Re-evaluating ethics in 21st century war


The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be exceptions:  they may be the new rule.

According to a recent article in The New Atlantis by former Marine and current Ethics and Public Policy Center senior fellow Keith Pavlischek, the United States’ dominance in conventional warfare has given insurgents the world over the incentive to use different types of tactics.  Therefore, “It is likely,” Pavlischek notes, “that the United States will be involved in more irregular conflicts in the years ahead.”

The history of counter-insurgency warfare is pretty brutal, as Pavlischek documents. These kinds of conflicts are much more likely to resemble Afghanistan and Iraq than World War II or the first Gulf War, which for Pavlischek and a host of military scholars and ethicists raises a troubling question:  have we learned anything in Afghanistan and Iraq that will help us develop more ethical tactics?

 Marc Pilisuk, a Saybrook faculty member who has written extensively on the underlying causes of wars and is now writing a book on contemporary peace movements, notes that the savagery that can occur with this kind of destructive conflict was what lead to the “fictional game of war created by monarchies” wherein “sovereign nations engage in destructive conflicts supposedly fought between professionally recruited military establishments.”  By minimizing the amount of destruction war caused … without actually minimizing war … military and political elite actors within nations were able to pursue their agendas without risking excessive civilian casualties that would pose a threat to their power. 

But as the world entered the modern era, technology increased the reach of the nation-state, and created a gross asymmetry in the weapons and resources available to powerful nations and those available to ordinary groups of disaffected people. This led to a wide-spread return to insurgent tactics.   The increasing power of nation states and their armies to, as Pilisuk puts it, “allow small groups who control most resources to squeeze the rest of the people” made insurgency tactics more appealing, not less.

While the earliest known example of an attempt to come up with a modern legal framework for distinguishing “legitimate” and “illegitimate” insurgents  was developed in the American civil war, the bloody nature of the new conflicts were first brought fully to global attention in Vietnam.

Today, Americans clearly do not want to repeat the mistakes of Vietnam – or to go to the extremes of brutality practiced by many insurgents… but they also want to win.  The result is a new push by military strategists to develop “ethical” counterinsurgency tactics, and the most recent update to the Army Field Manual attempts to address that need. 

For Pavlischek, it is possible to square this circle, and the new Field Manual is a step in the right direction.  “Counter-insurgency can be waged ethically,” he says:   

“The protection and security of, and the provision of basic goods and services to, the civilian population—the waters in which the insurgent fish swim—is the very essence of the strategy presented in the Field Manual.  What’s more, because the key aim of counterinsurgency is severing the link between insurgents and the civilian population, the Field Manual suggests that there are several paradoxes of counterinsurgency operations that distinguish them from conventional combat.”

Those paradoxes, and new marching orders for the American military in such warfare, include:

• Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.
• Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.
• The more successful the counterinsurgency is, the less force can be used and the more risk must be accepted.
• Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.
• Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgents do not shoot.
• The host nation doing something tolerably is normally better than us doing it well.
• If a tactic works this week, it might not work next week.
• If it works in this province, it might not work in the next.
• Tactical success guarantees nothing.
• Many important decisions are not made by generals.

That does, unquestionably, sound more moral than what’s come before.  But Pilisuk suggests that it doesn’t go far enough.  The very idea of the “rules of war” needs to be re-evaluated for a new era, with new actors and new technology.

“The use of unmanned drones, chemical agents, etc. do more than just add questions about the old rules.  It will require a larger framework to consider war,” Pilisuk says.  “Soldiers will find it hard to practice such standards (as are called for in the new Field Manual) when they are fighting against people who view them as foreign invaders sent to their countries on unjustifiable missions.  Professional morality requires something more than training based on the strategic advantage that adherence to more constrained and internationally recognized practices may confer. It requires courage not only to refuse to engage in particular brutal acts, but recognition that war itself is gross brutality.”


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