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Developing a Coherent Moral Argument

The profession of arms talks about ‘morality and war’ using legal terms and concepts. For example, we justify our decision to deploy and fight when the President orders us because we signed a contract to obey the officers appointed over us. Similarly, we consider ourselves blameless when we kill enemy combatants as long as we do not violate the laws of war or the rules of engagement in doing so. These legal rules are so important to our professional identity that all soldiers receive instruction on the laws of war in basic combat training and then annually thereafter, and soldiers at war review the rules of engagement much more often, sometimes daily.

Not everyone in our society, however, accepts these legal answers to moral questions. War pacifists are people who believe that war is morally unjustifiable. They claim that soldiers are morally wrong to participate in war and to kill other human beings, regardless of what’s legally permissible at the time.

I am concerned that we in the profession of arms do not do enough to prepare our soldiers to understand and justify their actions in moral terms. This allows many soldiers to needlessly suffer moral guilt, and it leaves them vulnerable to the arguments of war pacifists. Our soldiers deserve better.

In the ensuing posts, I investigate “morality and war” from a soldier’s perspective without resorting to legal justifications. My intent is to empower our profession to better understand the moral reality of war. What I write here is not doctrine. I speak only for myself—a career Army officer (infantryman) and Army-educated ethicist—and hope that our discussions around this topic will deepen our commitment to and comfort with our vocation as warriors.

These posts mark the beginning of what I hope will become an extended, coherent, rights-based argument that addresses the fundamental moral questions of war. It is divided into two sections. The first section explains why soldiers are morally justified in killing enemy combatants, and it offers a framework for moral decision-making in those tragic circumstances of war when our actions will likely cause unintentional harm to non-combatants (i.e., collateral damage). The second section challenges the age-old notion of the “moral equality of soldiers” and suggests that soldiers’ moral justification for killing in war depends on the overall justice of the war. Future additions to this essay will continue this rights-based line of argument to its logical conclusion that soldiers are not morally justified if they kill in wars that are unjust. That, in turn, will lead to examinations of the moral justification of war and of the legitimacy and limits of conscientious objection.

I invite and welcome your critique and suggestions for improvement.


Engineer said…
Going a little bit further, what happens in the case of a draft? Forcing people to fight a war that they believe is unjust? There's a lot of moral issues surrounding that.
Pete said…
Good point, engineer.

As will become clear in subsequent posts, I believe strongly in human agency.

No one can "force" another to fight and kill. They can "coerce", of course, but isn't it also true that all decisions we make occur under some level of coercion.

If someone has the conviction that a war is unjust, then he should not fight in it, even if it means loss of freedom (jail) or worse (execution, although not even a concern in developed nations).

Just because a right moral decision entails unpleasant consequences doesn't mean it's any less a right decision.

Thoughts on this?
JW said…
Pete, here is a discussion we were having on a conservative chat net I attend regularly. At; Schmed is a Captin in the Army and has been to Iraq.

I wrote;
JW: Pete Kilner is constantly making the assumption that persons against the war, or war in general, is based on a sense of morality. I suppose he's giving them the benifit of the doubt. But is a big weakness in his logic/approach.
JW: If he's trying to get his PHD he surly won't want to piss off his liberal PHD board that will approve him.
JW: Or disapprove of him.. So he can't go into the mental workings of the liberal approach to war in general.
JW: And it AIN'T based on morality.
Schmedlap: Last week I took a course titled "Contemporary Counterinsurgency Warfare" One of the speakers got his PhD by doing a dissertation on counterinsurgency while working as a correspondent for Soldier of Fortune. The libs on the board must have had a heart attack.
JW: I bet...hehehe
JW: These guys walk a tight liberal universities. My MFA was not Political. We were in Nam tho.