What’s Fair in War

From the Iliad to Afghanistan, the field of military ethics has tried—not always successfully—to impose rules on the chaos of mass slaughter.
  • Transcript


Question:  How did military ethics become a field of serious inquiry?

Nancy Sherman: If you think about the history and its introduction into the military academies, it often is indexed or linked to a cheating scandal.  And that was certainly the case of the Naval academy when I was brought in, in the mid-‘90s.  They had taught psychology of leadership and also the law of war, or the law of the high seas, that sort of thing, but they didn’t teach military ethics until they had a massive electrical engineering cheating scandal.  And the same, I believe with West Point, and I thinking 1959, the Air Force probably was ahead of the curve and did it, I think without provocation. 

But it’s a relatively new field in the way that the ethics of, these applied ethics are sort of business of law.  Often they come about when there’s a problem and they realize that some of us who have been teaching ethics for the longest time and teach these general issues even though they might not be specifically applied to a kind of profession.  But it’s as old—the topic is as old as the ancients.  If you think about it, in the Iliad, Achilles drags around Hector’s body seven times around, desecrating it in revenge, wild revenge for the death of his buddy, Achilles’ buddy, Patroclus.  And Homer says finally, he breaks down and says, “Even the gods cannot sit by quietly and watch this.”  And they protect the face of this desecrated body so that in fact, because if the gods watch, it’s never really desecrated.  So there’s this important sense of the ugliness of revenge.  Maybe it’s a combat motivator, maybe it’s fire in the belly that adrenalizes, we would say, but it’s got its really ugly side. 

And so the Stoics come in later as a comment on the ancients, they themselves, like second century, before the common era, the second century after, and say, you ancients, including Plato and Aristotle, but before that Homer and his warrior tradition gave carte blanche, you might say, open ticket to revenge, but revenge knows no limits, knows no excess.  So, event he warrior ought not to have it.  Do it for its own sake.  Fight in there because the cause is right, or because you believe in the cause, not for the sake of payback, because you won’t be able to control the revenge.  Once it’s out of the gate, the game is over. 

So, it’s been around for a long time and that gives you a sense of... it’s been around as a worry about the inward war, not just what you’re doing to other people and whether your conduct is good, but how you can control your own inner motives.  So, that’s what I’m fascinated by, it’s not just the limits of just war.  That’s been also a tradition since the medieval... since the Crusades.  How does a king get his, or the church get his Army going and have them not have massacres?  And how do they separate the people that are legitimate targets from those who aren’t legitimate targets?  Are the civilians, or the folks that aren’t knights in armors, are the legitimate?  No, they’re not legitimate.  But there’s always been rape, pillage, and plunder.  In the middle ages, it became a cause célèbre.  Let’s write rules for the church so they know how to fight.  So that’s been about justification.  When can you go to war and how does the honorable, chivalrous soldier fight well? 

What there has been very little discussion of is what goes on in the head of the soldier and how do they conduct the moral debate in side and live with the moral difficulties and quandaries.  And that’s sort of what I’ve been interested in, and it’s in the border between philosophy, that's worried about justification of wars, just causes, and just conduct.  And psychology that’s worried about what goes on in the privacy of a clinician’s office and the unloading of the trauma. Between those two goals, there’s a huge area about the moral psychology in the inner psyche of the soldier.

Question: Is there some truth to the idea that "all’s fair" in war?

Nancy Sherman:  There’s a real sense that all’s fair in love and war, you know, and that all the rules are off.  But since the Middle Ages and the formulation of just war, however abstractly, the idea has been that there are rules of permissibility.  Both for those in charge of declaring war, what counts as a reasonable cause, a just cause, a justification for going to war, and aggressing or defending yourself.  And also for how the soldier conducts herself, or himself, justly, honorably. 

So, there’s that, and then there’s the reality of it, as you say, and the concrete cases.  So, right now, we, with the surge in Afghanistan, are dealing with, or should be dealing with the real heavy moral implications of the nature of the fighting.  So, General McChrystal has made it very clear that there will be tight rules of engagement on the troops, the 100,000 troops that will be fully deployed in Afghanistan.  And those troops will not be able to—if they’re mingled civilian and insurgents, the troops need to put the preponderance of risk upon themselves and take additional risk rather than risk the lives of civilians, unless the unit is being overrun, and we’ve sent that that is not full proof.   In Marsiya, there were 12 killings, there have been drones that have killed civilians, and now the Special Forces are under the same tight restrictions, so, unified command. 

Now the way that—you have to think about that, how does that play out on the troops?  Well we know a lot of the grunts, the ground troops, are grumbling bitterly on fighting with one hand tied behind my back while they get all the advantage because they can shield their innocence in... They shield their insurgents in civilian populations and then I as a combat troop have to restrict my fire.  So, you have to say, are they risking troops at the cost of saving the civilians in Afghanistan and some will say that.  And we’ll say, oh, it’s just a political ploy.  We need to buy the hearts and minds of the population.  But I think it also is protecting the hearts and minds of our own soldiers, and that’s the military ethics really made concrete. 

The soldiers I have spoken to who have been involved in civilian casualties, that’s an awful term, collateral damage.  It makes it—it’s so euphemistic.  But it means not just accidental killings of civilians, it’s where you foresee that it might happen, but you don’t intend it.  The civilians are in the periphery of the target area and it’s an important enough target that you go for it.  In cases like checkpoint incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq where this has happened, and especially if the civilian is a child.  The Marines that I’ve talked to just decompensate almost, they feel so awful about killing a vulnerable child; it’s like the mythic child that has been killed.  And if you think about it, here they are in a place on the Helmand Province we are fighting in Afghanistan, and they are there not only to be fighters, but they’re policeman, they’re community organizers, they’re building a city in a box.  They’re building civic order in a box.  And that’s how it’s been phrased.  And they’re the savior in a sense, they’re bringing order.  And there’s a lot of idealism about them, but also the sheer reality of what’s happening.  And when they can’t do that and they fail miserably in the sense of see a kid killed in the midst of that operation, I think that really, really plays hard. 

So, I think the restrictions which come from high up and are imposed through the chain low down by a commander that has to work really hard to restrain his troops and restrain the fire force, the fire power that’s used are protecting the hearts and minds of our own soldiers.  They’re reasonable moral restraints.  Not just to buy the hearts and minds of the country we’re in, but to preserve our own souls.