UCTAA churchlight

Site Search via Google

Reflections on Ethics 55
Fighting the Just War

A discussion has been opened on this article. To add your comments to the debate, please use the contact page.

The war on terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq continue with no end in sight to any of them. Some claim that they are all the same war, some recognize them as different. But all three are claimed by the US to be just wars.

That is a position I have tended to empathize with in the past, particularly with respect to terrorism and Afghanistan. After all, it was bin Laden who declared war on the USA a full ten years ago, and it was bin Laden who sponsored terrorist attacks on US overseas facilities before bringing the war to America in 2001. And it was Afghanistan under the Taliban who knowingly provided bin Laden with a safe haven from which to operate. And regardless of the lack of weapons of mass destruction, the removal of the tyrant Saddam Hussein from power can be justified.

However, I have watched with dismay the unfolding of these wars. In my view, a just war must be conducted justly. The rightness of a cause does not justify suspension of the rules of war about the treatment of prisoners; the rightness of a war does not justify torture; the rightness of a war does not justify excessive "collateral damage;" the rightness of a war does not justify revenge killings of the innocent. The rightness of a war is not an excuse to ignore human rights.

Yes, it can be legitimately argued that the other side (whoever that may be) is committing all these crimes, and committing them by at least an order of magnitude greater. But that still does not justify responding in kind.

Ultimately, these wars are being fought to win over the hearts and minds of another culture. These wars are being fought in countries where there is a built-in bias against western values. Accordingly, it must be clearly and continuously demonstrated at every level of the war machine that western values values are superior, that the USA actually lives up to the principles of human rights and justice.

And yet we see Guantanamo Bay, Abu Gharib, Haditha. We see suspects moved around the world to be tortured beyond the boundaries of the USA so as to evade American laws. We see careless selection of targets which results in excessive civilian casualties. We see troops killing innocent civilians with a "shoot first, call it collateral damage later" mentality. We see no recognition of the rights of those whose rights are supposedly being defended.

Some of the atrocities can be attributed to the rogue actions of a small minority of lower ranking members of the military. However, some of them can only be the direct result of decisions made at the highest level.

If you are going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. This the USA is not doing.

Regrettably the USA and its leadership has consistently undermined its claim to be fighting a just war. It is time to live up to the principles that the USA espouses. Lectures on ethics to the troops are not enough. That is just superficial tokenism. The leadership, both political and military, needs to implement an ethical focus on the entire conduct of the war.