Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Evolving Just War Tradition (Part 3): Three Public Keys to Just War

A well trained military. A free and high quality press. Civil discourse.

Part one with bibliography can be found here.

The Need for Military Training

Military training is multifaceted. There are technical aspects that need to be mastered such as accurately delivering munitions to a target or flying a plane. Another side of military training is the ethics of combat. This includes rules of engagement briefings on the lowest level and philosophical debates on the highest level.1 For the Just War tradition, technical training is most important with regards to noncombatant immunity. When training is denied or under-emphasized, Walzer feels that “the inevitable consequence of putting deadly weapons into the hands of undisciplined soldiers, and armed men into the hands of stupid or fanatical generals” is civilian death (130).

At the heart of this issue are two separate concepts of accuracy, which Himes labels “indiscriminate weapons and the indiscriminate use of discriminate weapons” (152). On the one hand, soldiers are expected to deliver their discriminate munitions accurately. On the other, military brass are held accountable for not using indiscriminate munitions in situations where noncombatant immunity can be impaired. Indiscriminate munitions (cluster bombs, land mines, etc.) are inherently unjust when used in situations where combatants and noncombatants share close quarters. For reasons of aim, a well trained standing military can in many ways be considered necessary for a just war. A polar opposite of this would be the child soldier who is handed an AK-47 with no more training than a viewing of a “Rambo” movie (McCormick 121). When it comes to technical training and the discriminate use of indiscriminate munitions, the United States' operations in Iraq have received relatively little criticism. The instances of civilian deaths by American fire have usually proven to be accurately delivered discriminate munitions. At fault was the target selection process, the only obvious remedy for which is better military intelligence.

Concerning the ethical training of a military, Paul Robinson, Nigel De Lee, and Don Carrick have edited a collection of essays entitled Ethics Education in the Military. These essays shed light on both the importance of ethics training in the military as well as the patchwork nature of teaching the subject in the United States.2 Among the important questions raised in these essays are “why is ethics training in the military important?” and “what type of ethics should be taught?”

One answer to the “why” question is the functional approach that believes an ethical soldier is a “better” soldier where “better” meaning “a more efficient killer.” A second argument for ethics training is aspirational – soldiers are expected to leave the ethics training as “better” people who will thus make better ethical decisions (Robinson 161). As for the “what type” question, the answer in the United States is almost exclusively virtue ethics. This method aims to inculcate several virtues into the soldier such as loyalty, respect, honor, and courage. At both West Point and the United States Air Force Academy, virtue ethics is the predominant form of ethics training.

I believe the argument for virtue ethics training is less than ideal. As West points, “West Point and other service academy graduates commit war crimes and other offences at rates similar to less well 'bred' soldiers” (Robinson 39). If this is true, it is all the proof needed to put the nail in virtue ethics's coffin. The presumption that a soldier who embodies the virtues listed above will automatically be able to make ethical decisions on the battlefield, often with very little time to contemplate, is fallacious. Walzer spends over 300 pages attempting to lay out the complexities of the Just War tradition and provides specific historical case studies showing how these theories need real life revisions when on the battlefield. This sort of casuist case study is, in my opinion, what is most needed in military ethics training. Luckily, it is not completely lacking. West mentions how cadets are exposed to case studies throughout their four years at West Point. This facet of their training, however, must be nominal as he only devotes one sentence to it. In his essay on ethics training at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Martin Cook states that supplemental training includes day-long retreats which include “small group discussions in which experienced officers and civilians discuss with cadets their own real-world moral conflicts and hard cases they have encountered in their professional lives” (Robinson 60). Cook goes on to say that the cadets consistently rate this supplemental training as the most valuable and enjoyable (Robinson 60). This leads one to wonder why this small group case study format is “supplemental” and not “core.”

An additional oversight in the ethical training of the United States military lies in the focus on officer training at the expense of non-commissioned officer and enlisted training. When comparing ethics training across countries, Jessica Wolfendale points out that “the ethics programmes offered to non-commissioned officers . . . and enlisted personnel, when they do occur, are usually of short duration or non-existent” (Robinson 167). This is a problem considering the sorts of moral dilemmas in which so many NCOs and enlisted soldiers find themselves. In his foreword to this collection, Patrick Cordingly noted that in the first Iraq war, the chain of command became so stretched that “[s]oldiers, unsupervised by default, performed tasks that they were not prepared for” (Robinson xiii).

One would think that this lack of supervision may have been the principal cause for atrocities like the Abu Ghraib scandal, but I believe differently. The acts committed at Abu Ghraib were so despicable that one need not have a training in military ethics to know that they were grossly immoral. I believe there was another principal cause and that it is related to the inculcation of virtue ethics. Many of the virtues that the United States military embraces serve to create a strong sense of camaraderie. This is especially true in institutions such as West Point and the USAFA, but can also be found within units that remain together for extended amounts of time – especially when combat is involved. The desired result of this virtuous camaraderie is a esprit de corps on the battlefield which not only makes the soldier more efficient, but also contributes to the “leave no man behind” spirit. A corollary to this camaraderie, however, is the “no snitching” spirit found at Abu Ghraib. Those who knew that what was occurring was wrong failed to speak out immediately or were coerced into remaining silent. Camaraderie is a two-edged sword to which continuously close attention must be paid.

The Need for a High Quality Press

While the need for a high quality press is important for many topics of national interest, this idea plays an important role specifically in the justification of violence. Several thinkers have pointed to the importance of the press in establishing a justifiable use of force. Yoder believes that “[t]he person claiming to respect just-war rationality must [study the facts of politics] . . . and therefore must have a reliable independent source of information” (78). Yoder's observation on the importance of the press is accurate. While some critics oversimplify the Just War tradition to a “calculus” which spits out a decision based on the evidence entered, the importance of accurate data is not denied by any of its adherents.

In complex issues such as the justification of war, the press plays a three-fold role: (1) it provides the data mentioned above, (2) it provides analysis of this data, (3) and it provides one of the forums used in the public conversation I will address below. Concerning the first role, the data the press shared concerning WMD in Iraq and the linking of Hussein to terrorist organizations proved the most damaging. One must wonder how these two assertions were able to “pass muster” in a critical press that supposedly relies on multiple sourcing. While Piers Robinson, et al, focus on the media in the United Kingdom, they offer some salient points concerning the U.S. media as well. For instance, they point out that journalists tend to favor the “spin” of the political elite and therefore tend “to be supportive of political elites . . . through the dependence of journalists upon elite political sources” (Robinson 537). The fact that these sources often remain anonymous further allows government officials to “feed the news” their own version of stories – in effect, their own data. These authors go on to point out that one would expect the press to also rely on “other involved parties including civilians, humanitarian organizations, antiwar movements, and international actors such as the U.N.” but that “the relative absence of such alternative perspectives is important in rendering media 'vulnerable to manipulation' by officials” (Robinson 540).

Citing a Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting study, Andrew Calabrese provides empirical evidence that what Robinson asserted is also present in the U.S. media. This study, which examined the principal news shows of ABC, CBS, NBC, FNC, PBS, and CNN, found that 63% of on-air sources were current or former government employees (Calabrese 166). Calabrese also points to the government's use of foreign media to knowingly disseminate inaccurate information. While they considered this part of a “psy ops” campaign, there arose fear that “the U.S. media would pick up disinformation from the foreign media and publish and broadcast it to U.S. audiences” (Calabrese 163). This shows that the government was aware of the press' penchant for running stories without properly sourcing them and viewed the risk of poisoning the well of U.S. news to be too great. These authors place a great deal of importance on the inclusion of non-governmental sources and multiple sources for an accurate press.

Concerning the second role of the press, that of data analysis, several studies have examined the manner in which the press has “framed” the war. Ian Taylor uses frame analysis to examine the different ways in which the data mentioned above is mediated through news sources. Taylor identifies three frames each for pro-war and anti-war opinion and notes that these frames are important “because as the main protagonists in the debate they were the ones who drove the arguments onwards vigorously promoting their packages as they attempted to persuade public opinion” (85). With this in mind, one has to wonder whether any of these three anti-war frames were present in American media. As noted above, the main news sources in the U.S. were, if not pro-war, decidedly not anti-war. Taylor goes on to stress the importance of a polyvocal press because “one of the main tests of pluralism for the mainstream national media must be whether or not the full range of perspectives on the conflict were articulated through the national press when taken as a whole” (86). If one function of the press is to help “persuade public opinion,” then this power must be held accountable when that opinion approaches monolithic status.

In his critical essay on both the media and the Bush administration, Calabrese early on points out how “the major media of the United States played a key role in uncritically projecting American imperialism, both domestically and abroad” (155). While Calabrese's passion at times proves overly subjective, he provides an important argument against the commercialization of American news media. The fact that many news outlets are now owned by large corporations combined with the profits generated by high ratings, “the networks went to great lengths to seamlessly blend their patriotism, technological prowess, and professionalism, which in the long run has the potential to yield market advantages” (Calabrese 168). Cristian Parker Gumucio notes the same danger for newspapers: “[t]he ownership of the written press by audio-visual corporations encourages unthinking consumption and prevents critical analysis” (27). The chance for increased revenue through war-time ratings as well as the risk of losing ratings by portraying anti-war opinion surely entered into the framing debate for national news outlets. The risk involved in questioning the justification for war, especially after war has already begun, is great for those in the media. In his review of combat films, Patrick McCormick notes that “[e]arly massive demonstrations against the war were met by rallies and ribbons directing Americans to 'support the troops'” and that “honor demands that Americans 'support the troops' by continuing to wage war” (110). This equation of “anti-war” with “anti-troops” allowed the pro-war faction to dictate the conversation and implicitly threaten news outlets. As Calabrese states, “[c]ommercial advertisers generally do not wish to be associated with a program that presents, much less advocates, a minority political viewpoint” and because of this “the mainstream U.S. media neglected to give American citizens an adequate picture of the scale of the antiwar movement at home or abroad” (171).

The issue of a quality press has two substantial deficits to overcome: one being the reliance upon single anonymous sources for stories and the other being the extent to which profit-making dictates the conversation for national news outlets. These two are undoubtedly related. The risk of “getting scooped” makes the time needed to corroborate stories with multiple sources less of a priority. Yet on issues as important as WMD, terrorist links to Iraq, and war itself, it is the responsibility of the press to perform its due diligence in reporting data as well as in analyzing and framing that data responsibly.

The Need for Quality Public Conversation

An aspect of American democracy that has shown itself to be deficient not only in the debate leading up to the Iraq War, but in multiple matters is the lack of quality public conversation. While this has been apparent in subjects as diverse as presidential elections, Wall Street bailouts, and health insurance reform, it was specifically a problem in the debate on the justification of an invasion of Iraq. While “discourse” and “dialog” do not etymologically denote an either/or limitation, it is exactly this dimorphic character that I believe is at fault for American's inability to enter into quality conversation.

This binary nature of conversation is present even in authors who were in the minority anti-war camp. George Weigel ends his essay with “[w]e may be sure that the war against terror will suffer commensurately if the Iraqi phase of the quest for freedom and a new politics in the Arab Islamic world is frustrated. No one – in the Congress, in the churches, in the academy, or on the street – can wish for that and still claim the mantle of moral seriousness” (20). This bifurcation, either you are for the continued Iraqi phase of the War on Terror or you lack moral seriousness, is a fallacy of false dilemma. There are other options than just these two and part of a quality conversation is to recognize them. Whether it is due to a two-party system or simply the dualistic nature of mankind, the conversation on Iraq quickly became one in which all comers were fit into the “hawk” or “dove” camp or similarly binary pigeonholes. As Yoder points out, there is an effective, if disingenuous, rhetorical device used where “politicians may exploit nationalistic and xenophobic, even racist, enthusiasms of common folk, thereby putting themselves under pressure to perform in a way as 'patriotic' as their campaign language” (26). This sort of rhetoric further strengthens the binary characteristic of national conversation.

One question, therefore, is “how can the church help in creating and supporting quality conversation on a national level?”3 Luckily, there has already been work done by theologians and ethicists on this question as it relates to other debates and much of this can be equally applicable to the Iraq War. One of these is the pastoral realization that the church has the responsibility to be a voice for its sheep. As Shaun Casey states in his critique of the Iraq War, “[t]he American people, whose sons and daughters will be put in harm's way, deserve better [than the case made for war by the Bush administration] from their public leaders” (94). I would add that those same sons and daughters are not only owed justification for going to war, but also a voice in the conversation.

The need for national conversation is most important for our “sons and daughters” and their families that will end up making the ultimate sacrifice. It is in this vein that Walzer shows his adept casuistry:

The stakes are high when we debate whether to send soldiers into battle, especially when we send them to intervene in someone else's country. Leaders and ordinary citizens need to worry about, argue about, even fight (nonviolently) about what to do. And when they worry, argue, and fight, they will cite examples just as I have done in this book and they will use the terms of just war theory – more justly than tyrants do, because they will respect the disagreements of their fellow citizens. (xvi)

Walzer may be idealistic in assuming the mutual respect of disagreeing opinions, but his accent on the importance of conversation is significant. He later goes on to stress the important role that this national conversation has in making the case for war. While American troops are, as of now, unable to practice selective conscientious objection, they still have the right to exercise their displeasure of selective wars in other ways – some of these include voicing their opinions in the national conversation.

Since this country is founded on the “consent of the governed,” it is also likewise necessary that troops should (nominally) approve of any military conflict. Walzer thinks “[t]he need to seek [the troops'] consent (whatever the form in which it was sought and given or not given) would surely limit the occasions of war . . .” (29). Yoder follows this same line of thinking when referring to the “morally responsible citizen draftee” (47). He believes that this concept finally came to the fore during the Vietnam war when “[t]housands of young men refused to serve for reasons derived not from absolutist pacifism but from their own conscientious, although not always articulate, application of the just-war criteria” (Yoder 48). These troops revoked their consent and were willing to pay the price for it.

This also raises questions of legitimate authority in the United States. If the “consent of the governed” and “government by the people” are assumed, then any decision to go to war without some “broad consensus” could realistically be considered illegitimate. Add to this the 20th century concept of going to war without a congressional declaration of war and the case could truly be made that the U.S. practices unilateral war declaration through the power of the Oval Office. Returning a war declaration to its proper place in Congress would necessitate a conversation and hold Congresspeople accountable for their votes, thus raising the need for national conversation and “broad consensus.”

While this country is also built on the idea that “all men are created equal,” this concept can be dangerous when transposed to the realm of opinion. This can result in an “egalitarianism of opinion” where experts have no added weight in the conversation. In responding to this concept, Walzer points out that “morality is unimportant if all opinions are equal, because then no particular opinion has any force . . .. No one can argue about justice and war . . . without striving for an authoritative voice and laying claim to a certain 'weightiness'” (288). In effect what Walzer is calling for here is a better national education program in Just War tradition. While Walzer's work is strictly secular, an obvious choice for enactment of this program is the church. The pulpit may not be the place for a sermon on Just War theory, but there are undoubtedly other opportunities for education within the church.

While the church should not only provide education and a forum for conversation, it should also maintain its own prophetic voice and speak out in opposition to the official government position when needed. A group of Catholic bishops as well as a group of one hundred Christian ethicists responded thusly when talk of an Iraq invasion first came up (Colson 72). The statement of the Bishops stressed the importance that “decisions concerning possible war in Iraq require . . . broad consensus within our nation” (Burghardt 18). Himes follows this prophetic clerical voice to an even broader conclusion when he states that “[w]hat is needed today is not a pastoral letter but the searching public discussion of the early eighties that was partly stimulated by the process of writing the 1983 letter [The Challenge of Peace]” (157). The prophetic voice of the church should be a catalyst towards a broader conversation in individual churches, between laity, in the academy, and in the press.

As Patrick McCormick notes, the church has often lost this prophetic voice and adopted a voice of acquiescence instead: “American citizens (who are overwhelmingly Christian) have consistently surrendered their duty to critically examine their government's call for war . . ., preferring instead to allow the president and Pentagon to make such judgments and seeing themselves as obliged merely to support the war” (118). Even Reinhold Niebuhr, famous for renouncing his pacifism in exchange for a justified defense of Europe against Nazism, believes that there should be a conversation not over going to war, but over weapons systems. When referring to the hydrogen bomb he said “[t]he fact that this [the development of the hydrogen bomb] was done without public debate represents a real threat to the democratic substance of our life” (235). One could assume he would feel the same whether referring to the H-bomb or the Iraq War.

On the subject of theoretical moral discernment in the church, David Fredrickson offers helpful advice in his analysis of Pauline ethics. Fredrickson uses three of Paul's epistles to lay out a framework for discernment within the early church. For Paul, “free speech” was an essential aspect of discernment. This translation is nowadays layered with many different images (civil liberties, first amendment, Founding Fathers), but Fredrickson points out none of these were Paul's meaning. For Paul, “free speech” meant being able to speak freely in a social setting without fear of recrimination or judgment. Free speech is necessary for “politics” and “democracy” to function properly (Fredrickson uses these words in an Ancient Greek sense). For Paul, the early congregations he founded were analogous to the Greek city-states. Every wealthy male should have a voice in the city-state. Paul, however, took this a step farther, including not just wealthy men. Fredrickson lists this as another key function of free speech — the silent voices on the periphery must be given a chance to be heard.

Free speech is the first essential ingredient for Fredrickson's image of moral discernment. The second is a church-wide conversation. Allowing all voices to be heard in the setting of a church-wide conversation can be a powerful tool towards maintaining unity in the church even amidst disagreement. This church-wide conversation can be carried over in the national sphere where Paul's concept of “free speech” could be honored and nurtured (as there is nothing overtly religious about mutual respect in conversation). This practice could easily negate the current level of binary dialog where each individual is allowed to belong to one of two groups. Fredrickson's advice would transform this into a plethora of voices in America's pluralistic conversation where the “silent voices on the periphery” are also included.


Examining the Just War tradition and its relation to the Iraq War brings some important, if disconcerting, truths to light. Just war criteria, no matter how strictly enforced, are useless in the face of inaccurate data. While these criteria are not simply a computational model that spits out a solution, basing deliberation on inaccuracies will usually not yield an accurate result. Attempting to have a national conversation on the justification for the Iraq war when rhetoric makes it difficult for citizens to subscribe to a position other than “for the troops” or “against the troops” is difficult. At the same time, the opinions of these very troops are hard to hear over the din of the million dollar industry of the press. While there is no easy fix for these issues, I have attempted to highlight some of the greatest of the problems as they relate to Just War tradition in the 21st century. From these problems come some possible solutions, or steps toward solutions, that can be enacted – some in the secular sphere and some in the religious sphere.

First, ethics education in the military should not be limited to are accented towards officers. Considering the extent to which non-commissioned officers and enlisted are expected to make difficult moral decisions in the heat of combat, ethics education is necessary across the board. The program for this education, while possibly maintaining its emphasis on virtue ethics, must at the least provide a solid curriculum in case-study based ethical deliberation similar to Walzer's approach.

The press could also help the situation by turning away from single anonymously sourced reports and returning to multiple-sourced corroboration. At the heart of this may well be the profit-driven nature of the press in contemporary society, yet the fear of getting scooped is no excuse for poor journalism. How this profit-driven model of journalism can be used towards providing the public with a better product (as opposed to a more entertaining one) is important on every issue, not just war, and deserves more attention.

From an ecclesiological perspective, the church must remember its responsibility to speak boldly when need be and reclaim its prophetic voice as shown by Amos. This is true especially with regards to the White House and news sources. The church should also embrace its ability to serve as a nurturing environment for “free speech” with a goal of moral discernment. These two suggestions, combined with a catechesis of Just War tradition in the church, would go a long way towards eliminating the fallacies of false dilemma rampant in national conversation.

Lastly, war should not be a unilateral issue. The ability of the president to initiate a seven year (or longer) war without appealing to Congress for a war declaration is not only appalling, but unconstitutional. While the president can rightly use the military for a police action, returning the responsibility of going to war to the Congress would force a national conversation and make those voting accountable to their constituents.

The goal of the Just War tradition should be to make each subsequent war more just than the last. Interestingly, to do this requires well-trained standing armies. Standing armies are anathema to a lasting global peace. As Walzer puts it, “[o]ne does not abolish war by fighting it well; nor does fighting it well make it tolerable” (45). Yet until the time comes that “the wolf shall live with the lamb,” this tradition serves to reduce the amount of suffering resulting from war by restricting both when it is fought and how it is fought.

1This does not imply that these are the only two types of military training.

2The editors included essays concerning the militaries of many different countries, although the two on the U.S. are most salient for this discussion.

3Here I use “church” to broadly refer to the Christian church in America. It could easily apply to a specific denomination, organization, or individual congregation as well.

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