This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong”: the Ethicist, Moral Realism and the GWOT [1]


Reed Bonadonna


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 JSCOPE conference, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  9/11 provided for me a “moment of clarity” as it did for many others.  We were under attack, we were at war, the other enemies, conspiracies, concerns paled in comparison to this.  The moment, however, sometimes seemed hard to sustain.   The 2002 JSCOPE was, I think, the third JSCOPE I had attended, although the first in which I participated with a group of midshipmen from Kings Point.  It may have been partly that I was there with some young and impressionable future officers that I was disturbed by some of what I was hearing.  I had expected a greater response to the circumstances of the post -9/11 world, an awareness, not so much of new realities as a renewed awareness of ancient realties, the gods of the copy book headings, as Kipling says in his poem.  I also suspect that there may be a deeper problem in effect than the fact that the conference organizers from last year had not time to re-orient the focus of JSCOPE 02, but that what we have to do, as military ethicists, and in particular those of us who are teaching officers and future officers, is to reconsider a kind of disassociation of sensibility (to use TS Eliot’s term) in many minds engaged in the study of military ethics.  In becoming ethicists, had we forgotten to be soldiers? It may be that there is an occupational hazard among people who study ethics to over-ethicize, to become even moralistic in their outlook, and I think that this is a dangerous tendency especially among military ethicists, and most especially now. 

            Based on my misgivings, I prepared an abstract of which this paper is the most evolved state. I submitted the abstract for the 2003 JSCOPE.  My work was accepted, but I was prevented from presenting by the fact that by mid-January 3003 I was on a ship bound for Kuwait, and about six weeks later I invaded Iraq as a Marine Corps field historian attached to an infantry regiment.  Poor beggar, I was sent to say, stop!  One of the reasons I was quite willing to go, aside from curiosity, a sense of professional obligation, and the belief that the invasion was a correct pursuit of policy by other means, was a rather visceral sense of defending the things I help most dear, my family in suburban New York, my mother and other relatives in the city, a renewed sense to the idea of patria since the falling of the towers.  The experience of going to war was certainly an education.  (I had invaded Norway during the Gulf War, and my only previous active service had been peacekeeping duty in Lebanon, a very different thing from war, I was to conclude).  I don’t have the time, and this really isn’t the place, to go into an account of my personal experiences, but overall the experience did give me a sense for war at the business end, as it is gone through by the people I think we serve as military ethicists.  What do they need from us?    

            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 Iraq.  I did not even have to believe that my country was always right, or that my sons, for example, were the best of all boys.  It was enough for me that they were mine, and that I was engaged in a communal, historical, heroic undertaking in their defense.  I had accepted what Gelven calls the us/them logic of war. 

            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 Germany in World War II.  Some historians and ethicists now believe that the campaign was inefficient and inhumane, a poor use of resources resulting in a disproportionate loss of innocent life.  But what of the airmen embarked on the campaign as it was happening, a group that was denied full honors in Britain after the war compared to the members of other majors commands?  The authors of The Ethics of War argue that the campaign may be justified given the circumstances at the time, since it offered, at least for a time, the only way of hurting the enemy directly.  The airman could not know the judgment of history, or of at least some historians in the future.  A similar argument might be offered in defense of preemptive war, that campaigns like that in Iraq offer an opportunity to hurt the enemy.  We had justification, a good chance of success, and the appropriate means.  The use of conventional forces also restores the struggle to a contest of the kind described by Gelven, to the status of war fought in the communal, historically sanctioned way of armies that show their colors and battle. 

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.


[1] From the poem of that title by Edward Thomas.