Justifying war, values training for war makers

This post is more than 3 years old.

Hung out to dryIn my eighth grade English class, Mr. Sweeney asked us to write a persuasive essay and then deliver it to the rest of the class convincingly. The United States had just sent its military to the Middle East to expel the Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait, and that was a hot topic of discussion and controversy. As a part of these events, the head pastor at my church had recently delivered a sermon on what constitutes a "just war." It was a good sermon - contemplative, balanced, and challenging without being preachy (beyond the normal degree to which a white man adorned in robes standing in an ornate pulpit speaking down to a congregation with an amplified and booming voice is "preachy"). Because I admired this man and trusted my church and had not yet at that point in my life encountered any other theories of war, I found myself thoroughly convinced that the use of force by my government in that case was justified. I thought it was a perfect topic to use for my own persuasive speech.

So there I was, standing up in front of my peers, speaking at first very tentatively and then very confidently about the justifications for war. As I reminded myself about the gravity of the topic and of the confidence and grace with which my pastor's voice let out similar words, I grew more bold in making the seven points of just war theory (paraphrased and quoted here from the Wikipedia entry):

  1. There must be a really good reason: "force may be used only to correct a grave public evil...a massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations"
  2. The injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other
  3. Only the proper authorities may wage war
  4. Force must only be used in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose - correcting a suffered wrong is okay, but doing it for money or material possessions is not.
  5. You have to have a good chance of succeeding - you can't go to war if it's futile
  6. The force used must be proportional to the good trying to be achieved. (I remember my pastors metaphor here made it into my own speech: you shouldn't kill a fly with a sledgehammer!)
  7. War must only be waged as a last resort

Who wouldn't be convinced by these? If all of those criteria are met, how can war not be justified, inevitable if abhorrent?

Perhaps as we leave the eighth grade and move on to more nuanced views of the world, we know that it may not be that simple. I have certainly come to learn that just war theory is presented within a particular moral framework that isn't really my moral framework. But I certainly appreciated at the time that it was consistent within the framework it lived in, true to itself, and it was something you could hold onto when the horrors of what it means to be at war did have such a fogging effect on any thinking about the matter. I appreciated that if you're going to go kill someone, or ask someone else to kill someone, you damn better well have thought it through at that level and gotten yourself crystal clear on what your reasoning and values say about why you would be a part of that act.

This is partly why it is so scary to me that U.S. troops in the Middle East are now receiving values training three years into this particular war. When requests like "don't desecrate the dead" and "don't cause unnecessary suffering" need to be put up in a Powerpoint presentation and read aloud to make sure everyone's "got it," I feel ill.

Of course, on one hand, it makes perfect sense, given that the war in Iraq, and perhaps any war waged, requires contemplation of what are probably unresolvable conflicts in moral and emotional principles. Of course there will be stories of troops killing innocent civilians. Of course there will be torture in prisons. Of course there will be horrible acts brought on by asking men and women to figure those questions out in the heat of the moment. How can we ask someone to reconcile the inherent mission of our troops - apply the use of deadly force to coerce people into behaving a certain way - with the conflicting values that are ostensibly behind that mission - respect for life, pursuit of freedom and democracy, instilling peace and justice, creating a better world for all?

I don't think the U.S. military wants its soldiers pondering those questions in the field. I don't think it can afford to have each person contemplating those moral judgments along the way. I don't think it can afford to have real values training, because this is where war - from my perspective, anyway - ceases to have any integrity or consistency within its own moral framework. The justifications for war at a high level may work just fine, but when you drill down to what's happening out in the field - human beings hurting and killing each other because they're told to - there is no integrity, there is no moral code that one can follow to justify it. As Albert Einstein said, "A country cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war."

For what it's worth, I don't make a judgment on those who are compelled to exhibit that lack of integrity in a war setting. I believe they are responsible to themselves for their own actions, and maybe they can be acting with integrity and morality within their understanding of their own worldview, even if they aren't in mine. But if they've gotten that far down the path of war, they're already working within a moral and cultural framework that doesn't offer them any good options, at least in the context of creating peace, justice and a sustainable human existence.

Or, as I wish I could go back and say to my eighth grade class, there are plenty of ways to justify modern warfare, and a lot of them sound pretty good, but I don't think any of them work for humanity.

"Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime." --Ernest Hemingway

Note: This is a topic that I'm fairly certain the few folks who do read this blog may have some opinions about, and I'd really like to hear them. Please post your thoughts, even if anonymously; I'm done with the eighth grade, but I'm sure I still have more to learn and other points of view to consider.

2 thoughts on “Justifying war, values training for war makers

  1. While I would like to remain anonymous, I do think my big brother is the most intelligent human being on earth. You know what else? I probably have my own views on war, and may not completely agree with every single thing that was written, but the fact that you are open to other people's perspectives, and state that you are not all-knowing is what makes reading this so enjoyable. Sure, other people may disagree with you, but if anyone gets nasty, they report to me.

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