The moral and legal exemptions of war make for heated debate, especially in the U.S., which without reservation has the strongest and most technologically advanced military in the world. It is also the most active. Its involvement across the world in conflict should cause every citizen to pause and think deeply about the morality and conditions of war. Not of this or that war, but of war as an institution.
Should all adults be required to serve in the military? What is a morally justifiable war? Do citizens have a moral duty to fight in a civil war? To what extent is a man required to kill on behalf of the state? To what extent should a military accept collateral damage, such as the bombing of schools and hospitals? What should count as a genuine conscientious objection? How does war inhibit the freedom of the citizens within each warring faction? These are not easy questions to discuss, and like most questions regarding morality, there are few clear cut answers. My primary goal in this post is to raise questions, not answers.
Defining War and Why it Waged
Moreover, at least one party is willing to spend resources it has already acquired in order to wage war. One important aspect of war is that the battling factions have to already have resources in order to wage war. Conflicts only become wars if both sides have some means of making war sufficient to detract from a direct takeover. If there is an enormous disparity in weaponry, army size, or simple military competence, the weaker side is simply claimed or destroyed. Without the supplies for an army, a nation is conquered instantaneously.
Not all wars can be so narrowly pigeonholed. There are other reasons for war which leave a less Marxist taste in one’s mouth. Some wars are fought for more vain reasons. If Homer’s Illiad is to be taken as an embellished account of a real war (historians argue both ways on this question), then war can also be fought over the beauty of a woman, like Helen of Troy. Some wars are fought over ideals. The Russian and Chinese Revolutions were fought over communism; the American Civil War had slavery as its focal point; holy wars propagate a very specific religious agenda.
Risks of War
Whether we discuss the barbarity of the Greeks with the spoils of the Trojan War, the horrific military strategies used during the Crusades in Europe, the sword killing competitions during the Rape of Nanjing, or the C.I.A. torture program during the Iraq War, history leaves no shortage of tragedies in the wake of battle.
The code of conduct must differ between wartime and peace time in order for one nation to protect itself from invaders. It should also be noted that there have been great, though not perfect, advancements to limit the death, destruction, and suffering inherent in war. There are international rules of engagement, such as the Geneva Convention. These laws dictate how one should treat prisoners of war, ban excessively crippling weaponry--such as chemical or nuclear weapons--against one's enemy, the treatment of civilians in combat zones, etc. Given all of the directives issued, one could easily mistake modern warfare as a civil endeavor when compared to some of the more heinous acts committed by humanity.
Justification is Not Necessarily the Reason for War
Holy wars are another example where the justification is not necessarily the reason for the war. If you go back far enough, when religion worked as or above the state, holy wars were not only justified but demanded by central religious figures. The spread of Christianity or extermination of infidels by Islam were very specific justifications for invading other countries or tribes. At least some holy wars were meant to grab power for the pope or other ruling church leaders.
Torture, Its History, and Its Psychology
Let’s take a step back and examine some of the history of torture and interrogation. Many of the tactics used, as well as the overall mentality of interrogation, come directly from the Malleus Maleficarum. For those who don’t speak Latin—myself included—that translates to “Hammer of the Witches.” This is a manual written and distributed by the German Catholic church in the 15th century, the primary purpose of which is how to properly find and prosecute (i.e. torture/burn) witches. The history of witch hunting is extensive during this period throughout Europe, and much of it can be attributed to the widespread use of the Malleus. It is a horrible document, and the way it is written allows anyone accused of being a witch to be tortured, then prosecuted as a witch. All interrogation happens under torture, the assumption being that one will only tell the truth under duress.
One of the main problems with this text, of which there are several, is that it assumes that people tell the truth when they are under excruciating pain. Psychology and criminal law have shown that people are willing to tell prosecutors what they want to hear, even under moderate duress or verbal threat. If people today can be compelled to confess to a crime they didn’t commit, how easy is it to draw out a ridiculous confession of witchcraft with gruesome torture devices used indiscriminately, without worry for the survival of the tortured?
The underlying assumption with torture is that the person being tortured is worthy of being tortured because they are thought to have information that they won’t reveal unless you put them in pain. What happens when someone doesn’t have any information? If one is presumed to be guilty, how long can one keep professing innocence until they crack? After enough pain, even an innocent person will give their torturer false information. They confabulate and craft as reasonable a story as they can under the conditions to try to assuage their captors and stop the pain. Not only does torture not produce results, but it can produce counterproductive intelligence, wasting resources and time.
The presumption of guilt that is still used in police departments to this day can almost be drawn directly out of the playbook that is the Malleus. As the cynical quote goes, “A cop’s job isn’t to learn the truth, it’s to get a confession.” This is a notion that our crime shows reinforce subtly, yet tirelessly. When a perp won’t admit something, the tough ‘not-by-the-books’ detective comes in and leans hard. This creates false confessions, and in many cases, implants false memories in both victims and perpetrators. This bias for torture is reflected in our cinema, our comic books, and our video games. The Taken films are well known for their torture scenes, Kick Ass has the most brutal torture scene ever written in comics, and in Grand Theft Auto V, the player takes the role of a torturer. The notion that torture is the last ditch effort to get useful intelligence is a common theme in Western media.
Beyond the obvious ethical implications of torture, which I shouldn’t have to spell out, it clearly is not the best way to get information. Although I’ve never heard of an argument to justify any and all torture of enemies, I have heard some arguments justifying it in rare cases. Sam Harris comes to mind as a notable example. While we can imagine certain scenarios where torture is acceptable, it should nonetheless be forbidden and illegal. His argument goes like this:
If we know that a child is trapped in a car, and we know who stole and abandoned the car, it would be monstrous to not get the information from the thief before the child dies from heat stroke. In this case, police might have to rough-up the individual, if they are certain he knows the car’s location (based on video evidence, let’s say). If we know for certain (what it means to know anything for certain is a problematic epistemological question) that this man knows where the vehicle with the child is, and he is uncooperative, it seems better to make him uncomfortable for a short amount of time, rather than let the child die from heatstroke.
I won’t comment further, but I will let you draw your own distinctions from this example. For the original source, you can go to Harris’s podcast at http://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-dark-side.
One more note about torture, namely America’s recent role. With the release of the Senate’s report on the CIA’s torture program, the role of torture itself has been surprisingly absent from the minds of the American public. Beyond a few individuals, shortly after the report was released, it disappeared from the political scene. After the initial uproar, citizens have put this torture program to the back of their mind. Nobody seems to care that we tortured people who either had no actionable intelligence, or who were entirely innocent. This program clearly broke several international laws.
Torture should never be used by military forces, and certainly not by our own. When a country is willing to torture combatants for one type of information, what stops them from torturing all captives just in case they find useful info? More importantly, what kind of treatment can we expect of American soldiers when they are captured by our enemies? Torture, even in war, goes down a dark path. This torture program damages our moral standing across the world, and also shows how little our institutions have learned about the history and psychology of interrogation and torture.
Dear Krishna, Should I Kill my Cousins and Brothers and Uncles?
From those who oppose accepting Syrian refugees, I have heard a sentiment put several different ways. Some argue that we shouldn’t accept refugees if they are fighting age young males. They argue that young, strong men should be sent back to fight in the civil war. Also, there is a worry that strong young men will carry out terrorist attacks on Western soil. Should these men be forced to go back and fight in a war in which they want no part?
No. I don’t think one can or even should force someone back to a country they are fleeing to fight in war. Firstly, in regard to Syria specifically, these strong young men, the women, the children, the elderly, and everyone in-between, have no home to go back to. It is very easy for Americans and Europeans, who live in cement-like stability compared to Syria, to say that these refugees should fight for their country. Especially in the U.S., there is a revolution mentality that influences the way we perceive other wars. It is easy to say you should lay down your life for a cause, but another thing entirely to do so.
The idea of the conscientious objector is relevant here. In the U.S., during World Wars I and II, conscientious objectors were only allowed for religious reasons. If your religion forbids killing people, you don’t have to go to war. Only later, in 1970, did it expand to include moral or ethical directives as well as religious reasons. However, these rules were not exactly enforced equally. Muhammed Ali, the famous boxer who converted to Muslim, applied for conscientious objector status, but was denied based on his local draft board proclaiming his religious beliefs were insincere. During the Vietnam War, hundreds of Muslims were jailed across the country because draft boards did not accept their reasons for applying for conscientious objector status.
I do not know of any cases in which moral philosophers, ethicists, or laymen were able to avoid the draft with the conscientious objector status. It is at least clear that religious reasons are more likely to be accepted as a reason than non-religious moral beliefs against serving. These individuals should also be able to object to serving in the armed forces when a draft is active. If these individuals can opt out of war, why can’t people whose homes have been destroyed. When you wake up one morning and the house across the street is gone, wouldn’t your family be the first to leave that day?
The hard problem of civil war has been explored through stories as early as the Bhagavad Gita, written sometime between 400 and 200 B.C.E. In this classic Indian story, Arjuna, a famous general and master archer, has a conversation with Krishna, a mortal incarnation of Vishnu. Arjuna is dismayed at the prospect of having to kill his brothers and cousins who fight on the opposing army. He yells:
Krishna! As I behold, come here to shed
Thou grieves where no grief should be! Thou speak’st
The Domain of War is Shrinking
As Steven Pinker persuasively argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence has drastically declined across every measurable timescale, from millennia to centuries to decades to years. The trend of declining violence shows that even in wartime, fewer people are dying from war, and fewer people are dying violent deaths. One can only hope this trend will continue indefinitely, until militaries become little more than well-equipped police forces.
Harris, S. (2015, August 25). Waking Up Podcast. The Dark Side. Retrieved from http://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-dark-side
Hitchens, C. (2011). Believe Me, It's Torture. In C. Hitchens, Arguably: Essays (pp. 448-454). New York: Twelve.
Kramer, H., & Sprenger, J. (1928). The Malleus Maleficarum. (R. M. Summers, Trans.) Retrieved from http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/
Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Penguin Group.