Ethical Issues in Recent
U.S. Military Engagements
Dr. David L. Perry
Prof. of Ethics, U.S. Army War College
Presented at a meeting of the American Association of University Women, Dickinson
College, Carlisle, PA, 27 April 2004.
I'm very grateful to Sandy Kornish for the wonderful opportunity and privilege to talk
with you about this important topic. (Please note that none of my views should be
construed necessarily to reflect those of the U.S. Government.)
I want to distinguish two broad categories of ethical issues: 1) those that are newly
emergent since 9-11 and the Iraq War, and 2) other ethical concerns that are not new but
which remain important today. I'll address the second category first.
At the most fundamental level, there is an ancient and enduring question about the
ethics of killing. Can it ever be right to use deadly force against people
Strict pacifists say that killing is always wrong. Jewish and Christian pacifists often
appeal to the claim in Genesis that all people are made in the image of God, suggesting
that killing them represents a kind of sacrilege as well as a violation of human dignity.
Christian pacifists also refer to sayings of Jesus in the Gospels to love one's
enemies and not retaliate against force with force. Hindu and Buddhist pacifists
would cite their basic obligation of ahimsa, avoiding harm to any sentient creature. And
nonreligious pacifists often say that violence only begets more violence. (See my "Ethics and War in Comparative Religious Perspective.")
But I tend to think that killing can be justified in defense of the innocent against
unjust attack, whether the victim is yourself or someone you could help. All people have a
basic, prima facie right not to be killed. But that right is not absolute:
someone can forfeit that right if they wilfully threaten or take the lives of innocent
people. Further, if killing in such cases can be morally justified, it seems both prudent
and morally permissible for societies and nations to train and equip a special class of
professional warriors to do be prepared to defend them with force. These assumptions form
the foundation for what's known as the just-war tradition.
But there are moral risks inherent in training officers and soldiers to be
effective killers on our behalf. (That's a crude way of putting it, but we need
to recognize what we're doing when we authorize the creation of a military force.) First,
when multiple countries enlarge their military forces ostensibly to deter others or defend
themselves in case of invasion, that alone can increase the chances of them going to war
against each other, even when there is no rational basis for such conflict; consider the
origins of the First World War. Second, discipline in obeying orders is vital in making
groups of soldiers effective in achieving military objectives, or even in protecting
themselves. But what if they're ordered to do something immoral, such as to destroy a
whole village or shoot prisoners? And third, commanders often deem it necessary to induce
rage against their nations' enemies, to increase their soldiers' motivation to fight when
extreme dangers might otherwise produce overwhelming fear. But that makes them unlikely to
show mercy to enemy soldiers who surrender in combat, or to avoid killing civilians.
These are credible risks, but in practice soldiers can be trained and led in ways that
minimize their occurrence. Soldiers need not be encouraged to hate the enemy in order to
be effective in combat; and they can and must be allowed and encouraged to disobey immoral
orders. In regard to American soldiers, I believe that our military commanders and
training are much better today than they were 35 years ago in guarding against the risks
of atrocities in war. During the Gulf War as well as recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,
our soldiers have almost always shown admirable restraint and humanity toward enemy
soldiers and civilians, even when enemy combatants shoot from behind civilians, hospitals
One of my Army War College students recently wrote a fascinating paper on the degree to
which respect for the laws of war is incorporated into Army training simulations at
various levels (COL Kevin McClung, "The Law of Land Warfare and Rules of Engagement:
A Review of Army Doctrine and Training Methodologies"). Although he determined that
some improvements were warranted, both he and I were pleasantly surprised by the quality
of that training. Another Army colonel who had served in Iraq during the 2003 invasion
stated during a conference at the Naval War College that his soldiers are trained so
thoroughly in the laws of war, "They know what the right thing to do feels
like." That suggests that Army training is wisely attempting to reinforce moral
knowledge and critical reasoning with moral emotions and admirable character traits.
Another encouraging development since the end of the Cold War has been a significant
reduction of the number of nuclear weapons possessed by the U.S. and
Russia. However, the remaining weapons are unlikely to be dismantled completely. So we
still face the possibility of global nuclear war, which almost certainly would fail every
test of moral justification. At the same time, if the possession of nuclear weapons still
offers the best deterrence against nuclear attack by other countries, then we also
continue to face the horrific moral dilemma of threatening to commit mass murder in order
to prevent mass murder.
You may have read in the news during the past two years about a desire on the part of
senior Pentagon officials to develop new tactical nuclear weapons for the U.S. arsenal,
specifically as earth-penetrating "bunker-busters" for possible use against
regimes like North Korea. In my view, any tactical benefits of such weapons cannot
outweigh their strategic and diplomatic risks. They're dangerously provocative, and
threaten to undermine global nonproliferation efforts.
In addition to lingering concerns about nukes, many people around the world have
criticized our use of cluster bombs and depleted-uranium weapons
in places like Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as our continued reliance on
landmines on the border between North and South Korea. Could we substitute other weapons
that would be just as effective in combat, but less likely to cause civilian deaths long
after combat ends? At the very least, we need to ensure that any mines or cluster bombs we
use have highly reliable self-destruct mechanisms so that they can be disarmed quickly
after their combat usefulness ends. Unfortunately there's no way to make depleted
uranium safe; and the Pentagon believes that if we removed them from our inventories our
soldiers would be put at greater risk from enemy tanks.
One more important issue that predated 9-11 but which remains with us today is humanitarian
intervention: How serious does a government's abuse of its citizens' human rights
have to be before other countries are justified in stepping in militarily without that
government's permission? Technically if there is no threat to any other state, then the
U.N. Security Council must formally approve the intervention. But what if the Security
Council refuses to do that, as occurred in both Rwanda and Kosovo? We have not been able
to achieve a clear international consensus on when humanitarian military intervention is
justified. As a result, horrendous civil wars have gone on for many years in places like
Angola, Sudan, Congo and Liberia with little or no outside intervention.
What then are some moral issues emerging from recent American decisions to go to war in
Afghanistan and Iraq?
In response to the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. demanded that the Taliban government
cooperate in apprehending Bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda. That
seems clearly justified, since they had permitted Al Qaeda to operate training camps for
years, and had directly benefited from Bin Laden's money and arms. But when the Taliban
did not cooperate, the U.S. invaded. Even though that was apparently the first time in the
modern era that a state was invaded and its government overthrown in response to a warlike
action by a sub-state actor, the international community seemed to accept it as a
legitimate infringement of state sovereignty.
How should we treat captives whom we suspect are members of Al Qaeda or other
organizations that kill noncombatants indiscriminately? Should they be treated as criminal
suspects, as prisoners of war, or something else?
I don't have a satisfactory answer; but I'm persuaded by David Luban and Ronald Dworkin
that our current practice of denying detainees any rights is unacceptable. It's even
inconsistent with President Bush's claim in his September 2002 National Security Strategy
that "America must stand firmly for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity,"
which were said to include the rule of law, limits on the absolute power of the state, and
equal justice (p. 3). The President's "war on terror" is too ambiguous, in part
because that kind of "war" may never end.
When is rigorous interrogation of suspected terrorists equivalent to
torture? This is a gray area in some respects. Think of similar situations faced by
domestic police in dealing with criminal suspects. The police might sometimes be tempted
to make a threat that they don't really intend to carry out (because it would be immoral),
in order to frighten a detainee into cooperating. Right now the U.S. Army is
investigating an accusation along those lines against a colonel in questioning an Iraqi
Would torturing suspected terrorists be morally justified in order to prevent mass murder?
In theory, yes, since a real terrorist has forfeited his right not to be tortured. But in
practice this risks the torture of innocent people, since the interrogator may not have
enough evidence to know that the suspect is guilty. Also, if we train or otherwise
authorize our soldiers to torture, their character may become morally indistinguishable
from the terrorists themselves. And if we instead send captives to other countries that
are notorious for using torture, we can't deny culpability for what happens to them. All
of these approaches wrongly undermine respect around the world for conventions against
torture. We ought to uphold the highest standards that still permit us to prevent
terrorist attacks on our citizens.
Let's examine the war in Iraq using traditional just-war principles:
Jus ad bellum:
Just cause and proportionality: Was the invasion of Iraq morally
justified in the defense of the U.S. and/or its allies? Could it have been justified
solely on humanitarian grounds? Was it necessary to invade, or could less violent means
I'm persuaded by Kenneth Pollack and Thomas Nichols that nothing short of invasion would
have prevented Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear and biological weapons, which he
would have been likely to use against his neighbors or given to terrorist groups to use on
the U.S. homeland. But some of the reasons for war cited beforehand by our senior
officials appear now to have been weakly supported by hard evidence, or perhaps even
intentionally misleading. This not only undermines our credibility, it sets a dangerous
precedent for future wars by opportunistic states.
Legitimate authority: The U.S. Congress gave the President a pretty clear
mandate in October 2002 to invade Iraq if necessary to protect the U.S. But was the
invasion clearly authorized by the Security Council? On the one hand, it could be seen as
enforcing 12 years of SC resolutions that Iraq flagrantly violated. But an invasion was
not specifically authorized by France, Russia or China. Of course, those countries had
also sold material to Iraq that violated the terms of the SC sanctions, so it may not have
been possible to achieve unanimity among SC members.
Does the U.S. invations set a dangerous precedent for "preventive" wars? Or
should the U.N. Charter be modified to permit them? It's probably best not to codify such
an exception in the Charter; but it's not clear to me what its international legal status
Jus in bello (distinguish between discrimination
Should we uphold the rules of war under the Hague and Geneva conventions even if our
enemies do not? Yes, otherwise we lower ourselves to terrorists, and the justice of our
own cause is undermined.
How much risk should our soldiers incur in order to minimize harms to civilians living
near a combat zone, or being used as human shields? They should avoid firing unless doing
so clearly risks their own lives. I'm generally pleased with the care exhibited by U.S.
forces to avoid targeting civilians and to minimize the risks of collateral damage from
attacks against legitimate military targets.
But our leaders have been too quick to blame the Taliban and Saddam Hussein for all
civilian deaths that have occurred during our recent and ongoing wars. We also have not
tried hard enough to count how many have died, let alone how often we were responsible for
their deaths even if only unintentionally in attacking military targets.
(In August 2002, I assessed a
potential invasion of Iraq using just-war criteria in "Can an
Invasion of Iraq Be Justified Ethically?")
Go to Dr.