Ethics of War
January 22, 2008
The oldest treatise on war, Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War, expresses an essential ethical stance on the practice of warfare: war should be a last resort. He writes: “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.”
As with any subject in ethics, we cannot treat war as if a single set of universal moral principles applied to it. Mindful of the situation of relative ethics within which the modern world finds itself, it is prudent to briefly take stock of the traditional ethical stances on war.
In Buddhism, non-violence is a central tenet and war is
never permitted. In Christianity, those who actually follow the teachings of
Jesus are also pacifists for whom war is not permissible, while those who
instead follow the interpretations of later Churches adhere to a “just war”
philosophy we will examine shortly. Hinduism permits war in self-defence, but
the Hindu ideal of ahimsa calls for the avoidance of harm, viewing
peaceful conduct as a desirable and attainable goal. Sikhism has a “just war”
concept called Dharam Yudh (“war in the defence of righteousness”) that
specifies that war must only ever be a last resort, and that the minimum force
for success should be used. Islam, despite the popular perception, permits war
only in self-defence, requiring either that other nations have attacked an
Islamic state, or that a state is oppressing Muslims, and war in Muslim terms
must use the minimum necessary force, be conducted without anger, and avoid
injuring non-combatants or prisoners of war.
Nonreligious ethical traditions on war present no common pattern, and vary in response from pacifism to warmongering, even within the same ethical tradition. The most war-like philosophies ascribe to a system of Realpolitik which views ethical considerations as irrelevant in international affairs, while the most peaceful nonreligious individuals apply Utilitarian considerations to justify a non-violent stance directly opposed to war.
Before proceeding to consider the case for just wars, it is
necessarily to dismiss the claims of political realists that ethical criteria
cannot or do not apply at the level of the state. One can certainly believe
this, but since any legitimate state represents its people, a legitimate state
must reflect the ethics of its citizens. The political philosopher Michael
Walzer has argued that because states are the creation of individual people
acting collectively, they must represent collective concerns such as ethics,
and furthermore that any state that was motivated solely by the pursuit of
power cannot sustain the support of its people. Walzer contends that talk of
“the necessity” of states pursuing power is grossly exaggerated and ignores the
realities of foreign policy choices.
If the realpolitik position can be dismissed in this way, we are left with just two key positions to consider: that war can be just under certain circumstances (Just War theory), or that war is never just (pacifism). We will examine each position in turn.
Brian Orend contends that “all warfare is precisely, and
ultimately, about governance”, viewing war as a violent manner for determining
who gets control of a given territory – whether in terms of who gets power, how
resources are distributed, or whose ideals will be enforced. He notes that:
“war is the ultimate means for deciding these issues if a peaceful process or
resolution can’t be agreed upon.” Thus, to have grounding for a theory of just
war it is necessary first to have a theory of legitimate governance (something
Thomas Aquinas was acutely aware of).
Under current international law there are three basic conditions of legitimacy, and provided a state meets these conditions it has the right to be left in peace. The conditions are:
1. The state is recognised as legitimate by its own people.
2. The state avoids violating the sovereignty of other legitimate states.
3. The state makes every reasonable effort to satisfy the human rights of its citizens.
This latter point offers some contention, since not all
nations agree as to the nature and specifics of human rights. However, a
minimal case can be made by asserting that the state must uphold whatever human
rights are recognised by the society that it represents.
Just War theory is a longstanding tradition that dates back
The elements of jus ad bellum, the conditions for a
just war, are that the war must have a just
cause (often defined as recapturing something taken, or punishing
wrongdoing) and right intention
(solely for the just cause, not for material gain), it must be initiated by a legitimate authority (i.e. a legitimate
state, as defined above), there must be a
reasonable chance of success, and it must be a last resort – any and all peaceful alternatives can and must be
seriously attempted and utterly exhausted before war is allowable (these latter
two concerns echoing Sun Tzu).
The elements of jus in bello, the conditions for just warfare, are that violence be governed by the principle of distinction (i.e. directed towards enemy combatants, and never towards civilians), that any force used fit a principle of proportionality (that any violence employed be weighed next to both the motivations for the war, and the goals of the war) and adhere to a principle of minimum force, with the intent of limiting excessive and unnecessary death and destruction.
At this point, it is prudent to consider a few concrete
Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland was the crucible of World War II, and violated the principle of legitimate authority by not recognising Poland’s sovereignty (thus no action by the Third Reich could ever achieve just cause). Furthermore, Hitler’s goal was territorial expansion, which violates right intention, and no aspect of his war effort can be considered to have been a last resort. A trickier case of foreign occupation can be found in China’s control of Tibet; although this was not directly attained by war, there are severe questions as to the justifications China provided for the invasion of Tibet, which is couched in terms of a “failure to modernise” that does not appear to fit any of the conditions of legitimacy that currently apply under international law.
Examples that violate jus in bello can also be drawn from World War II, such as the British firebombing of Dresden in 1945, which violated the principle of distinction and of minimum force, causing the deaths of between 24,000 and 40,000 civilians. This is sometimes justified in terms of response to the Blitz – the Luftwaffe’s repeated bombing of London between 1940 and 1941 – which had caused some 43,000 civilian deaths. However, the fact that an enemy’s conduct is unjust does not provide justification for responding in kind under Just War theory. Similar considerations may be applied in respect of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and indeed, to the use of nuclear weapons in general – since such an attack necessarily violates the principle of distinction.
Many people consider the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan to
have just cause, namely to topple the Taliban regime which was not a legitimate
state under international law, and which had arguably contributed to an act of
war against the US in the form of horrific terrorist attacks against civilian
targets. However, it is not at all clear that this action was a last resort,
neither is it clear whether or not the principles of proportionality or minimum
force were met.
In the case of the following US invasion of Iraq two years later, there is neither just cause nor right intention (as Alan Greenspan has observed, part of the strategic motivation was an attempt to secure oil supply in the Middle East), and the action was not a last resort since weapon inspectors were still confirming the presence or otherwise of weapons of mass destruction that it is now clear did not exist. It fails equally under the conditions of just warfare, failing the principles of distinction (thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi civilians have been killed), proportionality and minimum force. In regard of the principle of minimum force, if the view espoused by British Prime Minister Tony Blair is to be taken into consideration (that the goal was to remove weapons of mass destruction), why were surgical air strikes not used instead of an invasion?
In fact, it is very difficult to find an example of a state
that has adhered to Just War theory, with a few notable exceptions such as
Switzerland and Iceland. Since we have eliminated the realpolitik position, and the only remaining position is pacifism,
we can only conclude that there is a systemic irresponsibility in the
application of war endemic among the nations of the world we live in.
Finally, we have pacifism, or the belief that war (or more
generally violence) can never be morally justified. I have great sympathy with
this position, but in relative ethics pacifism has no way to justify itself in
absolute terms which renders it as a choice for individuals, rather than a universal
objection to war. Nonetheless, the existence of pacifists within the world –
whether religiously or nonreligiously motivated – provides a valuable
counterpoint to both Just War theory and the insidious realpolitik alternative. In the Kantian project of trying to find a
coherent balance between all people’s ends, pacifism is far easier to integrate
than political realism, which inherently denies both mutual respect and
One last thing should perhaps be said in respect of the relationship of war to modern times. A pre-emptive strike against another nation may be permissible under Just War theory, provided its various provisions can be met (which it was not, for instance, in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq), but such an attack is not permissible under current international law. The UN charter clearly states in Article 2:3 that “all members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means”, excepting only the case of an actual attack. Express permission to violate this article would be required for a legal military action; implying a justification from an ambiguous resolution is utterly insufficient under international law, and to defy international law is to give up the claim to legitimate authority.
Many citizens of the US consider the UN as a monstrous
bureaucracy (which it may well be) that places unacceptable limits on their
rights as a nation to defend themselves from perceived threats, but for the US
or its citizens to blatantly disrespect the United Nations is to heinously disrespect
US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who strived to uphold the worthy goal
of a peaceful coalition of nations, with the ultimate hope that the United
Nations he helped to found would be able to intervene in conflicts between
states and thus avoid war. Similarly, to violate the Universal
Declaration of Human rights is to disrespect his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who
continued her husband’s work after his death, and was in part responsible for
drawing up of the UN’s original human rights declaration.
War, if it is to achieve even a thin veneer of respectability, must live up to the ethical standard first observed by Sun Tzu, and later incorporated into Just War theory: war must be a last resort. If and when it is not, war is unjust by every standard except vacuous and nihilistic belief systems such as political realism. Perhaps it is time for the people of the world to hold their governments accountable for unjust wars conducted in their name.
The opening image is entitled War, although I am uncertain of the name of the artist. I found it here, and as ever no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
Hi there Chris
When Master Sun writes:
"To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."
Not ethics, my friend, optimal strategy.
When Master Sun mentions 'breaking the enemy's resistance', he's not talking about a leaflet drop!
Posted by: James | January 22, 2008 at 11:45 PM
Lovely review, as ever - much heated debate summarised fairly and judiciously. I do appreciate the way you strive to be fair to points of view you don't personally share.
One minor quibble - you ask "In regard of the principle of minimum force, if the view espoused by British Prime Minister Tony Blair is to be taken into consideration (that the goal was to remove weapons of mass destruction), why were surgical air strikes not used instead of an invasion?"
The answer, surely, is that Tony Blair (and his Generals) were convinced the WMD existed but didn't know where they were. Of course, it's now widely accepted that this was because they didn't in fact exist. But at the time, the argument he made was that they'd already tried surgical air strikes, and weapons inspectors, but Saddam Hussein was running rings round the lot of them and had hidden the WMD very cleverly: only unrestricted access to the entire country would reveal and neutralise them.
Despite this argument's obvious problems (to me and many others at the time), I've no doubt that Tony Blair held this view sincerely. It was rather touching, long after the invasion, seeing him maintain that the Iraq Survey Group would turn up evidence of their existence, soon, no really. But focusing on his sincerity or otherwise is to my mind beside the point - even if he was acting in utmost good faith, he made a profound error of judgement in weighing up the justification for the war.
Posted by: Michael Mouse | January 23, 2008 at 11:24 AM
"Not ethics, my friend, optimal strategy."
What makes you think that optimal strategy does not qualify for ethics? :) Remember: ethics are systems of conduct - they can have any number of motivations, including strategic power. Sun Tzu's treatise is concerned with strategy, but it also expresses the principles of the ethics of war from Master Sun's perspective.
When he advocates avoiding war wherever possible, and allowing desperate troops to retreat and so forth, he has in mind the best results for his own people. This qualifies as ethics of war as far as I am concerned.
Thanks for raising the counterpoint on this!
Michael: thank you for the kind words! I try to synthesise many different viewpoints as best I can, but of course I can never entirely eliminate my own bias. At some level, I just have to trust my instincts. In this regard, I'm always grateful when people appreciate the attempt.
The trouble I have with your claim that they didn't know where the WMDs were is that they were putting forward the argument that they *did* exist. To claim something exists but you don't know where it is strikes me as expressing an uncorroborated belief. One should never invade another country on such flimsy evidence - especially when you are employing other methods (such as weapons inspectors) in order to establish the facts of the matter.
Posted by: Chris | January 23, 2008 at 02:42 PM
"If the realpolitik position can be dismissed in this way..."
It seems a large leap to say that it can. Realpolitik was conceived as a way of keeping the peace in tense international situations where following a set of rules might not permit sufficient flexibility in enough time to avoid war.
The fact that it is linked as a term to people like Bismarck only indicates that warmongers exist whatever the system of governance.
And you dismiss it as non-representative of the people who legitimise the state that practices it - but why should not the people believe in such a system?
"vacuous and nihilistic belief systems such as political realism"
String words! I can't see any correlation between them - unless your realistic politicians are all solipsists! That would be an odd career choice :
"I don't believe in anything, and I have no ideas and nothing to say - why don't I become a politician! It's all probably a figment of my imagination anyway...what harm can I do?"
Posted by: zenBen | January 24, 2008 at 12:26 AM
zenBen: trust you to try and poke a hole here... :)
Realpolitik means freeing nations to behave unethically. Do you really think people want their nations to practice realpolitik? If not, then my claim holds. If so, well, I guess that means "war forever".
I say: "vacuous and nihilistic belief systems such as political realism"
You say: "String words! I can't see any correlation between them - unless your realistic politicians are all solipsists!"
Okay, I'm making a parallel here between the philosophical belief system of nihilism - which asserts that because no absolute system of ethics is possible, ethics are irrelevant - and the political belief system of realpolitik - which asserts that ethics are irrelevant at an international level. I don't think that's much of a stretch.
(Oh, and using political realism as a synonym for realpolitik, of course.)
I make the claim of 'vacuous' to any belief system that draws from a nihilistic place, as little if anything of substance can begin from the void of ethical denial. I suppose I could have said "ethically vacuous" to clarify, but is this really necessary in this context?
I accept that in dangerous times, it may be necessary to bend the rules - but this is a very different claim from "nations don't have to behave with any concern for ethics", and one may always bend the rules in an ethical fashion, and publicly justify this choice after the fact. There is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater here.
Are you really going to defend the actions of nations that behave without any regard to ethical considerations?
Posted by: Chris | January 24, 2008 at 12:59 PM
"If so, well, I guess that means "war forever"."
How on earth do you justify this? You are essentially saying that without imposed higher moral guidance, people in practical situations (of power, in this case) will behave in the worst possible manner. Thats like saying that people can only behave ethically because a higher power has given them rules stating they must do so.
"Are you really going to defend the actions of nations that behave without any regard to ethical considerations?"
No, I'm not. Nor will I laud them, for the times when it turned out right.
If I have any point aside from nitpicking it is that there is a strong distinction in my mind between the polar opposites of the uses of real-politik, war-mongering and peace through balance of power, and yet the tool itself is not so readily classifiable as good or bad.
Simply, I'd say that you have a tendency to assign a definition-based classification to everything, which in this case is not appropriate.
Posted by: zenBen | January 24, 2008 at 04:27 PM
Where you find the time to digest so much reading and produce these essays while still doing a 'day job' I don't know.
A few quibbles/comments though. First of all, on religious positions vis a vis war, they are not as straightforward as you think. Buddhism is, for example, not unequivocally pacifist. This is especially true of Japanese Buddhism in the 30s and 40s (see Brian Victoria's "Zen at War" on this), but also true in some other contexts (for example Sri Lanka). Essential reading on this is "War and Peace in World Religions" ed by Perry Schmidt-Leukel - what emerges from this is that most traditions evolve within themselves a range of broadly similar positions, from pacifism to realpolitik.
As regards the justness of the Afghan war, you must not forget that this necessitated an alliance with the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, which borders on Afghanistan. This is one of the vilest regimes on Earth, where torture of Muslims and of dissidents is routine. Come to that, the raping of young women by police there is also routine. Can anything justify the west's alliance with this country? I don't think so. That this alliance is all but defunct now doesn't change the argument. It is clear that both the US and UK knew what was going on, but ignored it for the sake of hte 'war on terror'. (There were also other strategic issues at stake in Uzbekistan, namely access to central Asian gas reserves, but that's another matter).
Finally, a rejoinder to other posters on Blair and Iraq - I think that war was cynically started on a pretext that US / UK knew to be false all along. They decided to go to war then fabricated evidence to support it. They couldn't allow Hans Blix's inspectors to complete their task because that would have made war impossible.
I agree that Blair's sincerity is completely irrelevant, however. This was actually a very clever ploy on his part, because it shifted the argument away from evidence and onto his own personal beliefs - not something you can get independent evidence/verification on.
All the best, Chris. I always enjoy reading your stuff.
Posted by: Theo | January 25, 2008 at 11:29 AM
zenBen: "If I have any point aside from nitpicking it is that there is a strong distinction in my mind between the polar opposites of the uses of real-politik, war-mongering and peace through balance of power, and yet the tool itself is not so readily classifiable as good or bad."
Okay, I accept this criticism. I assume that to adopt the realpolitik position is to ensure "war forever", which proceeds on an assumption. I can't prove this claim, it is an assumption as you correctly criticise, but since in realpolitik strategic concerns are all that matter, it seems to me that war will always be a tool in play under realpolitik.
If we can create a "pacifist realpolitik" I might feel differently, but I don't really see this as viable. Do you?
Theo: great to hear from you!
"Where you find the time to digest so much reading and produce these essays while still doing a 'day job' I don't know."
I stopped playing poor quality videogames in my spare time. Suddenly, I had an extra dozen hours a week. ;) And, frankly, I enjoy doing this more than I did suffering through the effluvium of the games industry. :D
"First of all, on religious positions vis a vis war, they are not as straightforward as you think."
Granted; I cut the issue about "Buddhist war" for brevity, but I acknowledge that it is not as simple as presented here. The same criticism could probably be levelled at my summary of the Christian position, although no-one has mentioned it. As is often the case, I don't want to bore people with excessive detail so I paint sometimes with too broad a brush.
"As regards the justness of the Afghan war, you must not forget that this necessitated an alliance with the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, which borders on Afghanistan."
I don't think this necessarily changes the just cause for the war, and the other provisions of the war were already violated - this is just another mark against it (and not the only scurrilous alliance of this kind either).
"I think that war was cynically started on a pretext that US / UK knew to be false all along."
I sympathise with this position. It does look to me that the US fabricated its evidence; what's less clear to me is whether Blair bought into this and consequently believed, or whether he chose to believe consciously (manufacturing his own truth). We'll probably never be certain, so individuals will have to make their own interpretative choice - as ever. ;)
I greatly appreciate the kind words - it's nice to know that these essays are enjoyed. It's been fun in this campaign, but I am looking forward to seeing the end of it - now just two weeks away.
Posted by: Chris | January 25, 2008 at 01:11 PM