Air University Review, July-August 1985

A Philosophical Conflict:
A Fighter Pilot's Views on
The Ethics of Warfare

Major Scott B. Sonnenberg

AS I took one last look at the final approach course to ensure that it was really clear for me to lead my flight onto the runway and then added power to start the procession, I could not help wondering whether there was any job in the world better than being an American fighter pilot flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon, or Viper as it was called by the men who flew it. My gut answer was the same one I had heard in officer clubs, squadron buildings, and bars from Madrid to Bangkok. To a man, fighter pilots think they have the best job in the world. There is little doubt that the job is physically and mentally demanding, dangerous, and, to many, glamorous. The pay isn't much, but, except for a few specialties that are historically undermanned, it's the tops in the military. The camaraderie is very special, and feedback is quick. The profession has a starry past, and such names as Baron von Richthofen, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Chuck Yeager have helped to make it a prestigious career field. There is never a lack of people trying to become pilots, nor is there a lack of pilots trying to become fighter pilots.

However, as I taxied my multimillion-dollar fighter into takeoff position on the runway, I knew that I had changed dramatically since that day almost fifteen years ago when I first flew in a fighter––an F-4E Phantom II. And as I now looked out at the rest of my flight joining me on the runway, I wondered what was going on in the minds of the pilots in Number 2 and Number 4––both lieutenants on their first fighter assignments––and what their motivations were.

Over my fifteen years as an American fighter pilot, my thoughts and conclusions on the ethics of warfare have evolved gradually. It is my sincere hope that those within and without my profession will reflect on these ideas and at least agree with me that flying fighters is more than just performing the mechanics of airmanship.

When asked what I do for a living, I find myself in a bit of a quandary. If I wish to be perfectly honest, I should probably say that I'm a hired killer, but there's more to it than that. My usual response is to say that I'm a fighter pilot, but I don't think that makes the point either. Perhaps the best answer is that I'm a highly trained, intelligent, sophisticated killer with a conscience. Would I drop bombs on or strafe innocent women and children intentionally, as many people accused us of doing in Southeast Asia? No. First, I'm not trained to do that. Second, such callous actions are militarily counterproductive (ask Hitler about bombing London). Finally, I'm not an animal or a robot who either instinctively or on command reacts without fully thinking about what he's doing. I'm a sensitive person who believes in God, participates in community activities, and is repulsed by the thought of hunting, fishing, and any other activity that involves killing one of God's creatures. How then, you ask, could I have participated in 177 combat missions in Southeast Asia and be willing to fight and kill again?

"Next question," I might respond. After all, the explanation you are looking for is not an easy one. Perhaps the most coherent answer I can give is that I have made a conscious decision that life without freedom is not life at all. I believe that God intended for people to be able to live their lives the way they wish, to worship in their own way, to work in the profession of their choice, to marry whomever they wish, to organize themselves for the betterment of mankind and to elect their own leaders, and to speak their opinions freely without fear of reprisal. Apparently there are a lot of other people who share these ideas since this credo, albeit imperfectly practiced at present, has been adopted by most Western countries. Unfortunately, there are some people who are not satisfied with these simple ideas and who must, by whatever means are available, subjugate other people to fulfill their own needs for power. One need only examine most of the recorded human history before the establishment of the United States to see this repetitious phenomenon.

The majority of human beings throughout history have not been able to exercise the simple freedoms I mentioned earlier because of the overwhelming power of other human beings. On those occasions when the oppressed people acquired the power to overthrow their oppressors, they always used it. And on those occasions when it became apparent that they did not have the power to achieve or maintain their freedoms, many chose death (witness the mass suicide by the Jewish zealots at Masada). I share the same feelings as these people, but I, as a member of the Armed Forces of the United States, possess considerable power to protect my freedoms and the freedoms of others. I have used that power and will use it again, if necessary, to protect these freedoms. The phrase "better red than dead" has been used time and again this century, and I neither agree nor disagree with it. If the majority of the people of the United States choose to live under a Communist system of government, I will be very discouraged, but I will not try to reverse the will of the majority through physical force. If, however, a Communist society is forced upon us against the will of the majority, then I'll be fighting to the bitter end.

Essentially, it is a threat to basic human freedoms that stirs this otherwise mild-mannered individual to the use of maximum force. For those who feel that the United States should not have fought in Southeast Asia, I offer as justification the state of freedom in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia today. By not continuing to assist these countries with all of our strength when they needed our help, we, as a country, acted just like the bystanders who watch the brutal rape of a young girl and do nothing to help. I believe my analogy fully conveys the feelings of a man who thinks that one of the greatest crimes against God and humanity is to have the power to stop injustice and to choose not to use it.

The problem within my profession today––and it's one that's been with us for a long time––is that many fighter pilots I run into are solely interested in the trappings of the job and not the actual job itself. They love going fast, impressing girls and nonfighter pilots at the bar, wearing patches, and doing all of the things that fighter pilots are "supposed" to do (get drunk and obnoxious, etc.). I don't think very many of them have sat down and really thought through what is expected of them if they're ever called on to use the skills they've been taught. I'm convinced that most of them would not change a thing that they're doing, but it bothers me that there is so little interest in talking about the moral and ethical issues of killing someone else. That's why I start off every flight briefing by reminding the flight members that the primary objective of a flight of fighters is to kill someone or destroy something. We can't refuel other aircraft, we can't rescue people, and we can't deliver supplies. Other aircraft and pilots are tasked with those critical roles. Our job is one of destruction.

I'll never forget one of my first missions in Southeast Asia. My flight lead had dropped his bombs in a wooded area next to a clearing, and the forward air controller (FAC) was pleased with the drop. "OK, #2. Your leader's got the whole unit on the run, and they're trying to make it across the clearing. You're cleared in."

I didn't have bombs, I was carrying cluster bomb units (CBUs)––specifically designed to kill people, not destroy equipment. As I rolled in, I realized that a couple of hundred human beings were less than a minute away from dying––and I was their executioner. A minute later it was all over. "Nice drop, #2. There's not a soul moving. It is going to take quite a while to count the bodies. I'll call the count back to you after I land. Thanks again!"

It was over. Hundreds of human beings who had started the day off alive were now dead, thanks to me. Did I lose any sleep that night? No, but only because I had thought about the moral issues involved long before the incident and had settled them in my mind.

There's no war today, and there hasn't been one for the Air Force fighter force for over a decade. When I entered the service, I knew that I was going to war, and I was prepared for it. But as I look at the lieutenants and captains flying with me today, I know that they entered the service during a time of peace and with little or no prospect of war in the near future. Have they thought through the full ramifications of the successful employment of their training, should deterrence fail?

Another subject receiving a tremendous amount of attention today is nuclear warfare. Many of today's commentators, Lewis Thomas for one, decry the insanity of some members of the human race in getting us into the balance of terror that exists today. I must admit that I'm not overly excited by the prospect of an all-out nuclear exchange, but I also know that while I can learn from the past, I can't change it. None of the nuclear commentators whose articles I have read have offered any realistic, attainable solutions to the situation. I can sum up my feelings and those of many in my profession with the following statements.

I've had the unique opportunity to be one of those individuals who has sat alert on a primary nuclear strike line. I often wondered what image the general public has of the pilots, both from SAC and the TAF, and the other members of the armed forces who wait patiently minute-by-minute for the word to launch their destructive charges. What kind of person would do a job like that? The answer is easier than one would expect because that person is a lot like any of the other people you meet during the day––the grocer, the ad executive, the athlete, etc. He or she has simply chosen another profession. The safeguards against accidental or even unauthorized intentional launches must be seen to be believed. Are they perfect? Well, probably not, but they're good enough to allow me to go through a day without worrying about an unintentional nuclear war.

We were exercised frequently during my years of sitting alert, and there's just no way to describe the thoughts that go through one's mind when the horn goes off and you start sprinting for your aircraft. Things happen so fast that any attempt at a logical determination of the ethical and moral consequences of what might be occurring is just not possible. However, once you were in the aircraft waiting for the rest of the message, there were usually a few seconds to collect your thoughts, and that's usually when I began praying. In our hearts we always believed that every horn was an exercise horn, but we all knew that there was always a possibility that this time it could be for real. Obviously, I never got to experience the thoughts that go through a person's mind when the message is a real one and the gates open up and you suddenly realize that you're really going to launch. That's one of the many things I've wondered about but don't ever care to experience.

Would I have launched? Would I have done my best to get to the target and drop my bomb? Yes, I would have and still would. Don't I realize the consequences, you ask? As a matter of fact, I think I do, and as I indicated before, I have personally chosen death over slavery. It is also important to remember that the decisions to build and deploy nuclear weapons were made by officials elected by the majority who voted in our country, and a majority of the voters have also freely elected the individual to initiate that exchange. As an active member of society, I support those decisions and will do my best to see that they are carried out. The moral debate in our country has been ongoing for decades, and the majority still believe that nuclear weapons are a necessary part of our arsenal. If I did not agree with the majority on this issue, I would be doing precisely what the antinuclear minority in our country is doing. I sympathize with them, and I wish that the world could be as they want it to be, but I don't believe that it ever will be, using their methods. One need only study history to see the inevitable results of unilateralism.

So am I a warmonger? No, I hate war more than most because I've been there and I've seen the devastation and misery it can cause. I've lost several close friends and seen my comrades in arms killed before my very eyes. It's a terrible feeling, and I pray that I never feel it again. But as we get farther and farther away from Southeast Asia, the percentage of those military men who have experienced war gets smaller and smaller, and the passions of the time become obscured and begin to fade away.

There are many lessons that come out of each conflict and, from a technical standpoint, I think that we have made tremendous progress in applying the lessons of our last war to our present force structure. But have we in the military addressed the deeper issues? At the senior level of command, I would answer yes. From all that I see and hear coming out of Washington, our military leaders are the most hesitant to use military force to solve a problem, whereas their civilian counterparts appear to be rather quick on the draw. However, when given a mission, as in Grenada, the military leadership has opted for the use of overwhelming force, which, history tells us, is the surest way to minimize casualties on both sides. My concern is with our younger officers. Youth always has a tendency to react more on gut feel and enthusiasm than on carefully thought-out options.

Have those of us who have mellowed a little and then sat back and pondered the ethical and moral issues of our profession successfully passed on the importance of doing just that to our junior comrades in arms? I don't think that we have, and I wonder just how my lieutenant wingmen would respond to the questions I've asked.

To make the American military a more credible and effective instrument of American will, it is important that each member of our profession take the time to consider logically the arguments being put forth throughout our society and to decide for themselves where they stand. We cannot be mindless bystanders to these discussions. We are also citizens, and we must participate, if only to reassure those who rely on us that we have thought the issues through and have decided on our course of action––a course of action in accord with the will of the country.

Misawa AB, Japan


Major Scott B. Sonnenberg (USAFA; M.B.A., University of Utah) is Operations Officer of the Thirteenth Tactical Fighter Squadron, Misawa Air Base, Japan. He has had assignments at Ubon RTAFB, Thailand, and at Royal Air Force, Lakenheath, United Kingdom. Major Sonnenberg was awarded Distinguished Honorable Mention in the 1984 Ira C. Eaker Essay Competition for his article in this issue.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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