What’s Fair in War

Question:  How did military ethics become a field\r\nof serious inquiry?


Nancy Sherman: If\r\nyou think about the history and its introduction into the military \r\nacademies,\r\nit often is indexed or linked to a cheating scandal.  And\r\n that was certainly the case of the Naval academy when I\r\nwas brought in, in the mid-‘90s. \r\nThey had taught psychology of leadership and also the law of war,\r\n or\r\nthe law of the high seas, that sort of thing, but they didn’t teach \r\nmilitary\r\nethics until they had a massive electrical engineering cheating scandal.  And the same, I believe with West\r\nPoint, and I thinking 1959, the Air Force probably was ahead of the \r\ncurve and\r\ndid it, I think without provocation. 


But it’s a relatively new field in the way that the\r\n ethics\r\nof, these applied ethics are sort of business of law.  Often\r\n they come about when there’s a problem and they\r\nrealize that some of us who have been teaching ethics for the longest \r\ntime and\r\nteach these general issues even though they might not be specifically \r\napplied\r\nto a kind of profession.  But it’s\r\nas old—the topic is as old as the ancients.  If \r\nyou think about it, in the Iliad, Achilles drags around\r\nHector’s body seven times around, desecrating it in revenge, wild \r\nrevenge for\r\nthe death of his buddy, Achilles’ buddy, Patroclus.  And\r\n Homer says finally, he breaks down and says, “Even the\r\ngods cannot sit by quietly and watch this.”  And \r\nthey protect the face of this desecrated body so that in\r\nfact, because if the gods watch, it’s never really desecrated.  So there’s this important sense of the\r\nugliness of revenge.  Maybe it’s a\r\ncombat motivator, maybe it’s fire in the belly that adrenalizes, we \r\nwould say,\r\nbut it’s got its really ugly side. 


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


So, it’s been around for a long time and that gives\r\n you a\r\nsense of... it’s been around as a worry about the inward war, not just \r\nwhat you’re\r\ndoing to other people and whether your conduct is good, but how you can \r\ncontrol\r\nyour own inner motives.  So, that’s\r\nwhat I’m fascinated by, it’s not just the limits of just war.  That’s been also a tradition since the\r\nmedieval... since the Crusades.  How\r\ndoes a king get his, or the church get his Army going and have them not \r\nhave\r\nmassacres?  And how do they\r\nseparate the people that are legitimate targets from those who aren’t\r\nlegitimate targets?  Are the\r\ncivilians, or the folks that aren’t knights in armors, are the \r\nlegitimate?  No, they’re not legitimate.  But there’s always been rape, pillage,\r\nand plunder.  In the middle ages,\r\nit became a cause célèbre.  Let’s\r\nwrite rules for the church so they know how to fight.  So\r\n that’s been about justification.  When can you go\r\n to war and how does the\r\nhonorable, chivalrous soldier fight well? 


What there has been very little discussion of is \r\nwhat goes\r\non in the head of the soldier and how do they conduct the moral debate \r\nin side\r\nand live with the moral difficulties and quandaries.  And\r\n that’s sort of what I’ve been interested in, and it’s in\r\nthe border between philosophy, that's worried about justification of \r\nwars, just\r\ncauses, and just conduct.  And\r\npsychology that’s worried about what goes on in the privacy of a \r\nclinician’s\r\noffice and the unloading of the trauma. Between \r\nthose two goals, there’s a huge area about the moral\r\npsychology in the inner psyche of the soldier.


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


Nancy Sherman:  There’s\r\n a real sense that all’s fair in\r\nlove and war, you know, and that all the rules are off.  But\r\n since the Middle Ages and the\r\nformulation of just war, however abstractly, the idea has been that \r\nthere are\r\nrules of permissibility.  Both for\r\nthose in charge of declaring war, what counts as a reasonable cause, a \r\njust\r\ncause, a justification for going to war, and aggressing or defending\r\nyourself.  And also for how the\r\nsoldier conducts herself, or himself, justly, honorably. 


So, there’s that, and then there’s the reality of \r\nit, as you\r\nsay, and the concrete cases.  So,\r\nright now, we, with the surge in Afghanistan, are dealing with, or \r\nshould be\r\ndealing with the real heavy moral implications of the nature of the\r\nfighting.  So, General McChrystal\r\nhas made it very clear that there will be tight rules of engagement on \r\nthe\r\ntroops, the 100,000 troops that will be fully deployed in Afghanistan.  And those troops will not be able to—if\r\nthey’re mingled civilian and insurgents, the troops need to put the\r\npreponderance of risk upon themselves and take additional risk rather \r\nthan risk\r\nthe lives of civilians, unless the unit is being overrun, and we’ve sent\r\n that\r\nthat is not full proof.   In\r\nMarsiya, there were 12 killings, there have been drones that have killed\r\ncivilians, and now the Special Forces are under the same tight \r\nrestrictions,\r\nso, unified command. 


Now the way that—you have to think about that, how \r\ndoes that\r\nplay out on the troops?  Well we\r\nknow a lot of the grunts, the ground troops, are grumbling bitterly on \r\nfighting\r\nwith one hand tied behind my back while they get all the advantage \r\nbecause they\r\ncan shield their innocence in... They shield their insurgents in \r\ncivilian populations and then I as a\r\ncombat troop have to restrict my fire. \r\nSo, you have to say, are they risking troops at the cost of \r\nsaving the\r\ncivilians in Afghanistan and some will say that.  And\r\n we’ll say, oh, it’s just a political ploy.  We \r\nneed to buy the hearts and minds of\r\nthe population.  But I think it\r\nalso is protecting the hearts and minds of our own soldiers, and that’s \r\nthe\r\nmilitary ethics really made concrete. 


The soldiers I have spoken to who have been \r\ninvolved in\r\ncivilian casualties, that’s an awful term, collateral damage.  It makes it—it’s so euphemistic.  But\r\n it means not just accidental\r\nkillings of civilians, it’s where you foresee that it might happen, but \r\nyou\r\ndon’t intend it.  The civilians are\r\nin the periphery of the target area and it’s an important enough target \r\nthat\r\nyou go for it.  In cases like\r\ncheckpoint incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq where this has happened, \r\nand\r\nespecially if the civilian is a child. \r\nThe Marines that I’ve talked to just decompensate almost, they \r\nfeel so\r\nawful about killing a vulnerable child; it’s like the mythic child that \r\nhas\r\nbeen killed.  And if you think\r\nabout it, here they are in a place on the Helmand Province we are \r\nfighting in\r\nAfghanistan, and they are there not only to be fighters, but they’re \r\npoliceman,\r\nthey’re community organizers, they’re building a city in a box.  They’re building civic order in a box. \r\n And that’s how it’s been phrased.  And \r\nthey’re the savior in a sense,\r\nthey’re bringing order.  And\r\nthere’s a lot of idealism about them, but also the sheer reality of \r\nwhat’s\r\nhappening.  And when they can’t do\r\nthat and they fail miserably in the sense of see a kid killed in the \r\nmidst of\r\nthat operation, I think that really, really plays hard. 


So, I think the restrictions which come from high \r\nup and are\r\nimposed through the chain low down by a commander that has to work \r\nreally hard\r\nto restrain his troops and restrain the fire force, the fire power \r\nthat’s used\r\nare protecting the hearts and minds of our own soldiers. \r\n They’re reasonable moral\r\nrestraints.  Not just to buy the\r\nhearts and minds of the country we’re in, but to preserve our own souls.

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

Live on Thursday: Learn innovation with 3-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn

Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live this Thursday at 1pm ET.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to your calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

A new minimoon is headed towards Earth, and it’s not natural

Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.

Credit: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Paitoon Pornsuksomboon/Shutterstock/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • Small objects such as asteroids get trapped for a time in Earth orbit, becoming "minimoons."
  • Minimoons are typically asteroids, but this one is something else.
  • The new minimoon may be part of an old rocket from the 1960s.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Can we resurrect the dead? Researchers catalogue potential future methods

    From cryonics to time travel, here are some of the (highly speculative) methods that might someday be used to bring people back to life.

    Credit: Pixabay
    Mind & Brain
    • Alexey Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov, researchers belonging to the transhumanism movement, wrote a paper outlining the main ways technology might someday make resurrection possible.
    • The methods are highly speculative, ranging from cryonics to digital reconstruction of individual personalities.
    • Surveys suggest most people would not choose to live forever if given the option.
    Keep reading Show less

    Airspeeder's ‘flying car’ racers to be shielded by virtual force-fields

    Welcome to the world's newest motorsport: manned multicopter races that exceed speeds of 100 mph.

    Credit: Airspeeder
    Technology & Innovation
    • Airspeeder is a company that aims to put on high-speed races featuring electric flying vehicles.
    • The so-called Speeders are able to fly at speeds of up to 120 mph.
    • The motorsport aims to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector, which could usher in the age of air taxis.
    Keep reading Show less

    The spread of ancient infectious diseases offers insight into COVID-19

    Archaeology clues us in on the dangers of letting viruses hang around.

    Credit: ImageFlow/ Shutterstock
    Surprising Science
    • A University of Otago researcher investigates the spread of disease in ancient Vietnam.
    • The infectious disease, yaws, has been with us for thousands of years with no known cure.
    • Using archaeology to investigate disease offers clues into modern-day pandemics.
    Keep reading Show less