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The ethics of war, conflict and soldiering

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Is war an inevitable part of the human condition?

It is said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes but if we look back over history, war and armed conflict seem to be an inevitability too. There has never been a time in human history that a war has not been going on somewhere in the world. If we take the appearance of human civilisation as roughly 4,000 BC, that means humans have been fighting wars (in the modern sense) for at least 6,000 years! And since 1900 there have been over 200 mechanised wars going on. At no time since 1900 has there been a gap in the fighting. A war has been fought somewhere in the world since then.

In the modern world war is depicted as an horrific waste. The WWI poets have no doubt added much to moulding this view of war. However, it should be remembered that this is not a view of war that has been universally held. For instance Heinrich von Treitschke, saw war as humanity's highest activity where courage, honour and ability were displayed at their highest. At the outbreak of World War I, the writer Thomas Mann wrote, "Is not peace an element of civil corruption and war a purification, a liberation, an enormous hope?" This attitude has been embraced by societies from Sparta and Rome in the ancient world to the fascist states of the 1930s. Today, Islamicists glorify armed conflict as a supreme expression of commitment to their faith.

Churches and secular groups hold services, campaigns and vigils expressing the desire that war will be no more. The League of Nations, founded in the wake of World War I (the 'war to end wars') was the first international organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Its primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament, and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. However, in retrospect the idea of an international organisation with the ability to prevent conflict seems an idealistic dream. So are our services and campaigns and marches for world peace unrealistic? Should we accept the reality that war is always inevitable and give up praying for peace?

Can we mitigate the evils of war by agreeing that war is controlled by 'laws of war'

If we accept the inevitability of war then can we at least have some agreements where we limit what can be done in war? That way we might all profit by limiting war in some ways?

The classic arguments for limiting or controlling war in some way are provided by the so called 'Just War' theory. The principles Just War theory originated with classical Greek and Roman philosophers like Plato and Cicero and were added to by Christian theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. The main principles are that war must be:

  • Necessary—It must be a last resort when all other ways of averting the conflict have been exhausted.
  • Proportional—A state may only perpetrate a war to the point of achieving its legitimate aims of its own security. Hugely punitive attacks on the enemy are prohibited.
  • Right intention—A state may engage in war as a form of legitimate defence, not in order to expand its borders or to obtain booty.
  • Legitimate authority—Only the state may declare war and then only after due and careful consideration. Where that leaves civil wars is an interesting issue.
  • Prospects of success—A state may only fight wars where you have a good prospect of success otherwise you are causing avoidable suffering on your own population for no advantage.
  • Just cause—You may only fight a war to further justice. For instance it is quite reasonable to fight a war in self defence (or possibly to defend a weak ally). Fighting a land-grab war would not be regarded as just.

We are all in favour of 'mom and apple-pie' so we no doubt agree that these principles are fine. However, can they be acted on effectively in real-life situations?

Generally, a just war is seen as one in which non-combatants (civilians) are not targeted. Of course in practice 'collateral damage' may not be completely avoidable but in WWII large civilian conurbations on both sides were deliberately targeted. Could this be justified on the grounds that it was a 'total war' with the civilian population somehow complicit as they were supporting the war politically?

Since WWII many wars, like Vietnam, have been insurgency wars where it has been difficult to differentiate between the civilian population and combatants.

International agreements like the Geneva Convention attempt to deal with questions about how to treat prisoners of war, how to treat injured enemy, what types of weapons it is legitimate to use etc. However, in a recent high profile case we have seen how wounded enemies can be shot on the field of battle and one wonders how much of this goes on? It was only due to a soldier inadvertency filming the shooting that a success full prosecution could be brought.

Is what we expect of our soldiers reasonable?

Many have argued that given the pressure Alexander Blackman was under he should be shown leniency. On the other hand would exonerating him give a green-light to soldiers generally to commit any atrocity they see fit on the field of battle?

While it is argued under Just War Theory that states should go into war reluctantly, as a last resort, we don't want our soldiers to go into our wars reluctantly. We want them to be ferocious and enthusiastic for fighting. In fact, no soldier you meet will tell you he enjoys simply training and standing-by. The purpose of armed forces, from a state's point of view, is to provide the threat of lethal force and a state will be quite happy to never use their army if they can get what they want by diplomatic means. After all, wars are very expensive. But the soldier is trained to fight and he does not fulfil his role unless he gets out into a theatre of war at some point.

We select men with high testosterone and aggression to train as soldiers to fight, to want them to fight and to do it ferociously. We licence them to do things like kill and use force, which we disallow them in peace time, at home in their own country. We also expect them to exercise discipline. They may only kill under specific conditions and they must switch off when not required to do so. Then, when they return to civilian life they must be exemplary civilised members of society. However, we know from crime statistics that soldiers often experience difficulty in fitting back into normal society. With the improvement in battlefield medicine there must also be a lot more disabled servicemen coming back into civilian life. So what do owe our servicemen? Are we in effect exploiting them?

Another 'soldiering' question to be tackled is the changing relationship of the soldier and the army. Soldiers still make an oath to the monarch and are viewed as subjects. At one time this meant that the body of the soldier literally belonged to the monarch and he could dispose it in any way he decided. In WWI this lead to using soldiers literally as 'cannon-fodder' with commanders sending over waves of men in full knowledge that they would be killed. Since the 1980s this relationship has changed to more of an employee-employer relationship with health and safety legislation being invoked by families suing the army for negligence. As war-fighting is by its very nature dangerous and commanders cannot avoid sending soldiers into life-threatening situations. How will this change war-fighting in the future? Will we see commanders having to weigh up the chances of being sued if he sends men into battle?

More on the the ethics of war and the Just War theory...

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