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Saint Augustine
The Moral Crisis of Just War: Beyond Deontology toward a Professional Military Ethic - Just War, Character and Virtue
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Article Index
The Moral Crisis of Just War: Beyond Deontology toward a Professional Military Ethic
The Crisis of Just War
The Crisis of the Deontological Vision of Just War
Beyond Values and Rules: Character, Virtue and a Professional Military Ethic
Just War, Character and Virtue
Character Amidst the Ruins: Virtue Across the Civilian-Miiltary Divide
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Just War, Character and Virtue


Character matters. At its best, the renewed interest in articulating a professional military ethic recognizes this. It is nothing less than a call to move beyond a deontological vision of rules, laws, codes and values and focus on inculcating the virtues that should animate soldiering as well as fostering the moral dimension of leadership that is absolutely crucial to the flourishing of those virtues in times of peace and conflict.

To return specifically to the matter of just war, at this point we might ask what difference might a virtue or character based account of just war make in the face of the crisis that confronts the just war tradition today? Let us consider by way of example three of the criteria that are frequently called into question today.

First, there is the criterion of legitimate authority. Asymmetrical warfare and the proliferation of non-state actors, such as global terrorist and insurgent networks, are thought to highlight the irrelevance of the just war tradition’s criterion of legitimate authority. But this holds true only for just war construed as a set of rules or laws for guiding nation-states. As a checklist of rules or laws, just war is not suited to warfare that does not correspond to Westphalian notions of statecraft and sovereignty.47 Restrictions on what the tradition calls “offensive” wars, the limitations imposed by notions of national self-determination and sovereignty (which nation states are understandably reluctant to subvert), effectively tie the hands of nation states who are committed to waging just wars when those nation states are confronted by decentralized and transnational threats like a global terrorist network or even when they are confronted with what is today called a humanitarian crisis like ethnic cleansing or genocide within a sovereign country’s borders.

A virtue or character based account of just war, rooted in the virtues associated with the professional military ethic, need not be so hindered. After all, the emphasis on “selfless service” that is so prominent in that ethic, it can be argued, is analogous to the virtue traditionally named “justice,” which is outward-focused and other-directed. One is selfless in one’s service to others. This is to say, unlike the modern deontological account of just war, which is self-centered in its emphasis on defensive war, the selfless character of the professional military ethic has no intrinsic difficulty with acting on behalf of one’s unjustly attacked neighbors. This is the case, not because it simply ignores national boundaries or self-determination but because it understands that states and statecraft are rightly affirmed only as an aid to justice and selfless service of one’s near and distant neighbors, and never as an obstacle to such service. (That many soldiers do not appreciate the appropriateness of their deployment in humanitarian interventions suggests that selfless service as a “value” that they memorize is not synonymous with the internalized virtue associated with the professional military ethic.) In this way, war against a terrorist organization as an interventionist and perhaps offensive war (as understood in the older tradition, not as an excuse for preemptive or preventative war) presents no intrinsic difficulties.

A second criterion that is currently under severe distress is that of last resort. Again, I wish to suggest that the crisis is linked to the criterion’s construal as a rule disconnected from character. The criticism of this criterion is typically couched in terms of assertions about the enemy. We are told that such and such a foe is immune to reason, cannot be negotiated with, and so forth. There are two problems with such claims. First, such assertions claim to know ahead of time what the criterion is meant to test. This is to say, the criterion is in place precisely as a marker for the effort to determine if one’s foe is intransigent. The critics of the criterion imply they know what the outcome of that effort will be without making the effort. As such, the critique is an act of faith. Specifically, it is an act of bad faith. As an act of bad faith, it reflects a second problem with the dismissal of last resort. This second problem is the failure to connect the criterion with the character not of the enemy but of the would-be just warrior or professional soldier as articulated by the professional military ethic. This is to say, while last resort certainly entails an exploration of the enemy’s behavior, it is also an expression of the just/professional warrior’s character. Specifically, one might refer to what is called “respect,” acting with the conviction that all people possess inherent dignity and worth.48 The professional soldier respects others even when those others show by their actions that they do not respect themselves or their victims. In this way, the bad faith of those who presume ahead of time that killing is the only appropriate response to an enemy is exposed. Such persons lack the respect that is intrinsic to a just people and professional soldiers. I might also suggest that they lack the appropriate patience and hope that is part and parcel of such respect as well as the wisdom to explore alternatives other than destruction.

This is not to suggest that a just people or professional soldiers will be naïve or prone to appeasement. Not at all; virtues like justice, prudence, and courage are not compatible with either stupidity or apathy. Rather, this is to say that for the just war people and professional soldiers, the resort to arms is always a last resort in the sense that it comes on the heels of the respect and the hope that the injustice can be addressed by means other than war. Moreover, respect for the inherent dignity of one’s enemies – again, even when they do not reflect that same respect for dignity – means that for the just war people and professional soldiers the last resort to arms, where it is deemed a necessity, is deemed a sad necessity.

The final criterion to be considered by way of example is that of discrimination. The difficulty of discriminating between combatants and non-combatants in the midst of asymmetrical warfare, particularly in urban settings and against terrorist networks, has prompted some to argue that the criterion is no longer viable, that this new kind of warfare is necessarily “full spectrum” and that as a consequence responsibility for noncombatant deaths should be shifted entirely to the asymmetrical adversary. Still others reinterpret and so loosen the criterion such that the distinction is no longer drawn between combatants and non-combatants but between those who are deemed a threat and those who are not. In a manner not unlike the criterion of last resort, such challenges to discrimination reflect an approach to the criterion that is disconnected from character and virtue. The criterion is treated as a bureaucratic rule with no intrinsic or internal connection to the character of those who would be just warriors. As such, it is deemed an unnecessary restraint on the military experts’ manipulation of lethal means for the sake of winning the nation’s wars.

As a matter of character, however, the value and viability of the criterion of discrimination is not reducible to a calculation of its impact on a military force’s efficacy in attaining its goals. (Although one certainly could argue that discrimination is an important and efficient component of accomplishing the mission when the mission encompasses winning not just turf but “hearts and minds” as well.) Beyond the expert’s efficiency, discrimination is one expression of the character of the professional solider as that character is traced in the professional military ethic. No less than last resort, the criterion of discrimination arises from identity, from the kind of people professional soldiers are: they are a people who serve others and respect the inherent dignity of human beings. They are the kind of people who would forego accomplishing the mission if accomplishing the mission required them to act in vicious ways – ways that conflicted not merely with the rules currently in effect but also with the excellences intrinsic to being a professional soldier, that is, with their self-understanding as warriors characterized by respect, integrity and courage, for example.

The reference to courage is deliberate and important, for the lengths to which professional soldiers will go to exercise discrimination is directly associated with their formation in the virtue of courage. After all, the responsibility to discriminate often correlates with increased risk of harm to soldiers. Thus discrimination calls for individual soldiers courageously to bear the burden of increased risk themselves for the sake of avoiding noncombatant casualties. Likewise it calls for commanders to resist the lure of the force protection imperative, and exercise the moral courage to send their soldiers into harm’s way for the sake of reducing noncombatant casualties.49

In the face of an enemy who does not share the professional soldier’s character or virtues, in the midst of a war waged in close proximity to noncombatants, the challenges to the criterion of discrimination are real but not crippling. Rather, they are a call for moral courage and temperance, for a willingness to bear the burden of increased risk and respond to such an adversary in a careful, measured manner consistent with who professional soldiers are and what they are fighting for.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 12:32