Moral Restrictions on the Conduct of War

Manuel M. Davenport
Philosophy, Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843
Phone: 409-845-5624
E-mail: M-Davenport@TAMU.EDU

It is a fact that military professionals serving in the armed forces of the United States are required to follow explicit and implicit moral rules. It is stated in international law that if conflicts of interest arise, a military professional must give first priority to the good of humanity.1 According to U.S. military law, second priority must be given to the interests of the client-state, third priority to the military profession, and last priority to personal interests.2 Finally, the 1956 Law of Warfare stipulates that a military professional is obligated to refuse to follow orders that violate either the "written or unwritten" laws of war.3

Clearly, then, a military professional must be able to make and execute moral decisions and must possess, therefore, moral integrity and competence. Moral integrity is a long-range committment to specific moral principles; a person of moral integrity does not change moral principles for the sake of expediency or personal convenience. Competence is the skill and knowledge necessary to realize moral objectives once they are determined. Indeed, as General Mal Wakin has argued, a military professional has a moral obligation to be competent.4

Members of other professions also are required by their codes of ethics to follow similar moral priorities and to possess moral integrity and competence. What makes the military profession unique is that it is sanctioned to exercise on behalf of the client-state the ultimate powers of destruction. In short, the military professional has a unique obligation to be constrained by moral integrity and competence in the conduct of war.

The uniqueness of this obligation creates peculiar tensions and temptations. Because civilians neither understand nor care to contemplate the corrosive ugliness of war military professionals create their own society with its own language and rituals, and are tempted to give higher priority to the interests of this professional in-group than to the interests of humanity or the client-state. This temptation, if yielded to, can create a temptation to substitute peer pressure for individual decision-making. If this substitution is made, moral integrity is lost and the military professional may exercise ultimate power without any moral restraint.

The most obvious manifestation of the temptation of military professionals to put first their own profession is the occurrence and constant reoccurrence of military dictatorships in Asia, Africa, and South America. We have blunted this temptation, so far, in our country by strong emphasis on the principle of civilian control of the military. The temptation, however, is always there and is made stronger by an increasing disinclination on the part of civilians to question the morality of the conduct of war.

General MacArthur's defiance of civilian authority concerning the conduct ot the Korean War was widely supported and was deflected only by a personal stand by the president himself, but the issues in question were understood and discussed by most civilians. What was different during the invasions of Grenada, Panama, and Iraq was that most civilians seemed to believe that civilian knowledge and control of the conduct of war was itself immoral. They accepted and even endorsed military control of press coverage, and seemed indifferent to the fact that what civilians do not know they cannot control. They tolerated and even applauded the abdication of military decision-making by the civilian authorities involved and seemed to ignore the fact that this would increase the temptation on the part of politicians and the military to give highest priority to their own interests.

The Vietnam war will be remembered as one in which individual soldiers frequently abandoned their individual moral integrity and yielded to peer pressure to exercise power without moral restraint. My Lai is the paradigm case. But the Vietnam war was covered well by reporters from the press and TV and little happened that remained long hidden. By way of contrast, we are just beginning to learn about mass destruction and burial of the poor in Panama and the concealment of fratricide in Iraq, and we may never know all the violations of moral integrity and competence that were hidden because the public and the politicians encouraged the military leaders to give higher priority to a quick victory than to the long range interests of humanity and the nation.5

The point is a simple one: the military professional faces two conflicting demands---loyalty to fellow professionals and to the good of humanity. Both demands must be met, but it is critical that priority be given to the good of humanity and unless civilian authority enforces this priority in the conduct of war, the military professional has a strong tendency to give priority to what in the short run is best for the professiona and this can lead, as it often has, to the exercise of ultimate power without any moral restraint.

How should these moral restrictions be taught? As noted above, members of our armed forces are legally obligated to honor these restrictions. Thus, at a minimum, they should be informed of this legal obligation. They should know what they are promising to do when they take the oath of office or the commissioning oath. Beyond this they should be given reasons for honoring these legal obligations other than "you will be punished if you don't." One useful way to do this would be to consider and answer common objections to the imposition of moral restraints in the conduct of war.

One common objection to imposing moral restraints on the conduct of war is that different persons have different moral views and, therefore. it is both immoral and impossible to establish moral restraints that all could accept. Mission success, however, requires that all those involved agree concerning what should be done, what constitutes a truthful report, and what orders are lawful. It may be the case that some individuals in the military believe that the intentional killing of the innocent or filing a false report is not wrong, but it is still a fact that such actions violate their legal obligations and impair the success of the mission. It does not follow from the fact of moral disagreement that moral disagreement is justified.

A second objection is that imposing moral restraints on the conduct of war can destroy unit cohesion and teamwork necessary to mission success. A unit that has discovered over time what tactics are effective will be rendered ineffective if required to alter tactics simply because they are considered immoral. This objection has some merit but overlooks the fact that there are both moral and immoral forms of cohesion. German SS units in World War II had developed effective was of eliminating Jews. This immoral form of cohesion, however, was in conflict with the demands of the civilized world for an end to genocide, and, thus, did not contribute to long term effectiveness. Moral cohesion, that is, cohesion guided by moral restraints, promotes long term effectiveness. Occupation troops, for example, sharing a common purpose to restore order and security will be more respected and, thus, more effective than those who enslave and terroize the civilian population.

The most common objection is that if we want to win wars quickly and avoid the waste of human life, we should ignore moral restraints. Moral considerations which prevent us from winning wars, so the argument goes, are for that reason immoral.6 Obviously, wars have been won by powers unhampered by any moral restraints. but what must be denied is that such wars were morally justified simply because they were won. Going to war is morally justified only if it is the only way to preserve basic human values. To argue that the only way to preserve such values is to abandon them in the conduct of the war is to concede by contradiction that they were not our basic human values and to admit that our reasons for going to war were not moral in the first place. Those who claim that we should ignore moral restraints in waging war cannot be making, therefore, a moral claim. They are raising, at most, an empirical question: Can we wage and win wars in order to preserve our basic human values without destroying them in the conduct of war?

The litmus test, which determines that an action in war is wrong, is the intentional destruction of innocent human life. The innocent are those whose actions make no difference in the outcome of the war, and we intentionally kill them when we engage in actions that necessarily result in their death. The empirical question, then, can be rephrased as: Can we wage and win wars without engaging in actions that necessarily result in the death of those whose continued life and actions would have no affect upon the outcome of the war?

Those who claim that we cannot be moral in the conduct of war must argue for a negative answer to this question. Many have done so on the assumption that any war conducted today will become inevitably a nuclear war in which the innocent necessarily will be killed. However, even if this is so, we still have two choices. We may decide that all war today will be immoral and must be avoided, or we may decide that we must abandon all moral restraints and be ready, willing and able to engage in nuclear war.

There are two reasons for believing that we do not have to embrace either alternative. For over 50 years the world has avoided a nuclear war despite the fact that there have been hundreds of "little wars." The other reason for optimism is the manner in which the military has responded to the growing reluctance of citizens in America, Russia and elsewhere to accept large numbers of military casualties.

Some have contended that civilian reluctance to send large numbers of young people to their death signals an end to patriotism and nationalistic pride, but it may just as well be motivated by a growing desire to impose moral restraints on the conduct of war. As we saw in the Gulf War, our political and military leaders reacted to this civilian reluctance by planning and executing swift, low casualty campaigns based on the use of high technology weapons. By doing so, the intentional destruction of the innocent was greatly reduced. Many did not believe it would be possible to end the Serbian occupation of Kosovo without the use of ground forces, but again our political and military leaders managed to minimize both military and civilian casualties. In future wars, there can be an even greater use of "smart" weapons and, even better from a moral point of view, non-lethal weapons including very low frequency sound waves, calmative agents and laser rifles.

Clearly, civilian knowledge and control of such developments must be maintained. Without such control, which must include close press coverage, political and military leaders may use such esoteric weapons to create a military mystique to serve their own narrow interests.

If such control is maintained, we can encourage our leaders to answer the empirical question in the affirmative: Yes, it is possible to win and wage wars in order to preserve our basic values without sacrificing those values in the process, and this, of course, is precisely why we must exercise moral restraints in the conduct of war.


End Notes

1. "The 'Nuremberg Principles' of International Law," in Seymour Melman and Richard Falk, In the Name of America (Annadale, VA: Turnpike Press, 1968), pp. 43-44.

2. Anthony E. Hartle, Moral Issues in Military Decision Making (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1989), pp. 36-54.

3. FM 27-10, The Law of Warfare, p. 182.

4. Malham L. Wakin, "The Ethics of Leadership II, in War, Morality, and the Military Profession (Boulder: Westview Press, 1968), p. 211.

5. The Indepedent Commission of Inquiry on the U.S. Invasion of Panama, The U.S. Invasion of Panama (Boston: South End Press, 1991), pp. 26-45.

6. Jack Donnelly, "Twentieth Century Realism," in Traditions of International Ethics, ed. Terry Nardin and Donald Mapel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 93-97.