Justifications of the Armed Forces

A primary consideration that should be raised in military ethics, once we have accepted that military acts are a viable subject for ethics, is whether the armed forces possess any moral justification for existing in the first place. After all, arming a group of people is an extraordinary process with multifarious repercussions concerning why, who, how, and to what end.

It should not be held as a given that states or polities do or should possess a military, just as it should not be held as a given that states are the sole form of political organization – such propositions should be justified rather than asserted. We may be accustomed in many societies to possessing a military but that does not in itself warrant a justification.

Logically, a people or nation that decides (through whatever political channels) to create an armed force must think about whether the army is to be a temporary institution (call it a militia) or a permanent institution (call them the armed forces); in either case there are moral ramifications. Arguably, if the creation of a militia is a temporary affair, then, we can conjecture, the militia’s lifespan will dictate both its form and its moral standing vis à vis the civil order from which it emanates. As a temporarily deployed institution, its proximity to the civil codes of conduct will ensure that its soldiers remain greatly embedded in society’s values and that the militia’s actions are morally evaluated on those terms; hence we would expect that its moral ethos cannot but pervade its soldiers’ thoughts and actions. Indeed, the prospect of returning to civilian life would not be far from soldiers’ minds. Whether this thesis can by upheld or not is a matter of empirical study rather than philosophical conjecture.

On the other hand, when a permanent armed force is created, we can similarly conjecture that its form and also its moral standing may separate (or perhaps will eventually or inevitably separate) to some extent or less from the civil order. Institutions generally create their own ethos or values that may or may not reflect the values of the civilization from which they are drawn, and these values may become ossified relative to the more adaptive and changing values of open and free societies – this is an important point to make when studying military ethics: we must always, if we reject the militarist vision that declares the martial realm to be superior and the civilian realm inferior, retain an eye on what is expected within the civil realm to give us guidance for the mores of martial conduct. Even in the armed forces, the ties to the civil order are rarely severed completely though (such an armed force would become more like a band of brigands), for soldiers are generally drawn from civilian ranks, have family there, and eventually must return to them – it is a description that is useful to bear in mind.

From this perspective, we can characterize the symptoms of how far the military have distanced themselves from the civil ranks; these may include the psychological or cultural discord soldiers feel on returning temporarily or permanently to the civil realm, a product of the “moral distance” generated on joining the armed forces, perhaps intrinsically so. The ethicist should be aware of attitudes towards military and civilian values, and should they begin to sound distant or entertain overtones of moral superiority (as we encounter in militarism) it may be an indication that all is not well between the civil order and its military (or between the state and its civilians).
Such sociological conjectures should not be summarily dismissed in military ethics, particularly if the thesis that the military receives its values from the civil order is retained: while much philosophy concentrates on the language of ethics and describes or prescribes ethical precepts, to ignore the social dissonances expressed in popular sentiment or even the clashes between the military off duty and civilians would be to ignore a critical aspect of morality – the voicing of moral distress.

A permanent military, rather than a militia, is typically the focus of military ethics considerations, yet few step back to question whether a permanent armed force is indeed justifiable. Sometimes however, militia in the form of non-professional bands that have emerged or been created in response to a situation or because of a political agenda do attract critique – usually the analysis is negative for such militia may be engaged in politically awkward programs or the antics of their members gain the ire of the professionals whose lives are devoted to serving the military and its internal codes of honor. The history and analysis of such relationships is beyond this article; meanwhile several justifications based on the traditional theories of morality can be outlined.

The deontological justification of the military

The deontological position that proclaims an armed force to be a moral necessity and that a lack would constitute a moral failing on the part of a people to defend themselves.

A Kantian thinker, for instance, could argue that it is a universalizable principle that a political body possess an armed force and such an argument could stretch across the traditional political divisions separating socialists from conservatives to libertarians. However, a pacifist minded Kantian could counter that only peaceful institutions and values are universalizable, for reason dictates that aggressing against another is a deep violation of the values intrinsic to humanity (force implies using people as a means to an end, which contradicts the core of Kant’s moral philosophy) and so any form of violent institution is to be eschewed. The problem with the pacifist retort is that the primary right to self-defense is a more readily universalizable principle than immolation, which would lend support to the possession of an army as a political duty. Kantians may differ though as to whether the military ought to be permanent or temporary – a permanent military could be reasoned to present a negative stance with respect to other peoples and countries compared to a temporary force created to deal with a pressing threat.

Consider the deontological view that some things are right in themselves, either because reason indicates their moral goodness or the action is right in and of itself for man qua man. For example, we may say that all things being equal it is right for a person to rescue a helpless child who has fallen into a river – the rectitude does not flow from what other people may think or what consequences (such as a reward) may follow, but that the rescuer is morally obliged to do the right thing. Analogously, it can be argued that it is right for a state to possess an army, just as a state must possess a head – a president, prime minister, or monarch, upon whose shoulders the political direction of the state rests. However, the logic of analogies (that as A is to B so X is to Y) is not always secure: firstly the action of individual rescuing a drowning child does not relate to what institutions a state should possess since armies are not generally involved in the rescuing of drowning children but in acting as political instruments of defense or intervention; secondly it is not a necessary moral condition of a state to possess an army – if the analogy is acceptable, it can be retorted that a state should possess a search and rescue team or an international aid program or disaster management squad rather than an armed force.

A securer principle for the deontologist may thus be that a person must always, as a moral duty, be prepared to defend him or herself from aggression, that is carry arms or be trained in some self-defense tactics; to be helpless against aggression would be to disarm the self and its right to life. So too, the analogy may then be made, must a state be similarly prepared. For the deontologist, it would be a moral failure for a political entity to be defenseless against potential aggression.

There are subtle problems with the deontologist perspective that are beyond the outline here, so we now turn to the consequentialist justification of the military.

The consequentialist justification of the military

A consequentialist looks upon the results of an action for its moral worth rather than any imagined inherent worth of the intention or act itself. According to this view asserting or implying that the results emanating from the possession of a military are morally better for the individual or the nation than not possessing them. The emphasis may be placed either on ensuring peace through deterrence, or being prepared for any attack by another army, or a historical analysis on the failure of unprepared or weak states to secure their freedoms against aggressors. Again, like deontological thinking, consequentialist reasoning may transcend particular political viewpoints.

However, it may be countered that relying on what has been or what may be does not constitute a sufficiently good justification for the possession of a military: rather than rely on empirical arguments concerning the efficacy of possessing an armed force or not, a justification for the military should exist independently of consequences, after all historical connections can be interpreted severally rather than objectively, i.e., it may be argued that the lack a sufficient forces led to an invasion or that the existence of an armed force tempted an invasion by an aggressor keen to have a fight. The consequentialist could reply that the particular motives for an invasion can be found in historical data, but, more importantly, the lack of defense capabilities is so patently obvious a reason for why states have been invaded by aggressors that only someone without much historical knowledge could propose otherwise.

At this point it may seem that the logic of both sides pursues an unending dialectic of point and counter point, which is a problem that the just war codes try to circumvent by merging the consequentialist and deontological or absolutist notions of morality. Can that be done with respect to the justification of the military?

Consider the argument for deterrence, which consequentialists invoke to justify the existence of a military and often of a secondary justification of expanding the armed forces relative to others’ forces or in response to a perceived external threat. The justification of deterrence stems from both the history as understood by supporters of the military and the prognosis of a realistic apprehension of others peoples’ designs for power or aggrandizement. There is much to be said for deterrence but it cannot be proved empirically, for while the non-existence of an army may be said to have attracted aggressive forces and so provide a justification of a future deterrent, the existence of a well-armed force to deter a neighbor that subsequently defeats it can be construed as not having sufficient force: that is, if deterrence succeeds then it provides a justification, but if it the army fails, it is because the armed force was not strong or large enough and so it cannot be said that deterrence failed. Philosophically, a key problem besetting consequentialism is that it is often awkward to distinguish between cause and effect relationships – does the possession of a powerful permanent armed force generate more war or does it deter? The fact that wars do occur can be taken on either reading – there could have been more wars either way, an argument that John Stuart Mill employs cogently against deterrence as a guide to ethical affairs.

Nonetheless, supporters may note that across nature animals often deploy deterrents to avoid costly conflict (Ardrey 1965): accordingly, it can be held that deterrence is a natural instinct or a set of actions that transcends any philosophical attempt at justifying it – analogously, supporters of the natural law thesis may underline how the reproductive instinct, the spontaneous convergence on filial forms, the basic forms of trust and friendship that form societies, all act to provide a moral framework that is natural to man qua man. Hence to deter others from committing crimes or aggression against oneself or against one’s people is as readily understandable as the need to procreate and to eat. This is a powerful rejoinder, for it demands that we look to ourselves rather than to our theories (and the political realist would concur); yet even if a display of force is a natural response to the threat of aggression, it does not follow that the armed forces must be a permanent feature of any society, nor does it provide any knowledge concerning the political formation of the army – what its role is with respect to the government (whether it is the government or a tool of government), what its size and jurisdiction ought to be (should the military be distinguished from the domestic police force), whether certain weapons are permissible or required, what the length of service or the nature of the military covenant ought to be, and so on.

Consequentialism nonetheless remains a powerful analytical tool in justifying political action, especially regarding military action. Various acts are often excused with reference to the consequences that would follow and we can add that a justification of the military is similarly included in consequentialist thinking: the words may differ according to the particular nuance of the thinker – pragmatism or utility may justly be proposed alongside the results, the ends aimed for, or the sheer consequences. Yet both consequentialism and deontology attract competition from the realist perspective which finds many adherents, particularly in the field of international relations.

The realist justification of the military

Realism holds that human relations necessarily involve power struggles and that the stronger eventually dominate those who are weaker, so either to avoid being dominated or to dominate others, a state should possess a military. Realists thereby are not constrained by consequentialist thinking or by deontological disputations; for them, life is simply characterized as an implicit or explicit struggle between those who would dominate others and those would prefer not to be dominated.

Realism may underpin the arguments those socialists, conservatives, and even libertarians who look darkly upon their neighbor’s intentions as Thomas Hobbes described it in his Leviathan (I.13). Mutual distrust, or the fear of other’s possible intentions may be construed as a pessimistic vision of life, but the realist – as the name implies – prefers to explain the lack of trust as an integral element that should never be discounted: other theories that may be more optimistic are construed as idealistic, which is not a fair move in itself, for realism itself is just as idealistic in assuming that human relations always invoke power and master-slave implications.

Nonetheless, alternative readings of human nature are possible. Anarchists of the Kropotkin persuasion prefer to look upon history as co-operative rather than conflictual: according to this outlook, the military is a contrivance that would not normally develop in the absence of states, which in turn are merely institutionalized forms of brutality and rapaciousness that appeal to a criminally minded minority in any population (or to the majority in a nations that have governments controlling people’s lives and their education, say). Moreover, political realism generates mutual suspicions, and the advance of the military within the state is instead to be considered the source of greater bloodshed and frequency of war than an opposing philosophy of mutualism and commercial expansion.

However, the fact that other states are so organized would, even on Kroptokin’s anarchist principles, imply that a combative force be created should the need arise – the armed forces would be locally organized militia or guerilla bands rather than regularized professional forces funded by a central state.

The naturalist justification of the military

There is also a naturalist theory that possessing an army is as natural as procreation or socializing. This may on first glance seem a strange argument, but it derives from one of the most influential political philosophies emanating from the Ancient Greeks, and particularly from Aristotle, down through to communitarian thought today.

Aristotle proclaimed that man is a political animal and that being political he should submit himself to the natural orders that form in society of families, villages, towns, and poleis (city states); at each level it is, on this argument, natural for a man to defend himself, his family, his village, and his city-state from the predations of others. The peaceable citizen is best housed in a polity, which is the Greek’s favoured word for the ideal state, in which he can better pursue the good life suited to man. The polis in turn is the best form of society in order for there to be peace: indeed, it constitutes the apex of political philosophy. War therefore comes from those who thus desire to destroy the polity and the natural communal values it instills, and hence war’s immediate immorality stems from the attempt to breach something rightful and proper for man. This implies that the polity cannot be pacifistic: Aristotle was not enamoured by an idyllic idealism to reject his historical learnings: the polis ought to be able to defend itself well, otherwise it will be taken by those who would enslave it.

But can the natural law thesis stand up to criticism? It may be countered that what is seemingly a natural disposition may be no more than a contrivance, after all societies differ with respect to the norms and mores of every day life, so it is not at all certain that some forms of behavior or institutional forms are in fact natural or necessary to being human, despite what supporters may contend. For instance, the belief in one god may be as natural and unquestionable to one person as the belief in many gods to another. To a pacifist, the existence of an army is an unnatural and dangerous contrivance that in turn warps human cultures and other institutions leaving people accepting military’s existence as de facto. Anything aggressive is tantamount to fostering a highly unnatural habit in humanity, one expectant of violence and therefore requiring to prepare for it, and, like the anarchist, the abandonment of military traditions will return humanity to its psychological and cultural equilibrium.

This is an argument not just proposed by absolute pacifists who deem all aggression to be an evil not to be encouraged by the taking up of arms, or by anarchists who see any state institution as unnatural and noxious, but also by classical liberals who view the existence of a standing army as antithetical to the free state (Locke) and by Rousseauvians who view any human contrivance as inimical to human creativity and freedom (Rousseau). Locke was, for instance, highly suspicious of standing armies – they are to be eschewed as symptomatic of arbitrary government. Without a standing army, Locke reasoned, a nation is not very likely to get involved in foreign expeditions, for its very existence encourages its deployment. Arguably, this was the political philosophy that the founding fathers of the United States stressed – hence, following the War of Independence, an anti-war ethos prevailed as the first president, George Washington commented, “My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth.” The anti-war mentality lasted until the war of 1812 with the British Empire and the half-hearted invasion of Canada – by the US Civil War, the pacifist tendencies of the founding fathers has been lost.

On the other hand, such theorists may be said to be kidding themselves that in the absence of protective forces universal peace, or at least peace for some, will follow: the realist retorts that despite our best intentions to foster peaceful arrangements between ourselves and with other peoples, we cannot ever let our guard down – Hobbes, for the skeptics, was right in his observation that people cannot be trusted fully, so a permanent militia is prudential and justifiable: life is about power and the struggle to secure power either for peace or for imperial or balance of power ends.

Ultimately, the differing views seem irreconcilable and oblivious to evidence supporting either cause. Yet one test – admittedly untested as far as I am aware – would be to consider the voluntary financing of present military forces (and perhaps the wars that they are engaged in) rather than the involuntary method of raising money either through taxation or through the printing presses of the central banks. Removing the clandestine or mandatory vehicles of financing wars would shift the burden of the military and war out into the open, for while the main armed forces’ expenditures are masked, the morality of their existence is far removed from the support that may or may not be garnered should citizens be asked to contribute voluntarily. That is not to say that under a freely contributing system the armed forces would disappear – after all, the Athenians and Romans sustained much of their military through mainly voluntary, family funded soldiering (but then added tribute or tax onto the defeated). Whether something would be voluntarily funded may provide a quick assessment of the moral standing of any institution relative to the population’s beliefs and trust.

Article by Dr Alexander Moseley
Added Fri, 29 Apr 2011 21:17

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