'm lay at history, but could Rommel truly have been clueless about the Holocaust, and Yamamoto about the Rape of Nanking, the abuse of 'comfort women', Unit 731, ...? If they did know, should they have slackened immediately (but not defy their work, as explained in 1 above)? I concede though that the U-Boat commanders may genuinely not know.
    – NNOX Apps
    Feb 19 '15 at 18:40

There's essentially at least two, perhaps three differing systems of morality battling it out here. The oldest one is based on the idea that there are certain virtues that embody morality, and that living well is to live out those virtues, regardless of the larger picture. The virtue model is common in traditional warrior cultures, and elements of it are found in Aristotle. If the virtue of a soldier is to fight bravely and loyally for his country, you would judge him well by this standard.

The second system of morality judges everything against universal standards, so that the act of an individual, such as a soldier, must be judged against the larger impact it has. A brave Nazi soldier, in this view, is still a bad person in the larger picture. Plato tried to integrate the first two systems in The Republic, arguing that the virtue of a good person is the same as the virtue of a good city/state --a good person can only be effectively virtuous in a virtuous context.

The third system of morality is existentialist, and argues that we are each individually and irreducibly responsible, in a moral sense, for the world in which we inhabit. This has origins in some elements of the teachings of Jesus, in Kant's dictum is that morality is what we affirm for all, in the writings of Dostoevsky and more directly in the work of Kierkegaard as developed by Sartre, Camus and DeBeauvoir. The Nazi soldier is not merely wrong, under this account, he is as morally culpable as is Hitler.


In some circumstances, there is a way to justify it in terms of utilitarian considerations (which is one of the issues of utilitarianism -- what is the goodness metric?):

By prosecuting the war as effectively as possible, the soldier can reduce the overall time that the warfare lasts. This has benefits (or lack of badness) in terms of disruption of people's lives, number of people killed/injured on both sides (if your opponent surrenders earlier) and so on. Once the crisis of war has passed, there might be the opportunity to address the nation's corruption.

One can make a plausible specific case by considering a case where atrocities are committed and significant reprisals can be expected: Countries A and B go to war, some people from country A commit atrocities, the citizens of country A are convinced that their opponent will exterminate all of them as reprisal if country B wins. Country A's soldiers have a utilitarian basis for trying to win the war -- to prevent the expected reprisal, despite the fact that they know that people from their country have committed atrocities.

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