The Civil-Military Divide on Wartime Ethics

When democracies go to war, military and political leaders are faced with a challenge. On the one hand, they must be sensitive to public opinion and perceptions of the war effort. This requires minimizing the harm inflicted upon the non-combatant population of the war zone, and respecting human rights obligations as specified in compacts such as the Hague and Geneva Conventions. At the same time, however, they must let the soldiers do their job. This means crafting regulations and rules of engagement that allow soldiers to engage the enemy in a way that maximizes the chances of victory and minimizes friendly losses.

These two obligations can be conflicting. If the leadership crafts rules and regulations that are too permissive, war crimes and wanton non-combatant deaths are inevitable. This is not only morally indefensible, but also a sure way to lose the support of the electorate. If, on the other hand, the rules and regulations are too strict, our own soldiers will suffer heavy casualties and will be unable to achieve the objectives they have been assigned. A balance between these two extremes is necessary.

I argue that the US and other Western countries are drifting toward the latter extreme: that the civilian population is drifting toward a morally absolutist view of warfare. They go beyond the reasonable obligations imposed by the Geneva Conventions, Hague Conventions, and other international agreements, and place unreasonable expectations upon the armed forces regarding avoidance of civilian collateral damage. This creates greater risk of friendly casualties and erodes the effectiveness of force as a policy tool.

In this paper, I will first examine the roots of this tension between the military and civilian population. This will include an examination of the various philosophies that have influenced the civilian view of wartime ethics (e.g.: Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas on just war theory), as well as those that have influenced the modern rules and regulations of warfare (such as the Geneva and Hague Conventions and the US Uniform Code of Military Justice). I will also look at how technological developments (e.g.: advances in weapons technology and the rise of social media) have affected this divide.

I will then examine the current state of the divide. This will include an examination of the rules and regulations in the US military, as well as international agreements such as the Geneva and Hague Conventions. I will also look at the most recent opinion polls to clarify the views of the US population on wartime ethics. I will also examine the ways in which revisionists can revise current rules and regulations, and their chances of success.

Finally, I will examine ways in which this divide can be bridged. I will look into means by which civilians could be persuaded to adopt a more middle-of-the-road view of wartime ethics, including philosophical arguments (e.g.: Michael Walzer’s arguments for the “utility of extremism”), and vignettes that illustrate the potentially adverse affects of overly strict rules of regulation. This will include an experiment to test the actual effectiveness of one or more of these approaches.