09 October 2007

The morality of war

There are two rational positions to be taken on the morality of war: that war is never justified, or that war is sometimes justified as the lesser of two evils. It is rare if not unheard of to claim that all war is always justified. Though there are convincing arguments for both positions, this will examine the moral implications of deciding (on secular grounds) that it is possible to justify some wars, and give five basic moral truths on this justification.

1. The justification for war is ideological.
Whatever the conflict, war is the violent extension of an ideological dispute. Even wars of resources need an ideological base, a reason why one tribe deserves the oasis more than the other that currently has it, or a country deserves access to oil fields at any cost, and this all-too-common ulterior motive is usually hidden by a religious or political argument. The ideological justification for war is essentially comparative, that is that one ideology is so much more dangerous and one so much more noble that the replacement of one by the other must come even at the cost of mass violence. Hitler’s plans for Europe must not happen, the Word of Allah must triumph over the decadent Infidel, Israel must survive and the Jews must stay out of the desert of the Diaspora, whatever the material motive, there is always a moral imperative at the heart of every war. If it is true that war can be morally justified, the heart of the justification will always be ideological.

2. All war is political violence, all political violence is war.
Because war is ideological conflict turned violent, there is always a political objective. Whether a war is justified depends solely on whether the declared moral justification or the material, ulterior motive is the dominant political goal, whether this political goal is justified, and whether it is justified enough to merit mass death. It is, however, a falsehood to make a moral distinction between types of political violence on any grounds other than the politics and the methods used.

3. Soldiers’ lives have only strategic value.
Only those who both believe in the ideology and believe it must be furthered with violence or have willingly delegated that decision to others can be morally (if not pragmatically) justified as targets. The only practical way to make the distinction between consenting and non-consenting participants is between combatants and non-combatants. However, assuming all human lives are of equal value, the only moral justification for a soldier of one side surviving in preference to one of the other is the moral strength of the ideology and the extent to which they further it. By analogy, imagine a firefight between an Allied and a Nazi soldier. Whose children would you rather see orphaned? The usual answer is that the German woman should be widowed and the German kids should never see their father come home, as his death hastens the defeat of National Socialism and the victory of liberal democracy.

4. There is no target.
In the same way that ranged weapons were considered base and ignoble in Medieval times, we must understand today that different weapons require different moral codes. Explosives and rapid-fire weapons are capable of hitting several targets at once, beyond the control of the firer. Firing a guided missile does not target the person or object at the centre of the cross-hair. It targets an area, a blast radius, and everything within it. The intention of the firer is irrelevant. By firing in the knowledge that civilians will be included in this blast-radius, the firer deliberately targets them. For a suicide-bomber to kill ten civilians and themself to advance their political goal is morally no different to a normal bomber killing ten civilians and a soldier to advance theirs.

5. The responsibility for damage caused lies with the firer.
Whatever the reason, it is the person who pulls the trigger who is responsible. They are the last in the chain, they make the vital life-or-death decision, and always have the option not to. If their orders to shoot civilians come from above, they are morally obliged to disobey. Even if threatened with death, a soldier’s death is morally preferable to a civilian’s, and thus the moral obligation is suicide over murder. If the other side has deliberately or accidentally endangered their own civilians, the option still exists to hold your fire or retreat. While this may put soldiers’ lives at risk, again, risk to consenting soldiers’ lives is vastly preferable to risk to civilians’. Though one side may make people into human shields, it is the side that kills the human shields that kills them. This is particularly true of modern asymmetric warfare. Hezbollah hiding among Lebanese civilians and American use of remote warfare both make soldiers near-impossible targets and both make it necessary for their enemies to accept civilian casualties in the violent pursuit of their political goals. However, just as there is no moral argument for blaming anyone but the nineteen hijackers for the attack on the World Trade Center, it is the IDF and the IDF alone that is responsible for the Arab civilians it may kill.

This is not to say that war can be justified, or that it cannot. This is a set of limits on the circumstances in which it can be, based on the logical results of the conclusion that "some things are worth fighting for".