“This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong”: the Ethicist, Moral Realism and the GWOT 
In this paper I plan to discuss some ideas of military ethics that relate to the Global War on Terrorism. I intend to defend a realist position on two levels, roughly metaphysical and meta-ethical. In the first I will be citing some arguments offered by Michael Gelven in defense of the necessity, even the desirability of war as a self-reflexive cultural activity tied to meaning. On the ethical level, I will cite The Ethics of War by Barrie Paskins and Michael Dockrill in offering a justification for acting in war to cause harm to an enemy even if the effectiveness and proportionality of the acts must remain unknown.
These discussions, I will maintain, are a necessary antidote to the excessive moral fastidiousness that characterizes some discussion of military ethics in this country, and which is partly the result of military ethicists, to include those in uniform, being trained in the left-leaning “unpatriotic academy” (as it was termed by Richard Rorty).
The origins of this paper may be said to be three: 9/11, the 2002
Based on my misgivings, I prepared an abstract of which this paper is the most
evolved state. I submitted the abstract for the 2003
The theorists Deleuze and Guattari write that the soldier runs the risk of “understanding nothing, or of betraying everything,” that is, of failing to understand war, or of giving in to war so completely that he forgets the cause for which he is enlisted to fight: becoming a diplomat or a gangster, an sedentary intellectual or an atavist, a dandy or a beast. The greater danger for military ethicists is I believe, and based on the impressions of the experiences I’ve briefly described, the former. We know all about ethics, we need to understand war better.
I believe that Michael Gelven’s book War and Existence is a key to such
understanding, on a profound level that one may have to go back to Clausewitz
to match. Gelven identifies what he calls elements and essences of
war. The elements are that war is vast, organized, communal, historical,
sacrificial, violent, a game, horrific, and heroic. The essences are
love, hatred, pride, and freedom. Note that terrorism does not fit
several of the elements and essences identified by Gelven, but his argument is
not primarily ethical. Gelven argues for the right of people to fight in
a certain way for what is theirs. In Gelven’s account, war is both a
necessary concomitant to civilization and an indispensable definer of
meaning. It lays down the terms of our existence as individuals and as
members of a group. Viewed this way, it is more than a necessary evil, it is a
something for which mankind must preserve the capacity if it wants to retain
its right to exist. The almost supra-ethical sense of the aim in
war is what accompanied me on the ship, across the Kuwaiti desert and into
Human civilization would be a very different, and perhaps a poorer thing were it not for war. The soldier, in addition to often bearing the heaviest burdens, has carried the banner of meaning and of existence for his fellow mortals. But if war has value, what of individual wars and their usefulness? This question is most often answered by a calculus employing just war theory. Using the standards of this tradition, we may try to gauge the justice, proportionality, chances for success, etc., of a given war, before it is entered into, but the fact is that such matters are for the great majority of soldiers already a given. Soldiers will not be sure that what they are doing right now is right, but then, neither, despite the calculations over just war, is anyone else.
According to Paskins and Dockrill of The Ethics of War, the soldier risks ‘intrinsic failure” of his efforts if it turns out that the war or campaign he/she is pursuing is not worthwhile. Like an artist like Maugham’s Charles Strickland, who abandons his family to paint, or Tolsoy’s Anna Karenina, who leaves them to pursue what she believes is her own heart and a great love, my leaving my family, as it may have been forever, to fight in a war fails the test of utility if it comes to pass that the war was really not for a greater cause, was not worth fighting.
The realist answer to this is that such risks come with the territory. Having decided that one is an artist, lover, or soldier, the risk of intrinsic failure must be embraced. As Henry V says, every man soul is his own. It may be that we lay it on the line when we kill, but kill we must. It is one of those risks of soldiering along with danger to life, limb, and sanity. How high are those risks, what’s the percentage?
To fight without knowing the outcome or justice of the battle is the fate of
the soldier. Paskins and Dockrill discuss at some length the allied
bombing campaign against
Military ethics must be warlike. In Herman Melville’s posthumous short novel Billy Budd, Captain Vere of the HMS Bellipotent tells his officers that the naval Mutiny Act takes its character from “the thing from which it derives - War.” Whether we agree with the conclusion at which Vere is driving, which is that his officers must condemn Billy Budd to death for striking and killing Claggart, the corrupt Master at Arms who falsely accuses him of plotting mutiny, we may still concede that Vere here has a point, and one which may be extended to the aspects of military institutions and cultures in general. Military organizations exist to fight battles and wars. As Army strategist Harrison Summers put it, we kill people and we blow things up. Military ethics, like military justice, must derive its nature from the thing it serves, or risk irrelevance and the indifference of those to whom it is directed.
More than this, we are now engaged in war of a war of a particularly hazardous and unpredictable kind. It may that for our copy book headings we have to go back beyond our own history, to the early warfare that was sometimes internecine, not in the sense that it has acquired, of civil war, but in its original sense, war of destruction, in which war is fought on our own land and in our very homes. The Homeland is a battleground, and this requires an ancient sense of the vulnerability of civilization. Like the Greek city states which had barely and precariously emerged from the primitive “pig state,” referred to by Socrates and which were surrounded by unfriendly neighbors and a wilderness ready to claim them, we are engaged for the gains of this century and the last, the seeming but still unconfirmed triumph of democracy and the open society, for the sake of those of we hold most dear.
War is a unique, subjective sphere of human life. We can approach an understanding of war through books, but except in a few rare cases, a Michael Gelven or Stephen Crane, something will always be missing from our consideration of war if we have not on at least one occasion felt its sting, if we do not know its ceremonies, cares, and forms (this is to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Captain Fluellen, a real professional). I will say that the next best thing to actual wartime service, which I understand is generally not available to the civilian ethicist, is a strong effort to engage in empathy with the soldier’s calling.
Consider the soldier-philosophers. Some of th greatest philosophy in history has arisen from experience of war, as the examples of Socrates, Descartes, and Wittgenstein may demonstrate. Socrates was a distinguished soldier even in old age, and he bases his republic on a class of guardians drawn from the ranks of the military. This might have been a consequence of his obvious regard for the military men of his own time, like the strategos, General Laches. Descartes is supposed to have conceived his first philosophy while on military campaign as he warmed himself inside a dutch oven. Wittgenstein served as a soldier in the Austrian army during World War I, rising to the rank of lieutenant. His experience of military service resulted in his turning from pure logic to the more ethical slant of the Tractatus and his later writings. He continued to value his own service as a soldier, encouraging his American protégé Malcolm to see service in the US Navy in World War II as useful to him as a philosopher. Philosophers and ethicists who work in this bloody field and who have not had the terrible good fortune to participate must try to understand what kind of business this is.
 From the poem of that title by Edward Thomas.