War Ethics In A War Zone

When I told my soldier son last weekend that I was preparing to lead a book club discussion on Michael Walzer‘s book Just and Unjust Wars, he shrugged. “What’s there to talk about?” he asked. “When you are protecting your country you do whatever you need to do to protect it.”

That may sound cynical and uncaring, but it accurately reflects the feeling of many soldiers who consider themselves to be moral, thinking, and caring human beings. From their perspective, they have a job to do: most immediately, to protect themselves and their buddies; beyond that to protect their families and country. They possess very little information about the big picture and, in action, must make split-second decisions with life-and-death implications based on their limited knowledge. Therefore, their default position must be to trust the decisions made by their commanders and superior officers.

It’s not that they aren’t trained to think about the moral implications of their actions–I know that my son has reported to me about many such talks he has had during the course of his service. But when push comes to shove, soldiers are small cogs in a big machine. It’s only in the most exceptional cases–the Kfar Kassems and My Lais that soldiers can and must exercise their individual judgment to the point of refusing orders.

Citizens and national leaders also nearly always lack critical information when judging the justice and necessity of military action. War and other military actions are, by their nature, risky. Risk means that you can’t accurately predict the outcome. Military strategists and policy advisers can only make educated guesses about how likely it is that a given operation will achieve its aims, and about how many soldiers and civilians will be hurt and killed. Yet leaders must make such decisions, and citizens must judge them, in real time.

My book club met as Israel faces–as it nearly always does–critical decisions about military actions. Should we invade Gaza to stop its shelling of Israeli cities? Should we attack Iran to stop its nuclear program? How do we weigh the injustice our own civilians in the south are enduring against the inevitable high Palestinian casualties that an invasion would involve? Can we believe our leaders if they tell us that they can take out Iran’s nuclear facilities without provoking a major regional war?

In preparing my book club presentation, I read articles by a number of other thinkers and philosophers who disagree with Walzer on important points. In comparing Walzer’s positions to those of these other writers, one thing that stands out is how practical Walzer endeavors to be. For example, Jeff McMahan, in an article called The Ethics of Killing in War, seeks to place strict limitations on what kinds of people, including soldiers, are legitimate targets in wartime. His attempt to restrict killing in wartime is laudable, but as Walzer responds, the kinds of distinctions he makes are far more theoretical and fine-tuned than we can expect soldiers to make in battle.

Yet even though Walzer uses case studies extensively in an effort to establish principles useful to national leaders, soldiers, and citizens, he can’t get around the fact that all these categories of people will almost always have limited knowledge of critical factors that ought to be part of any intelligent and ethical decision. This is especially true of soldiers and citizens, who–even if they are not being deliberately misled by their leaders, which is often the case–cannot be party to secret intelligence, cabinet debates, and war room deliberations.

It’s important to have an ethical doctrine of war to guide us, but it’s also important to accept that ultimately many decisions will be made on the basis of intuition, gut feelings, and the immediate perceived requirements of the moment.

I’ll encourage my son to read Walzer’s book, and other work on the subject. But it’s not because such material can provide him with clear guidelines about how to act in complex situations. Ultimately, the best guarantee of ethics in war is to have thinking and morally sensitive leaders, commanders, and citizens. That comes of wide reading and discussion. But it does not guarantee, nor should it, that they will make decisions according to the book.

4 thoughts on “War Ethics In A War Zone”

  1. You do hit on good topics! Philosophy and war. The juices are flowing!

    What we know is always limited. In order to make a “correct” decision we would need to know everything so that the aspects of a situation could be weighed before we act. To think about this deeply would freeze a soldier from action because he/she can’t know everything, especially in the heat of conflict. Isn’t it all one can do to remember one’s training in order to survive?

    At a level removed from combat, hasn’t history shown the outbreak of war is often greeted with relief at the simplification of complex issues? Now we are free to teach them a lesson! Now the restraints are removed and justice will prevail! Now the enemy has shown themselves for what they truly are! How many rushed to sign up in the U.S. after 9/11 without any question of what they would be asked to do, who they would be fighting or where?

    Speaking of philosophy, it has always astounded me that there are chaplains in the military. They are there, if “Christian”, to council faith in an afterlife and patriotism, to calm fear and increase resolve. Would any chaplain be telling the troops to turn the other cheek and that “thou shall not kill” or pondering with a frightened soldier what Jesus would do in uniform? The hypocrisy is monumental as are the great professions of faith by U.S. presidents who may be born again and claim Jesus as their personal savior while ready to release unimaginable horrors on people they will never see, the situation of a B52 pilot raised orders of magnitude. Give me a presidential candidate who will say, “For my term in office I will be putting my Christianity aside”

    The soldier gives up responsibility to leaders who have proven themselves capable again and again of motivation for reasons that have little to do with personal morality and much to do with assertion of and expansion of national power…I think of Lyndon Johnson talking (per VietNam) of the need to “nail the coonskin to the wall” by doing so causing the death of how many on both sides? We wept for 50,000 dead, the Vietnamese lost far over a million.

    The soldier is a faceless tool in the hands of those who sit in the war room, as Johnson did, carefully plotting strategy in which hundreds if not thousands will die. The stronger an armed force, the greater the temptation to use it for “policy”. I believe the military might of the United States got us into trouble because of this brilliantly shining lethal tool, the gleaming sword sitting unused just waiting to be let loose after 9/11.

    Death is a necessity in war and Lincoln, (who had the saving graces of humility and genuine sorrow at the carnage) grew impatient at McClellan saying, “give me a general who will fight!” because he knew that the war could not be won without the aggressive action that brings casualties. McClellan didn’t want to spend the lives of his men as he needed to do, a general who valued his men too much to put them to use.

    For me the primary question: Is the enemy at the border threatening my country? Then I willingly place myself under the command of those who know the mechanics of war. Once involved the soldier can only act on what presents itself in battle, there is no backing out, you do your best to fight as you must.

    If, on the other hand, my leaders say, “Go to a foreign land and fight for ‘our way of life’ or ‘the good of the country’ (as they see it) or ‘the freedom of those on the other side of the world’, then I ask the members of Congress and the president to place their own children in the first attack wave. Then I will go/do likewise with mine and face the almost inevitable consequence of facing moral dilemmas that cannot be satisfactorily solved on the battlefield.

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