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By Alex J. Bellamy
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2008 Alex J. Bellamy
All rights reserved.
Ethics and war: an oxymoron?
Are ethics in war possible? Are they desirable? What sort of ethical framework should we use? To begin answering these questions, it is worth surveying arguments against ethical thinking in war. There are four broad arguments. The first two cast doubt on whether ethics can be applied to war in general, while the latter two insist only that ethical concerns do not apply to the war on terror. They are:
the 'realist' argument that morality should not constrain what nations are entitled to do to defend themselves;
the pacifist argument that all war is immoral;
the 'neoconservative' argument that a war on terror is self evidently just and that critical ethical scrutiny of its conduct implies sympathy for the terrorists;
the 'reciprocity' argument that we should show moral and legal courtesies only to those who afford them to us.
On closer scrutiny, there are serious moral and practical problems with all four positions.
The argument that ethics have no role to play in war is most often associated with the 'realist' school, whose adherents include US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (at least before she became Secretary of State) and former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. For the realist, the state has two main purposes: to ensure its own survival and to enable the community it protects to live according to its own ideas about the good life. This translates into a disarmingly simple agenda for government. Governments are responsible for securing the national interest. In foreign policy, they operate in a world devoid of ethics in which policy outcomes are determined by the distribution and effective application of power.
From this perspective, the ethics of waging a war on terror are inconsequential. What matters is what will work to prevent future attacks. If, for example, torturing suspected terrorists will elicit information and deter other terrorists, then torture is legitimate. If 'regime change' is the only way of guaranteeing that a particular government will not assist terrorists in the production of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), then that too is legitimate. The realist message for the war on terror, therefore, seems clear enough. A logic that has permeated US strategic thinking since September 11 is that the state must be free to make its own decisions about the best way to defend itself. For example, after an Israeli attack on what it claimed were terrorist training camps inside Syria, George W. Bush told the world that 'Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland'. The basic idea is that defence of the state and its citizens is a good in itself and requires no further justification. Abstract moral rules should be sacrificed to guarantee success at as minimal a cost as possible.
In terms of how we should fight, the realist points us to the words of the American Civil War General, William T. Sherman, who famously declared that 'war is hell'. Sherman contended that war could not be made humane through the application of law or morality and that those fighting with right on their side were entitled to use any measure necessary for victory. All blame for the suffering caused by war should rest with those whose wrongdoings made war necessary in the first place.
In the war on terror, the US and its allies have sometimes made precisely this argument to justify the inadvertent but foreseeable killing of civilians. A common refrain among government officials is that the coalition of the willing bears no responsibility for non-combatant deaths. Instead, responsibility was said to lie squarely with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein's regime. Tony Blair, for instance, told the Iraqi people that 'our enemy is not you but your barbarous rulers', insisting that the suffering endured by ordinary Iraqis was caused by their former government's actions, not those of the invaders.
It is here, though, that matters get complicated. Classical realism, understood as a broad tradition with its roots in Thucydides' account of warfare in ancient Greece and Machiavelli's advice to the Medici princes of Renaissance Italy, is deeply infused with a moral tone that contains some chilling lessons for those who believe that the powerful can act without concern for others. These writers taught us that states should avoid imposing their own moral preferences on others because this only instils resistance; that breaking commonly agreed moral rules encourages others to unite in opposition; that power is much more effective when it is exercised with consent – that is, when it is widely seen as legitimate; that war, as Carl von Clausewitz explained in the nineteenth century, is an uncertain and unpredictable policy tool that should be used sparingly to achieve specific policy outcomes. These insights partly explain why many recent realists have criticized their country's wars. For example, Hans Morgenthau, the doyen of post-war realism, opposed America's intervention in Vietnam; more recently, prominent realists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argued against the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Besides the fact that today's 'realists' have evidently done a poor job of representing their own intellectual tradition, there are a number of other serious problems with their propositions.
First, by disregarding standards of behaviour that have taken decades if not centuries to evolve, they risk undermining the basic rules of behaviour that underpin international order. The power of these constraints, such as the ban on the use of force contained in the UN Charter – a ban which has, incidentally, presided over a marked and steady decrease in the occurrence and lethality of war in the past sixty years – derive from their incorporation into customary practice. In the fifth century bc, the Athenian decision to break the customs of war to further its own interests led to the complete erosion of those customs, to the long-term detriment of both the Athenian empire and Greek civilization as a whole. As war between Greek poleis (city states) became more violent, so Greek civilization was weakened from within, leaving it unable to defend itself against Persian and Roman colonists.
Second, unjust behaviour in the name of necessity encourages our adversaries to use similar tactics and leaves us without a common moral language to evaluate the justness or otherwise of such actions. If we consider it legitimate to breach moral rules to further our own cause, we have to acknowledge that our opponents may do likewise, a theme I will return to later.
This brings us to the third objection: war conduct perceived to be unjust would make it more difficult to negotiate a just end to the war and build a self-sustaining peace afterwards. Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant argued that it was important not to wage unlimited war, because doing so would make it very difficult to create a just and enduring peace and would in all likelihood sow the seeds of future war by creating a groundswell of resentment and hostility. This is particularly pertinent for the war on terror, because victory depends on our undermining popular support for Al Qaeda.
The final objection turns our gaze inwards. The whole purpose of fighting a war is to protect core values that we hold dear. It simply makes no sense to wage a war to protect core values in a way that erodes those very values. Perhaps the most basic of liberal values is the idea that it is wrong to kill or otherwise harm the innocent. Michael Ignatieff describes this supposition as a 'pre-political' commitment – it is a necessary precondition for liberal politics that individuals be free from arbitrary harm. The realists would have us dispose of this commitment if short-term interests appeared to dictate. But as Christopher Coker recently argued, we cannot do away with, ignore or even override our basic liberal values without ceasing to be liberals. Any 'victory' achieved by sacrificing our most basic values would be a hollow one at best.
A second type of response to September 11 is to reaffirm the belief that the phrase 'ethics of war' is an oxymoron because war is always unjust. Two similar yet distinctive means of doing this have been developed. 'Deontological' pacifists argue that killing is intrinsically wrong and that there are no situations, real or imaginary, in which resort to war would be a lesser evil. Others propose a form of 'consequentialist' pacifism and argue that although there may be imaginary circumstances in which war may be the lesser evil, it is highly unlikely that any war could be deemed justifiable. For both types, not only is the war on terror unjust, but moral scrutiny is dangerous because it offers a language which skilful policy-makers can use to justify their violent deeds, unintentionally helping to humanize and thereby legitimize the practice of war itself.
One of the most sophisticated writers in this genre is Richard Holmes, who blends deontological and consequentialist forms of pacifism. Holmes rejects the deontological position that killing is wrong per se because it may in some circumstances be quite right to kill those who are guilty of, or in the process of committing, heinous crimes. However, we all agree that killing the innocent is wrong. Although the ethics and laws of war prohibit the deliberate killing of non-combatants, in reality the innocent are always killed in war and are likely to be so for the foreseeable future. Thus Holmes combines the deontological prescription, accepted by most people, that non-combatants may not be deliberately killed, with the consequentialist observation that non-combatants are always killed in war. Only when political and military leaders can guarantee that no non-combatants will die might wars be considered legitimate. Clearly, the war on terror failed this test, probably on day one. As such, no further moral scrutiny is required.
This argument should give us all pause for thought. It is not one that can easily be dismissed without doing a disservice to our basic sensibilities. For all its sophistication, however, it is a moral theory based on how we would like the world to be, not on how it actually is. In essence, it calls upon governments to abrogate the moral responsibility to protect their citizens in order to uphold a higher moral good, despite the fact that there is no universal agreement about the nature of that good. This reflects the position of the earliest Christians who, expecting the imminent return of Christ, removed themselves from public life and adopted a pacifist view on violence. This position became increasingly untenable as the 'second coming' became more remote and even more so after the conversion of Constantine brought Christianity into public life. Gradually, many Christians assumed public office and abandoned pacifism.
Those in public office have a moral responsibility to protect the wider community. In the absence of a world government or commonly adhered-to rules prohibiting organized violence, endangering the lives of citizens to satisfy one's own moral predilections by prima facie rejecting the use of force in the face of threats is to abrogate the responsibilities of government, undermine the legitimacy of the polity, and thereby behave immorally.
Both realism and pacifism are therefore unsatisfactory starting points. However, if there are certain elements of realism that our moral exploration of the war on terror needs to bear in mind – especially the moral responsibilities of governments, the idea of military necessity and the principle of prudence – the presumption against violence that lies at the heart of pacifism should be included in our assessment, not least because it grows out of the basic idea that it is wrong to kill the innocent. This is a proposition I will defend at greater length in the following chapter, because it is precisely the intention to kill non-combatants that marks terrorism out as a form of violence and explains why it elicits the sort of moral outrage that it (quite rightly) does.
Neoconservatism began life as a liberal reaction against opposition to the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s. Liberals such as Irving Kristol believed that the war's critics were either too eager to sacrifice the South Vietnamese people to communist tyranny in order to save American lives and dollars, or else were simply blinded by their ideological preference for leftist politics. In contrast to liberal defeatism, the neoconservatives saw the struggle as one between good and evil in a world of black and white moral certainties that was given philosophical voice by Leo Strauss. In 1997, the neoconservatives set out their political stall by setting up the Project for the New American Century to counter what they saw as the 'incoherent' and morally bankrupt policies of the Clinton administration. The Project called for increased defence spending to enable an aggressive policy of maintaining American hegemony, spreading democracy and confronting 'evil'. It argued that America's democratic purpose and material power gave it special responsibilities to promote democracy and confront tyranny everywhere. What is more, neoconservatives argued that it was 'empirical fact' not 'American exceptionalism' that gave America responsibility (and hence special rights) for leadership in the war on terrorism.
With the advent of George W. Bush, a number of prominent neoconservatives, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, came into government and helped shape America's response to Al Qaeda. The ideology's black-and-white view of the world was clearly evident in Bush's post-9/11 challenge to the world: you are either 'with us' or 'against us'. Neoconservatism gave the war on terror its overarching justification. It would be more than simply a war of self-defence against a relatively small group of Afghan-based radicals. Instead, as Natan Sharansky of the American Enterprise Institute put it:
We are in the midst of the first world war of the twenty-first century, waged between the world of terror and the world of democracy, between a civilization in which human life is held in the highest value and one for which human life is merely an instrument to reach certain political aims. The world of democracy will win this struggle. But in order for the victory to be everlasting, it is crucial, but not sufficient, to destroy the terror. It is imperative to expand the world our enemies try to destroy, to export democracy.
Neoconservatives therefore believe that the military effort against terrorists and their supporters is inherently just. Indeed, so just is this cause that it cannot be inhibited by international laws or moral rules. During the Vietnam War, they argued that the war's critics confused 'means' and 'ends', and tended to ignore the latter entirely. If it was right to save the Vietnamese from communist tyranny, then it must be right – they argued – to do whatever was necessary to prevail. Alvin Friedman, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense under Lyndon Johnson, expressed it neatly when he asked in 1966: 'what do we mean by ethics in war? It is a war to which there is no alternative if we are going to defend the ultimate values.' In such a war, there is no tension between what is right and what is necessary, because one must do whatever is necessary in order to do good. Thus, 'do we sacrifice moral ends in our insistence on moral means? What are moral means in view of the fact that any means adopted are presumably in pursuit of a moral goal?'
This basic argument, that the moral ends justify the means, has been used to justify various components of the war on terror. In America, everything from unauthorized wire-tapping to detention declared unlawful by the Supreme Court has been justified by reference to the moral ends – the defeat of terrorism. Globally, assassinations, missile attacks, torture and much more has been justified in this way. Even to question this logic is to attract withering criticism.
Excerpted from Fighting Terror by Alex J. Bellamy. Copyright © 2008 Alex J. Bellamy. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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