Month of Blood: The Ethics Of… War

Welcome to week 3 of the Month of Blood – four weeks investigating the lurking beast within us all. Last week we took The Ethics of Violence to its most extreme with The Ethics Of Torture; this week we’re going to the grand scheme of things with War.

War is hell, or so I’m told. Ask most people and it’s likely one of the worst things they can think of happening. Sure, war is also exciting – as a surprisingly large proportion of our entertainment attests to – but by and large you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks that war, is in-and-of-itself anything but horrific.

And this reputation is well deserved. The Second World War, one of the more formal, civilised wars in human history (compared to, say, Ghengis Khan’s travels), resulted in over 22 million military deaths and a staggering 55 million civilian deaths just five short years. And when you realise that these figures don’t take into account injuries, psychological disorders and the general horror of the entire experience, the human cost alone becomes terrifyingly stark.


And it must be remembered that the costs of these wars don’t just end with the war – it’s only recently that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder became a thing that we knew about, let alone something we were able to effectively treat. After all, you can’t honestly expect to train soldiers to kill, throw them into the most intense struggle for survival mankind is capable of devising, and then expect them to come out the other side well-adjusted and ready for introduction back into society.

So, all in all, war is something to be avoided.

But as long as violence is seen as an effective way of getting what we want (and it probably always will be), war will exist. Why? Because it’s just the large-scale extension of the same idea – why should our community pay the next village over for goods when we could just go over there, kill a few people and take those goods? The economics alone are a no-brainer. And faced with imminent invasion, what choice does the next village over have but to arm itself and attempt to repel the invaders with force? They could try just giving up (though history indicates this can actually make things worse for them) or try reasoning with us of course, but if reason was going to work, we probably wouldn’t be invading in the first place.

Within communities and nations we have systems that prevent this sort of ‘Might is Right’ approach from being possible; systems like the Social Contract, the rule of Law, and institutions like the Police empowered with legal force to back them up, simply make brute violence ineffective as a way of getting what we want.

Unfortunately, these systems tend to break down on an international scale because there’s no way for those systems to be enforced. Consider the Second World War; the Nazi’s decide they’d quite like to invade Poland. Other nations aren’t terribly happy about this (especially Poland) but the Nazis simply refuse to listen and do it anyway. At this point the other nation’s have a choice – let it happen or start a war with a scarily well-equipped nation. Unsurprisingly, the other European nations decided to let it slide (apart from some stern words) and hope the problem would be contained. It was not.

More recently we can see the same thing on a smaller scale with Russia and the Ukraine. The brutally simplify the situation, Russia decides it would very much like to own the Crimea. Ukraine say no, Russia takes it anyway because what the hell is the Ukraine going to do about it? NATO says no, which Russia artfully ignores, and NATO now has the option of attacking a massive, nuclear-armed nation, cutting trade ties to the supplier of pretty much the entirety of Europe’s natural gas…. or just doing nothing (apart from some stern speeches of course).

Sure we have the UN, but all the authority they hold comes from the nations that makes it up. There is no international government that can enforce law through an international police, and since the Social Contract tends to break down when it involves other people and cultures that we’ve never met before, that doesn’t help a lot either. Both trade and nuclear weapons do an excellent job in preventing most wars these days – effectively making it nowhere near worth the cost to start one on a large scale – but if the war is small, it involves countries that aren’t nuclear-armed, or doesn’t have any serious trade value (or does, but can’t defend itself) then war becomes not only very possible, but also the only option a nation or community has to defend itself.

It is in the face of such harsh realities that we get the Laws of War.

‘Laws of War’. Sounds a bit stupid doesn’t it? We’re talking about the most brutal, least civilized practice known to humanity here; hundreds, thousands, millions of human beings, armed with the most advanced technology available to them, doing their absolute very best to kill each other as efficiently as possible. This is raw, uncontrolled animal chaos at its finest; it’s hard to imagine a situation where rules could be less relevant.

Sure, we can stand here and say that weapons that burn your enemy alive are too terrible to be allowed, but when the bastards are trying to kill you and might very well succeed, is there anything you wouldn’t do to survive? Sure landmines might leave a terrible legacy for generations after the war ends, but when they’re the only thing between the enemy over-running your position, killing you and possibly winning that war, would you honestly choose not to use them? And killing prisoners might not be the ‘honourable’ thing to do, but when the alternative is stopping to guard them while the enemy is on the run and victory could be yours right now? What are a few dead enemy prisoners against the chance to help win, and end, a war?

And even from a more strategic, less frantically-trying-to-survive perspective, if we’re talking about the liberty and safety of your country and its people, who’s going to draw a line of what Is acceptable? Fire-bombing a civilian population is indeed horrific, but if it helps break the spirit of the enemy, why not? Why on earth would we spend valuable resources in sheltering enemy prisoners when that effort could be spent in finishing the war as fast as possible? Hell, since executing the prisoners also prevents them from ever posing a threat to your countrymen ever again, it’s practically a duty to kill them! And should we be victorious against our enemies, isn’t showing them mercy and allowing them to rebuild their nation just leaving a threat at our backs? Slaughter them all so they can never hurt us or any people every again!

And what if one, single horrible atrocity could save more lives than it takes? In the final months of the Second World War, Allied commanders faced the possibility of invading Japan with conventional methods. Estimated causalities, facing a nation where the entire civilian population had been armed and told they would be tortured and killed if they surrendered, exceeded half a million dead Allied troops and significantly more Japanese. By contrast, the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed only 250,000 Japanese, with zero Allied casualties. From a Utilitarian perspective, the ethical choice is simple.

Is a fairly solid, if brutal, logic. What it ignores however is that wars are very rarely, if ever, just about winning the war. We don’t go to war to annihilate the other side, nor simply to occupy their lands; except for your truly committed sadist, these goals have no value alone. No we kill the other side to get what we want, that might be natural resources, or security, greater economic power, or a warm water port (looking at you Russia). And why do we want any of these? To increase our nation’s quality of life – quite a positive goal, and debatably the primary function of a government.

Look at war as a means to a greater end and suddenly Laws of War don’t seem so ridiculous anymore; not a lot of point in nuking another country when that nuking gets your country nuked as well – irradiated wasteland isn’t exactly a valuable commodity in any case.

Executing prisoners may well be more efficient during a war, but it also tends to get your prisoners executed in turn, and even if you don’t care about that, it’s also a great way to turn other neutral countries against you. Same goes for attacking civilian populations and other attempts to ‘break the enemy’s spirit’.

And as for chemical and biological weapons, well let’s just say such attacks set a very nasty precedent for the future. Nuking Japan may well have saved hundreds of thousands of lives at the end of World War 2, but it also lead to a Cold War that was literally one decision away from getting extremely hot on at least a dozen occasions.

That’s the thing about means being justified by ends; people tend to forget that the means we use determine what those ends will look like.

And so we devised the Laws of War; rule to guide the conduct of conflict between nations/states to ensure that when war does break out, at least the means we use would never defeat the ends we sought to achieve.

The rules of war are divided into three broad categories:

Jus ad Bellum (justice before war) – conditions that must be met to justify going to war, either as defender or attacker. These conditions include;

  • Just cause/ Right intention – you need to have a decent reason to go to war. Defending your country is pretty good; overthrowing a sadistic government is OK; getting hold of some oil – not great.
  • Probability of Success – victory should at least be possible otherwise you’re going to get your soldiers killed for nothing.
  • Proportionality – Being attacked by a faction within one nation does not give you a license to invade the entire Middle East.
  • Last resort – This refers back to that important addition to Utilitarianism; ‘The ends justify the means, provided there are no superior alternative’. War should not be entered into lightly.

Jus in Bellum (justice in war) – the most conventional of the Laws of War and by far the most practiced, these rules set the standards for how war is fought. These standards include;

  • Distinction – military targets are fair game; civilians are not.
  • Proportionality – Firebombing a country into the Stone Age for shooting down one of your planes is going a bit over the top.
  • Military necessity – Operations should use the minimum force necessary to achieve the goals. Killing civilians may be inevitable or even necessary to achieve these goals, but they should be avoided wherever possible.
  • Fair treatment of prisoners of war
  • No means malum in se – methods of warfare which are considered unjustifiable, evil or unnecessary in any situation. This includes rape, forcing enemy combatants to fight against their own side or using weapons whose effects cannot be controlled (e.g. nuclear/biological weapons).

Jus post Bellum (justice after war) – The third and newest category of Just War theory, concerned with minimising the damage done by the war, ensuring the guilty parties are held accountable, and preventing future attacks. These principles include;

  • Unjust gains from aggression must be eliminated – no stealing by either side and compensation to be paid where necessary.
  • Security f against future attack – usually through demiliarization or political rehabilitation of the losing country (which is presumable the one that started it)
  • Leaders, soldiers, and civilians must be distinguished – it is generally agreed that a country’s leaders should be held responsible for a war, not the soldier or citizens. This is pretty debatable, but it saves a hell of a mess.

Looking at these Laws we can see that World War 2 was a pretty excellent example of a Just War for the Allies. They joined the war proportionally and after all other options were exhausted. The war was fought largely without atrocities or disproportionate force (the fire-bombing of Dresden and nuclear attacks on Japan being exceptions to the rule). And the post-war wrap-up was actually very positive, with very little retribution against either the Nazi’s or Japan (except for Russia and China, who both secured a fairly bloody revenge).

A perfect contrast of this is the Iraq War of 2003. Started on the pretense of Weapons of Mass Destruction that never existed, against a nation that posed no threat whatsoever to the USA or the ‘Coalition of the Willing’, to topple a despot who got most of it out his system a decade previously. A war fought largely within the rules of Jus in Bellum, but defined by catastrophic failures such as the ‘detainee program’ and poorly prepared soldiers who occasionally lost the plot and enthusiastically murdered journalist crews. And a war that ended with Iraq’s infrastructure in ruins, the reconstruction sold to international corporations and ‘private contractors’, and a democracy patching over a gaping power-vacuum, teetering on the edge of chaos.

War, along with violence of any kind, is sometimes necessary to prevent far worse things from happening and to ensure that the barbaric ethic of ‘Might is Right’ never becomes the norm. But given the scale of suffering, the vast costs and the ongoing echoes of suffering war casts into the future, ask yourself the question: Is there any crime a nation, a leader, a soldier or a citizen can commit worse than to start, fight or support an unjust war?

8 thoughts on “Month of Blood: The Ethics Of… War

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