Thursday, March 29, 2012

Military ethics

I'm going to post and then elaborate on an exchange I had over at Justin Taylor's blog:

James Rednour March 26, 2012 at 9:01 am
Thank you, Jenny. You are absolutely correct. Although I’m sure someone is typing something about Romans 13 right about now, as if that passage trumps everything Jesus said about loving our enemies.
steve hays March 26, 2012 at 3:10 pm
In a fallen world, it isn’t possible to be equally kind to everyone. If a robber in a botched bank heist takes hostages, puts a gun to the head of your 10-year-old son, and the police have clear shot, they should kill the robber to save your son.
In addition, you’re smearing the motives of American soldiers by assuming they do it for vainglory. I daresay most American soldiers aren’t Homeric warriors. It would behoove you to emulate the charity you urge on others.
James Rednour March 27, 2012 at 12:32 am
Sorry Steve, but Jenny sees this situation much more clearly than you do. A Christian who enters the military is giving up his freedom to choose to make moral decisions. You are expected to obey, not question, when you join the military. There is nothing honorable about obeying an order to kill someone with whom you might actually befriend in normal life simply because the government want to plunder the wealth of some nation. And make no mistake, ALL wars are fought over territory, wealth or both. While you make think that is something to be admired, I do not.
steve hays March 27, 2012 at 5:09 pm
i) You impute to Jenny an argument she didn’t use in this thread.
ii) You make the patently ridiculous claim that we invariably fight to plunder the wealth of other nations. Is that why we went into an impoverished country like Afghanistan and sank tens of billions of dollars into infrastructure?
iii) You impute your twisted interpretation to me, then express disapproval at an artifact of your own making.
iv) There are counterfactual situations in somebody might be your friend rather than your enemy. There’s a possible world in which a schoolyard sniper in this world is not a sniper in the alternate timeline. If, however, he’s a sniper in this world, then the police sharpshooter ought to cap him, even if they might be best of friends in some alternate timeline.

To some extent, national defense is a logical extension of self-defense. In general, one man can’t defend himself against ten assailants–unless he’s Chuck Norris. So there’s often the need for a community to pool its resources, its manpower, in a common defense.

It involves a principle of reciprocity: I will risk my life for you and your dependants if you risk your life for me and my dependants. This can also extend to military alliances.

However, the right of “self-defense” can be somewhat misleading. It isn’t just a matter of self-preservation, but self-sacrifice. We have an obligation to defend our dependants. And that means hazarding our lives to protect their lives. Husbands have an obligation to protect their wives. Fathers have an obligation to protect their children. Grown children have an obligation to protect their elderly parents (or grandparents). Big brothers have an obligation to protect kid brothers. Friends have an obligation to protect their friends.

Likewise, self-defense includes national security, for we are social creatures. We live in communities. Suburbs. Small towns. Big cities. We survive or perish as aggregates.

The alternative is pacifism. However, pacifism doesn’t eliminate war or armies. It’s just a form of unilateral disarmament. You will still have warriors and wars of aggression. You will still have innocents killed. Indeed, when aggression is allowed to go uncheck by any deterrent, by any credible threat of counterattack, the death toll rises.

So there’s a tradeoff. Both pacifism and militarism have their share of horror stories. It’s not as if one is more humanitarian than another. There’s nothing philanthropic about unilateral disarmament. That doesn’t save lives. Rather, that’s an open invitation to take lives without fear of reprisal. One side can kill with impunity because the other side does nothing.

Historically, armies often use forced conscripts. In peacetime, the enemy soldier might be your friend. He’s just following orders. Still, if he’s about to shoot your wife and kids, you have a duty to protect them. You have to play the hand you’re dealt. God will sort it out in the afterlife.

If armies are necessary, then that commits us to things necessary for armies. Like a chain-of-command. Operational control. To have an effective fighting force, someone has to devise a campaign plan, someone has to give orders, and someone has to take orders. It’s necessary to coordinate planning, direction, personnel, materiel, transportation, and communications. To accomplish the mission, you need the right men at the right place at the right time.  And you need a mission to accomplish. A common objective.

Of course, it may be necessary to adapt the campaign plan to the exigent facts on the ground, but that also requires someone in charge to make the necessary adjustments. Snap decisions must be made.

Following orders isn’t absolute. For one thing, a soldier is only obligated to follow lawful orders. He can also disobey an order, and face court marshal.

In addition, the American military is not a rogue agency. There’s the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Rules of engagement. Civilian command and oversight, which is, in turn, subject to the democratic process. So there’s an accountability system. That’s not foolproof, but nothing is. 

It’s not a class apart from our legal system generally. We have good laws and bad laws. Good judges and bad judges. Abuse of power.

There are always people who keep their hands clean by delegating the tough stuff to someone else. But by leaving it to someone else, they are still complicit.  

1 comment:

  1. Another great article, Steve. Pacifists are an interesting group, to be sure. I'm linking to this article and quoting parts of it on my own blog. People need to read it and get a clear perspective on military ethics and get off their simplistic readings of Matthew 5.