JSCOPE 2006 Paper

Marcus O. Hedahl, Maj, USAF


Chief Architect, Mission Management, NRO/IMINT/IGO

M.A. Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2000

Assistant Professor and Instructor of Philosophy, USAFA 2000-2004


Soldiers, Citizens and Unjust Wars:  How the polis should respond to military members engaged in immoral conflict



            Somewhere in the heart of America a family is rejoicing.  A small Wisconsin town welcomes home a soldier long overdue. As the band plays “Proud to be an American”, the young man dances with his wife and their four-year-old daughter. The young girl is wearing a white T-Shirt displaying an American Flag encircled by the simple phase, “My Daddy, My Hero”.   He is so recent a returnee that she cries when he leaves for work the way she did when he left for Baghdad over a year ago. She’s still not convinced that he will return in the evening. 

American flags encircle the back yard.  There’s a banner that proclaims “Your country is proud of you, Your family loves you”.  There’s even a large and slighted faded flag hung from the big weeping willow in the back yard that had been given to the young man’s grandfather now long since passed when that veteran of three wars finally and reluctantly retired.

            I’m sure many Americans have been to a homecoming like the one I just described, if not in recent months then perhaps in recent wars. These moments can us make feel as if we are inside a living, breathing, Rockwell painting. The interesting thing about a painting, however, is that it is meant to capture a moment.  It cannot always capture the context in which that singularity in time is contained. In this case, it cannot capture the fact that the soldier himself just expressed serious reservations about the war from which he recently returned.  It cannot display the feelings of numerous family members in attendance that go far behind mere reservations.  For, as little as a week ago, the young soldier’s mother-in-law could be seen wearing a button that claimed simply, “This war is immoral.”

            This scene would be unthinkable for a generation and a war now more than thirty years removed.  This fact, however, should not be surprising. For many believed at that time as Mario Savio eloquently claimed in 1964, that "there's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gear and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to indicate to the people who own it that unless you're free, the machines will be prevented from working at all."

            It’s not surprising, therefore, that that generation of anti-war protestors would be uncomfortable with such a homecoming. After all, they viewed their protests as a moral imperative born from a negative responsibility to stop an odious and unjust war. In the eyes of 1960s anti-war activists, soldiers not only failed to fight against an immoral war, they were themselves the necessary agents for carrying out that larger injustice.  Therefore, it would be nonsensical to celebrate any sacrifices they may have made in carrying out their duties.  The soldiers returning from that war were spat upon, called baby killers, and worse.  However, this attitude towards members of the military is much less frequent in the today’s anti-war activists.  Perhaps this fact is due to nothing more than political expediency. It seems more likely, however, that numerous activists have realized that it’s hard to blame young men willing to sacrifice and even die for a war they may not have chosen.  I would contend that this change in our society is one we should welcome. Nonetheless, there is also something unsettling about the love the sinner, hate the sin attitude found in many of today’s anti-war activists.  It is this discomfort that I’d like to discuss today.

            The question it seems is whether citizen supporting for the military requires them to support the war.  The problem case, of course, is when a citizen, Senator, or even soldier believes the current war is an unjust war.  How should a citizen that believes that the current war is unjust regard the military men and women that fight in it?  The answer, it seems, is closely aligned with the question of the moral responsibility soldiers have for the crimes of Jus Ad Bellum.  That is, the question of what the proper attitude someone should have to members of the military during an unjust war seems to rely heavily on the question of whether or not the soldier can be held responsible for the war in which he or she is fighting.  If soldiers are solely responsible for their jus in bello actions, then neither mother nor soldier need to believe in the justness of the cause to see the nobility of the men and women fighting in it. However, if private and president are equally culpable for the sins of jus ad bellum, then anyone who reasonably believes the war is unjust should rightfully regard the soldiers of that war with contempt. 

After arguing that the proper response of citizens for a military engaged in unjustified conflict depends upon how morally culpable soldiers are for that war, I will examine the arguments of negative and communal responsibility, and the traditional just war responses to those arguments.   In these examinations, I hope to demonstrate that the concept of dirty hands provides the most satisfactory response to the question of how responsible soldiers should be for the wars in which they fight.  While soldiers should not be held legally responsible if they fight justly in an unjust war because their actions are in a certain sense required of them, those actions are nonetheless unjust and it would be immoral to praise them upon their return.

            In order to make that argument, it is helpful to begin by considering the link between the proper response to military members engaged in immoral conflict and the responsibility those members have for that conflict. One could argue that soldiers who fight in unjust wars should always be celebrated because soldiers do not choose in which wars to fight, and the sacrifice of service to the nation is in itself noble.  It seems, however, that such arguments are actually complex in nature and do not answer the specific question at hand.  They are, in effect saying that because soldiers give up the free will to choose their wars and sacrifice for the nation-state they are not morally culpable and therefore should be celebrated.  However, if we break the argument apart and at this point assume statesmen and soldiers alike are nonetheless collectively responsible for the wars in which they fight, then these mitigating factors seems less and less important. Certainly, service of the state itself has some inherent value and that service gains even more value when soldiers volunteer to serve but do not choose their wars.  Furthermore, if soldiers are responsible for the unjust war their responsibility is nonetheless shared and each individual soldier possess less culpability. And, while there are good pragmatic reasons for not holding soldiers legally responsible for the crimes of jus ad bellum even if there are morally responsible for these wars, it still seems that even a partial responsibility for something as morally reprehensible as an unjust war would dictate that we not only not praise the soldiers engaged in such a conflict, but we morally shun them as well.  Even partial responsibility for an unjust war cannot be mitigated by the inherent goodness of service. Service to the state is not a good enough reason to forgive crimes of jus in bello for which individual soldiers are morally responsible, so it seems that it would not be a good enough reason to pardon soldiers if they are morally responsible for the sins of jus ad bellum as well.

            Others may argue that regardless of the moral responsibility of soldiers, citizens should not praise soldiers engaged in immoral conflict.  Several reasons could be given: it would continue support for an unjust war, it would encourage further enlistments, in would be further the injustice of the war in some way.  All of these arguments, however, are clearly consequentialist in nature.  They do not say that there is something inherently wrong with praising the soldiers. After all, if soldiers were completely devoid of responsibility for the wars in which they fight, they would be as morally innocent as they would be if they were responding to a natural disaster.  While we could make similar arguments in this parallel case, they would seem to be something problematic about them. For example, we could argue that praising doctors that volunteered to go to respond to Hurricane Katrina would detract from the ability to improve the response to this disaster and future disasters by focusing instead on the grave issues of mismanagement.  However, this argument suffers several typical failings of relying too heavily on consequentialist reasoning. First of all, it is a bit of a false alternative to say that I should not praise the doctors and point out the flaws of management, or praise the soldiers and argue against the  evil of the war in which they fight.   Secondly it overemphasizes the certainty of the outcomes. While celebrating the doctors could help turn a blind eye to improving future responsiveness to disasters, so too could ignoring the work of such individuals.  It could discourage such acts of volunteerism in the future.  Finally, it over emphasizes the importance of the consequences of particular actions and underemphasizes the attention to the consequences of more foundational rules. While I may argue that there is some inherent value in public ally praising morally exemplary behavior, even more utilitarian thinkers would have to accept that generally there are good consequences to praising moral exemplars and any advantages gained by forgoing such praise because of other potential consequences have to be weighed against this more fundamental positive outcome.

If soldiers are completely devoid of responsibility for their service in unjust wars, then it seems that it would be acceptable should celebrate their service.  If they are not responsible for the unjust war, then we should regard their service in that war with indifference or possibly worst as an unfortunate accident.   While we may regard the war and the leaders who are responsible for it with contempt, contempt for those “poor sods” that are forced to fight it would seem inappropriate.   Furthermore, if their life of service to the state itself had some inherent value regardless of the wars in which they fight, then praising them for their life of service would seem appropriate.  Even if we believed some other group deserved greater praise, inner city schoolteachers perhaps, there would still seem no moral harm in celebrating the service and sacrifice of its soldiers.  For if our moral principles dictated that we could only celebrate the supererogation of any party after we first celebrated the moral sacrifice of those more deserving, we would very likely spend more time ranking than celebrating.  There would certainly be less harm to celebrate such sacrifice of service of than there would be to celebrate the NBA’s latest champion with a parade, for example.  So while it may not be morally required to celebrate the service of soldiers engaged in unjust wars, it would certainly not be morally problematic either.  The proper response to soldiers engaged in unjust will depend upon how morally culpable for those wars.

So, it now becomes important to investigate just how culpable soldiers are the unjust wars in which they fight. It will be helpful to first examine the implied pacifist arguments for a negative and communal responsibility and attempt to demonstrate why holding all military members fully culpable for the crimes of jus ad bellum is problematic.   The arguments for holding soldiers fully responsible for the wars in which they fight come can deal with issues of negative responsibility or communal responsibility.  Mario Savio’s quote becomes helpful to illustrate these arguments.   Soldiers are negatively responsible for the crimes of war because they fail to stop the gears of the machine.   Of course, all of the citizens of a country would have a negative responsibility to stop the injustice, not merely soldiers.  Therefore, the question quickly becomes one of how much does that responsibility require us:  Do we merely have to avoid service? Can we simply vote for candidates that do not support the war? Do we personally have to speak out against it?  How often?  Etc. So it becomes readily apparent that arguments of negative responsibility will not be a strong foundation for arguing that soldiers are morally  responsible for the wars in which they fight.

Of course soldiers do not merely fail to fight against an immoral war, they are themselves the necessary agents for carrying on that larger injustice.  It is this communal responsibility that is a stronger argument for holding soldiers fully responsible for the unjust wars in which they fight.  While soldiers are often coerced to serve, either by  being drafting or by not choosing the wars in which they fight, there is a difference between coercion and coercion at the point of a gun.  In a free society, there are always other options, however unpleasant they may be.  Soldiers bear a communal responsibility for the unjust wars because they are the necessary direct agents of that injustice.  (As opposed to citizens and taxpayers who are indirect agents of the unjust wars Soldiers are part of a chain of agency required for immoral acts of an unjustified war, citizens are not.)
            Perhaps the best way to respond to such arguments is by investigating the traditional Just War arguments, to include Michael Walzer’s, on why soldiers are not responsible for the crimes of Jus Ad Bellum.  These include but are not limited to differences in knowledge between soldier and statesman, differences in scope of agency between soldier and statesmen, and the functional necessity to avoid selective coconscious objection.  Walzer uses a quote from Shakespeare to make his point “A prince is not often able nor can he be expected to explain his actions in going to war.”  

            There are actually several arguments contained within this quote, but it is helpful to consider them one at a time.  First, there is a difference in knowledge between soldier and statesman.   While some just war criteria (e.g. Legitimate Authority) may be easy for the soldier to discern, others (e.g. Last Resort) may be much more difficult for her to be able to make a reasoned judgment without access to the type of data only available to the leaders of the state (e.g. what has been offered at negotiations, what other alternatives have been offered and rejected, etc.)  Furthermore, if we grant that it is possible for some preventative or even preemptive to be morally justified, then it becomes even more difficult to for soldiers to reasonably know if war is immanent or morally justified, because they would very infrequently have access to the total intelligence picture required for such a justification.  And, if the soldier does not have knowledge that the war is unjustified, yet it is reasonable to believe that it could be, then it would be wrong to holder him morally responsible for that war.

Second, there is a difference in the scope of agency between soldier and statesmen.  While the leasers of a state are the ultimate agents for the beginning of the conflicts, soldiers are merely the proximate agents.  This distinction is often used in other contexts for mitigating moral and legal responsibilities.  Finally there are also practical reasons for not holding soldiers legally or morally responsible for the wars in which they fight. Walzer points out and others have done a much more thorough job that the state cannot function if each soldier could pick the wars in which they had to fight, and the state was required to convince them of the morality of the war as well.

While these three arguments offer excellent justification for not holding soldiers either legally or fully morally responsible for an unjust war, they cannot completely resolve soldiers from all moral responsibility for just acts within an unjust war.   They are mitigating circumstances that provide excellent justification but cannot completed mitigate the fact that the active participation of common soldiers is required to carry out the unjust war.  While we may not punish such men and women and may not even blame them, it seems odd to celebrate such necessary and active agents of an injustice.  Yet, while particular individuals can avoid service, the collective individuals of the state cannot.  Morality appears to require us to hold people minimally responsible (by either shunning or not celebrating their actions. While the war may not be their crime, while they may have even done all that they could do to avoid it, their souls are nonetheless morally corrupted. In order to see why soldiers who participate in unjust wars but obey the rules of jus in bello find themselves in such a situation it helps to investigate Walzer’s discussion of Dirty Hands.

            Walzer, of course uses the issue of Dirty Hands to investigate not soldiers following the principles of jus in bello within an unjustifiable war, but for those extremely rare morally acceptable exceptions to the rules of jus in bello within a just war.   He uses the example of Sir Head of Walter Harris, the Head of England’s Bomber Command in WWII.  While the potential consequence to the rights of noncombatants and nation-states required the breaking of the rules in this extreme circumstance, in order for us to demonstrate how important those rules are nonetheless, we cannot celebrate those who broke them.  They did what was truly required, since there was no other alternative.  To restore the moral order, however, we cannot celebrate these men.

             It is not a stretch, however, to apply this line of reasoning to the opposite situation where soldiers follow the principles of jus in bello within an unjust war.  Any exception to the principles of jus in bello, even ones as restrictive as Walzer’s Supreme Emergency exposes the cracks in any the complete and total distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello, because those exceptions will only be dictated by some great and monumental utility and will therefore be morally acceptable only for those fighting a just war.  Walzer himself uses the fact that the Right Intention criterion was not met for the end of WWII to argue as an argument against the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being justified.  Furthermore, there are numerous relevant similarities.  In the case of Supreme Emergency have situations where soldiers are forced to take an action that would normally be unjust. In the case of supreme emergency the consequences to the rights of non-combatants puts soldiers in a position where they willing target non- combatants.  In the case of unjust conflict, functional necessity requires soldiers to serve, even though they know they may be ordered to serve in an unjust war.  Both situations require decisive action when epistemic certainty is not possible.  Finally, both have soldiers as the proximate and not ultimate causes for the injustice.   It seems, moreover, that this level of group responsibility aligns with our intuitions in other areas as well.  We do not hold the medical engineer morally responsible for any potential misuse of his advancements, but do question those who work for an endeavor that is clearly intended for immoral aims.  Nonetheless, we would not believe it proper to honor the medical engineer, regardless of his noble intention, inherent integrity or countless sacrifice if his inventions were put to some unjustified end.

Imagining a celebration of Nazi soldiers at the end of WWII or of Russian Soldiers at the end of the 1980’s Afghan war should trouble our moral sensibilities. If we are not simply harsh realists, then these troubling images should bother us not merely because those nations lost.  These possibilities should bother us because we recognize that if our brother and sisters, sons and daughters are unfortunate enough to find themselves engaged in an immoral war, while their obligation may be noble their sacrifice cannot be. While we can always celebrate their safe return, we cannot justly celebrate their service.

            Of course the obvious consequence of this conclusion is an argument against celebrating or praising soldiers who fight in unjust wars.  There is another indirect consequence as well: that soldiers who care about justice need to be wary not only of their actions, but of the decision of the state they serve as well.  And, if those decisions create a pattern of injustice, then their service itself may be ignoble. Now there is obvious considering a state to have a morally good or bad character in the Aristotle sense of the term.  States can both radically and moderately alter their character in short periods of time much more easily than individuals, states can not even always be considered fully conscious of all of their actions, and it is much more difficult for states to form the type of habits so central to a virtue theoretic concept of character.  Yet a morally good state, if we can use such terminology at all, like a morally good agent is no more than the total of its actions. Of course, one action does not a habit or even a pattern make.  Ulysses S. Grant served in a war he believed to be clearly unjust before serving in a war necessary for a noble and righteous cause.  Nonetheless, young  men and women and older ones as well cannot simply assure themselves  that they are joining  a noble  profession.  That nobility is not sacrosanct, it will not protect them from all that may  come.  As Walzer reminds us war is actually worse than hell, because in the theological hell only those deserving of punishment are caught in the fire, but in war the innocent suffer as well.  But, there is another reason as well.  In most traditional depictions of hell, the damned are merely the inhabitants.  In war, unfortunate, we are hell’s architects and hell’s creators as well.   And professional soldiers engaged in immoral wars unleash the hounds of hell where neither  utility nor previous action  requires it.  So, if our hands can become dirty for crimes of jus ad bellum, then we have to view our professions one with the potential to be noble not one with inherent nobility. 





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