Why Military Ethics

A sketch

Clausewitz, the great war logician, famously referred to the ‘fog of war’ – that war generates such confusion that generals soon lose contact with their forces and hence the minutiae of strategies and logistics on the ground. Ethically, the military faces the same problem: once men and women are armed they stand apart from the civil order of peaceful interaction and hence pose an implicit and explicit moral problem, and as their actions are further removed through battle the ethical guides become increasingly shrouded in mist.

What soldiers do and do not do is generally the subject material of military instruction, logistics, and strategy; what they have done is the subject material of military history; what they should have do and should not do is the subject of military ethics.

It is a common aphorism that in war truth is the first casualty, and similarly notions of good conduct and duty are strained and often broken by the ultimate exertions acting on the collective and individual. Moreover, the stress caused by war sometimes leads us to reject any possibility of morality in war – that the very brutality of war lends itself to an ‘ethical nihilism’ in which the acts of soldiers are to be understood as being so far removed from conditions of normal moral thinking that they are effectively severed from our judgments and so are intrinsically devoid of ethical content. That a man kills another in war is thus, on this argument, rendered as an event rather than as a moral action – that is, war is beyond the moral pale and hence military ethics is an oxymoronic non-starter.

However, the moral nihilism implied in characterizing killing in a war as an ‘event’ is not attractive for many reasons. Most acts that we consider as philosophers tend to possess alternatives, and if alternatives are available then we can readmit evaluation and hence moral judgment: some acts are better than others from the moral point of view. Similarly, acts generate consequences and the moral import of those consequences can also be considered from the moral point of view. What distinguishes the moral warrior from an automated killing machine is precisely the possibility of choice and hence of alternative acts and their consequences – moral agency assumes that we do indeed make choices and since choices have alternatives, we are then in a position to examine and judge the choices made. Military ethics, for it to be a viable philosophical topic, must, on some grounds or other, accept the concepts of choice, alternatives, priorities, and hence of moral judgement.

The fact of choice is however not sufficient for some critics however. That choice pervades human life is not a guarantee that choices should be or perhaps can even be subject to moral analysis. Military action may be said to belong to alternative amoral realm, one so distinct from the civil realm that all ethical notions are effectively redundant; while issues concerning the very justification of war or intervention in the first place may be examined for their moral import, once the war machine is unleashed soldiers, and hence their acts, go beyond morality. St Augustine proclaimed as much when he noted that so long as the state or God justifies war, then the soldier is merely the sword of the executor; the soldier’s acts, so long as they are acting upon authority and not of their own accord and will, are exempt from judgment; unless, that is, they go against the instructions of the state – i.e., insubordination may be justly punished, for even the Church “does not hestitate to obey the laws of the earthly city by which those things which are designed for the support of this mortal life are regulated.” (City of God, XIX. 1.7) Nonetheless, Augustine cannot be read as simply proposing a duality in which morality is rendered neutral in war: “The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such like; and it is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authority, good men undertake wars...” (Quoted in Norman, Ethics, Killing and War, p.119, fn3, italics added.) So even when the soldier is a mere tool in war, Augustine would not have him completely removed from morality, emphasizing the soldier’s intention: he can kill, but he ought not to enjoy killing.

Of course, it may be retorted that the soldier should enjoy his job in its various aspects including killing or maiming, after all that is the profession of his choice – we would expect a surgeon to enjoy surgery cutting people open and intervening in their health, so why cannot the same consideration be permitted those in the military professions? Augustine’s ethos is powerful: the love of violence and power are inimical to the civil order, they are far removed from the surgeon who commits violence against the body in order to secure health. The love of killing, the implication goes, brutalizes and brutality is a vice to abhor and avoid. Nonetheless, Augustine’s critique is not clear – soldiers can ‘flip’ into a violent and even murderous psychological state in battle seeking wanton death and destruction, but such mentalities are generally held to be temporary disorders of the stressed mind; in turn they do not in themselves constitute a reason for accepting or rejecting morality in war.

Possessing intentionality is indubitably a trait of sentience and consciousness; its lapse under combat stress does not negate the moral import of either the intention, the action, or its consequences. A robot soldier is still programmed to kill and we can analyze the intentions behind its program just as much as the results of its acts. So the Augustinian position (and it does not possess a monopoly on this) would demand the reintroduction of a minimal ethic into war; other ethical theorists may push the borders even further, and a particularly useful guide stems from the just war position that the justice of the cause does not guarantee that those fighting the just cause remain good and wise in all that they do.


Article by Dr Alexander Moseley
Added Fri, 4 Mar 2011 00:31

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