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The Moral Crisis of Just War: Beyond Deontology toward a Professional Military Ethic
By The Reverend Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Ph.D., Professor of Theological Ethics, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary
We live amidst the ruins of the character/ virtue ethic of an earlier age, now populated by deontologists and utilitarians. In such a moral setting, professions face constant pressure to become occupations (instrumental roles with no internal commitment or inherent excellences) and professionals are subject to expectations that they will be mere experts in the efficient manipulation of means for any requested end. —an excerpt from this essay
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the recognition of asymmetrical or 4th generation warfare, the just war tradition has faced a crisis of legitimacy. It is argued that the just war tradition was suited for kind of warfare that has been eclipsed, that global counter-terrorism necessarily entails a style or mode of warfare that is not compatible with the tradition criteria of the just war tradition. This paper argues that the bellicose conditions at the outset of the 21st century have indeed pushed the just war tradition into a crisis from which it may not recover but that this is no loss. Indeed, that form of the just war tradition that is in crisis ought to pass and in its passing a space may open for a more robust and relevant vision of just war, one that is in keeping with the best that the U.S. military says about itself and with the professional military ethic that its moral leaders seek to foster.
For several years now the U.S. Army has been in the process of evaluating its professional military ethic. This evaluation has been prompted by repetitive deployments in an era of persistent conflict that have left the Army, in the words of General Casey, “stressed and stretched.”1 Matthew Moten succinctly identifies four factors that have contributed to this stressed condition:2 The first is the type of warfare that the Army is being asked to conduct. Whether one describes the post 9/11 combat environment as “4th generation warfare,” asymmetrical war, a global war on terrorism, or the latest incarnation of the age-old effort at counterinsurgency, Moten observes that it is “one of the most ethically complex forms of war.”3 The second factor he identifies is that of policy decisions that have blurred the moral, ethical, and legal lines soldiers have been trained to observe and uphold.4 Don Snider, Paul Oh, and Kevin Toner elaborate upon this, noting that evolving views of international laws and treaties (specifically, those related to the laws of war), public policy and court rulings related to the classification of enemy combatants, the use of military tribunals, and the employment of harsh interrogation techniques are “evolutions from the norms followed throughout the pre-9/11 era.”5 The third factor involves the increasing reliance upon commercial contractors, in effect “outsourcing” significant portions of the Army’s professional jurisdiction – including its sustenance, its thinking, and its core expertise, fighting.6 The fourth factor he names stems from what has popularly been called “the revolt of the generals,” which Moten describes as “the professionally improper dissent on the part of retired generals,” but which could be broadened to encompass a host of issues related to civil-military relations, from the tension Martin Cook identifies between subordination and expertise in the officer’s role,7 to officers’ connections to media and defense industries.8
In this situation, where some observers think the Army is near the breaking point, and, I might add, where the results of the Military Health Advisory Team survey pertaining to “battlefield ethics” are less than comforting,9 Moten concludes that the essence of the professional ethic needs no radical change.10 Instead, he suggests that what is needed is codification of the existing ethic, perhaps in the form of an “Officers’ Code.”11 In contrast, Don Snider, Paul Oh, and Kevin Toner suggest that a codified professional ethic as well as continued reliance upon a “values clarification” approach to instilling that ethic are insufficient.12 Instead, they call for a move “from values to virtues,”13 which amounts to a fundamental (but not entirely discontinuous) shift in the moral formation of soldiers, and which, I would suggest, is arguably is more in keeping with what the term “professional” in the professional military ethic means.
In what follows I enter into this debate by way of the just war tradition and the first stressor that Moten identifies. Not unlike the Army, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the new prominence of asymmetrical or 4th generation warfare, the just war tradition faces a moral crisis. Increasingly, its legitimacy as a moral guide for contemporary warfare is called into question. It is argued that the just war tradition was suited for a kind of warfare that has been eclipsed, that global counter-terrorism necessarily entails a style or mode of warfare that is not compatible with the traditional criteria of the just war tradition. For example, traditional notions of just cause give way to preventative war, last resort is thought a luxury one cannot afford in the face of nihilists armed with WMD, reasonable chance of success is reduced to a probabilistic hope and the traditional distinction drawn between combatants and non-combatants is blurred in the face of the reality of full spectrum operations.
I argue that the bellicose conditions in the first decade of the 21st century have indeed pushed the just war tradition into a crisis from which it may not recover but that this is no loss. Indeed, the form of the just war tradition that is in crisis ought to pass and in its passing a space may open for a more robust and relevant vision of just war, one that is in keeping with the best that the Army says about itself and with the professional military ethic that its moral leaders seek to foster.
Specifically, the form of just war that faces a crisis of relevance is just war conceived as a moralistic or legalistic checklist that is part and parcel of a deontological, duty or law-based ethic. Such an ethic is always in crisis because the moral challenges of justice in war always exceed the capacity of such an ethic. As a consequence the warrior ethos cannot help but degenerate, in the provocative words of Timothy Challans, into a kind of utilitarian work ethic at odds with the moral vision that animates both just war and Army values.14
The passing of this deontological vision of just war is a good thing insofar as it may open a space for the emergence of a more fruitful vision of just war that dovetails with a professional military ethic oriented toward character and virtue. This is to say, at its best the professional military ethic is an ethic of virtue or character and that when the just war tradition is understood in terms of virtue and character, the challenges of asymmetrical war remain but they are not insurmountable, as I will show by considering a few of the criteria and the challenges put to them by the current context.
Finally, I conclude by suggesting that even as re-envisioning just war as an ethic of character addresses the first stressor – the changing face of war – it simultaneously elevates the significance of the other three stressors Moten identifies, which each in their own way are a refraction of civil- military relations, insofar as each reflects tensions created at the interface of a professional military with civilian institutions, values and policies. The shift from values to virtues potentially can heighten the tension of civil - military relations just the extent that civilian institutions and culture neither share nor respect the virtues that constitute the professional military ethic. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that a professional military ethic is not unrelated to civic virtue and so the work of fostering a professional military ethic, and sustaining the character needed to wage war justly, cannot be the sole domain of the military but must also involve civil society and the parallel work of fostering civic virtues.
|Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 12:32|