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Cry Havoc!: The Morality of War

photograph of destroyed building in Ukraine

When it comes to war, does anything go? Is there no morality nor immorality in war? Is it all just prudence or imprudence, success or failure? Realists have no use for ethics; pacifists oppose all violence; just war theorists draw lines in the sand; and reductive individualists say that what is right never changes. Who should we believe?

The scholars and diplomats who call themselves “realists,” believe that morality simply does not apply to war. Realists have been, in fact, the most influential actors in American foreign affairs since World War II. The position they take, however, goes back to Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes – who all thought that morality had nothing to do with politics. Nations are always in a “state of nature” with respect to their neighbors. Even when no shots are being fired, the “war of all against all” persists – no overarching authority exists to adjudicate disputes. While morality may govern the interactions between fellow citizens during peacetime, it has no purchase when it comes to the relations between autonomous states.

Worldwide, there are at least sixteen wars going on right now, and more than a million people have been killed. Many voices from many countries decry both how these wars started and how they are being conducted. Hopefully, most people will agree that some things – rape, torture, the murder of civilian noncombatants, the purposeful destruction of the basic infrastructure needed to sustain civilian lives – are morally wrong and should be universally condemned. If that is the case though, we must also reject the realist claim that morality has no place in war.

Perhaps war is nothing but immorality; perhaps all war is morally wrong. This is what “pacifists” believe. Even relatively restrained armed conflicts necessarily involve mass killing. That certainly looks wrong, doesn’t it? Instead of resorting to the taking up arms, the moral resolution of conflict demands and arbitration and compromise.

But what can a nation do if it is attacked? If we think that everyone has an inherent right to self-defense, shouldn’t we think countries do too? Must we stand by as innocents are victimized? Should we never intervene?

Just war theory has been trying to provide answers to these questions for at least sixteen-hundred years. It begins by distinguishing between jus in bello – justice in starting or joining a war – and jus ad bellum – justice in the conduct of a war. A just war must have a (i) just cause, be (ii) waged by a legitimate authority, as (iii) a last resort, and have a (iv) reasonable hope of success, while also being (v) a proportional response.

If it is to be a just war, the legitimate authority waging the war (i) must only undertake actions that are a military necessity, and (ii) always do so in a way that discriminates between people who are combatants and non-combatants. “The rule of proportionality,” according to West Point’s Lieber Institute on Warfare, “requires that the anticipated incidental loss of human life and damage to civilian objects should not be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage expected from the destruction of a military objective.”

These principles, and variations thereof, have been debated, extended, revised, etc. for over a thousand years. Unfortunately, they may be, as Hamlet put it, “More honored in the breach than the observance.” I will only give one example. For many older Americans, the war waged in the Pacific against the Tôjô regime after the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would be an exemplar of a just war. Yet, John Rawls, the most influential American moral philosopher of the twentieth century who fought in the Pacific himself, on the fiftieth-anniversary of the destruction Hiroshima with an atomic bomb wrote, “I believe that both the fire-bombing of Japanese cities beginning in the spring of 1945 and the later atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 were very great wrongs” – and deployed just war theory to prove it.

Is there a way to look at the ethics of war without becoming a realist or a pacifist or stepping into the quick-sand of just war theory? Well, why think there is anything special, from a moral point of view, about war – other than it being especially morally abhorrent? If we have a moral code or moral rules that we follow in everyday life, why shouldn’t they apply in times of a war?

Here is the most important objection to just war theory: We would not need a separate moral theory about the ethics of war unless we meant to exempt some abhorrent conduct from ordinary moral standards.

The view that war is not exempt but bound by the same moral principles that govern the rest of human life is often called reductive individualism. It is startling, at least to me, that this is considered to be a new view. Perhaps it shows the power of nation states to shape our thinking that no one previously advocated the view that the morality of war is just ordinary, everyday morality.

I will not defend reductive individualism here. I will just make two quick points. Given the horrific nature of war, it may well be that reductive individualism is barely distinguishable from pacifism, and so, in that sense, is hardly new. On the other hand, even if we do not become reductive individualists, it may still be valuable to have this thought in the back of our mind as we follow current events. Is what I am seeing – whether or not it conforms to the laws of just war theory – moral? Not moral in any sophisticated theoretical way, just: is what I am seeing now before me right or is it wrong?

Strategic Nonviolence: An Alternative to Moral Pacifism

photograph of protest in front of police station

Protest and civil resistance is quickly becoming one of the defining characteristics of the new century, from the early gains of the Arab Spring, the protest movements throughout Latin America, the Hong Kong democracy movement to Greta Thunberg’s School Strikes for Climate and the Extinction Rebellion movement in response to the climate and ecological emergency.

Philosophers began to theorize about social change in terms of methods of nonviolent social intervention in the Nineteenth Century. Henry David Thoreau, in the essay Civil Disobedience, defends the validity of conscientious objection to unjust laws, which he claims ought to be transgressed. He writes “all men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”

Early social movements, such as the campaign led by Mohandas Gandhi against the British colonial occupiers of India, connected non-violence with pacifism and cemented that as a deontological moral principle. In the early years of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King wrote:

“non-violence in the truest sense is not a strategy that one uses simply because it is expedient in the moment,  [but as something] men live by because of the sheer morality of its claim.”

For Gandhi and King the practice of nonviolence is grounded in the timeless and universal values of love, compassion, and cooperation. This view is closely related to the philosophy of pacifism, which holds that all violence is immoral. Pacifism is principled, moral opposition to war, militarism or violence. As such, it arises not out of a discipline or practice, so to speak, but out of a strongly held philosophical and spiritual belief.

Conditional pacifism, which is a version of pacifism with some possibility for compromise, is utilitarian in nature, such that the bad consequences are what make it wrong to resort to war or violence. However, based on utilitarian principles, there could be a situation where violence of some magnitude is morally permissible if it prevents violence of a greater magnitude. That is, according to conditional pacifism, there could be situations where violence is necessary to prevent worse outcomes.

The idea of pacifism, and of seeking non-violent solutions to disputes between and within nations, plays a significant part in international politics, particularly through the work of the United Nations. But there is, within this structure, a recognition that sometimes (in theory at least, though this has been notoriously difficult in practice) a need for ‘humanitarian intervention.’

An anti-pacifist view would not exactly advocate war as a good in itself, but would hold the view that sovereign states have a duty to protect their citizens, and that duty may in some circumstances extend to the waging of just war – and furthermore that in this case, citizens have a duty to carry out certain tasks. The critical, anti-pacifist view holds that pacifists’ refusal to participate in war means that they fail to carry out an important moral obligation, and that the respect for human life that motivates them is an idealistic but counterproductive position.

On the other hand, there is a different alternative to pacifism, which does not sanction violence but does differentiate itself from the pacifist’s principled, moral position. This is known variously as ‘strategic non-violence’ or ‘nonviolent direct action.’

Gene Sharp, theorist and author of seminal works on the dynamics nonviolent conflict, sought to redefine it outside the context of pacifism and outside the sphere of the moral question of violence. Sharp contends that nonviolence can be employed strategically, as something that social movements can choose because it provides an effective avenue for leveraging change. For example, in overcoming a dictatorial or repressive regime, such as the popular uprisings which ended Milošević’s reign in Serbia in 2000, or in effecting social change within a broader social context, such as the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960’s.

Maintaining a strict nonviolent discipline for strategic reasons has, according to Sharp, several important strategic advantages over armed civil resistance, as does using strategic nonviolence as a method of waging conflict rather than as a moral position. Strategic nonviolence is active as a form of conflict, therefore much more likely to be effective in creating or forcing social and political change, and nonviolence maintained as a strict discipline makes a movement vastly more inclusive, allowing for widely participatory campaigns of direct action.

Maintaining nonviolent discipline is necessary against a state that has a well-developed arsenal. The state has a monopoly on violence: a group of citizens taking up arms against a regime is usually vastly outgunned. But, importantly, armed struggle legitimizes the state’s use of force against the citizens.

This is not to say that those using strategic nonviolence will not be harmed. In the conflicts mentioned above, and many more around the world, the state may turn on demonstrators or strikers. This often backfires as it creates negative public response and shows the state’s apparatus to be reacting disproportionately, which can create sympathy for a cause and can sometimes greatly strengthen it, but at a large cost.

Strategic nonviolence is therefore an effective alternative to armed struggle, conceived of as a form of resistance and, perhaps perversely, as an effective form of waging war.

A common feature of pacifism is the belief that winning adversaries over to one’s cause is necessary, effecting a change of heart, and being able to love one’s enemies. Sharp rejects this position, arguing that expecting people to love those who have wronged them or treated them cruelly is not only unreasonable, but unwise as it might lead people to turn towards violence.

Instead, our goals may need to be different. As civil rights leader James Farmer writes: “where we cannot influence the heart of the evildoer we can force an end to the evil practice.”

It is in this sense that strategic nonviolence has an overarching ethic – because King is right that there is ‘a sheer morality in its claim.’ I am not sure Sharp would make the argument this way, but you could say that the ethical rewards are the social and political improvements in principles of justice and freedom won by the more effective strategies of nonviolent resistance; that nonviolence is better, morally, is an effect, not a cause of the principle of nonviolent resistance.