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A Contradiction in Terms: The Ethical War

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This was also written for L&T (Language and Thinking) and covers a point that I personally consider interesting. I completely understand if you disagree and will not be insulted in any way should you choose to simply skim or ignore it entirely. For those of you interested in writing about war or 17th-19th century combat this touches upon both the 'ethics' of war in that period. Flamefang 01:57, August 30, 2011 (UTC)


A Contradiction in Terms: The Ethical War


General Tecumseh Sherman allegedly once said: “War is hell”, and yet, marching under banners and claims ranging from religion to corporate interests we have shaped war into something referred to as an art by Sun Tzu, among other historical luminaries. If this is true, I find it to be one of the ugliest and most despicable forms of it in existence. War remains one of the primary sources of the world’s pain and suffering, one of its greatest wastes of natural resources, and repeatedly results in the death of thousands if not millions. It is rarely a desirable experience for anyone involved, and is almost universally agreed to be unethical in nature. Many, Einstein and Freud among them, have explored why we fight war, seeking its origins in order to find an answer; to find a fix to this perpetual problem that plagues our species. Instead of looking to the origins of war, and why we fight them, perhaps it would be better to explore exactly how we can attempt to work with our current society to combat current conflict.


In the modern world The Geneva Convention and its goals are considered common knowledge, standing as the latest in a series of attempts to nullify the unpleasant consequences of war and, as strange as it may sound to some, lay down international laws applying to it. However this is by no means the first attempt to apply rules to war, or at least to lessen the consequences. Cicero, the Roman statesman-philosopher, wrote on the rules of war and, during the Middle-Ages, the Church often made attempts to moderate combat between nations even if it was heavily biased towards members of the nobility. Yet, it was between the late 17th and early 19th centuries that the concept of ethical war was most nearly realized. Although rules of war remained a major factor in this period it was a sense of honor, and subsequent respect, that drove military commanders of this period to adopt a series of mutual codes and agreements intended to make war less distressing for both sides. European society at the time was beginning to move towards the rigidity of the Victorian Era and discipline both on the personal and public levels was of the utmost importance. “The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. A ‘political anatomy’, which was also a ‘mechanics of power’, was being born… so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed, and the efficiency that one determines” (Foucault 47). As Michel Foucault explains in his essay entitled “Docile Bodies” this idea utterly pervaded European society; not only in the household where a strict class protocol was to be followed, but also in the workplace where foremen and managers aimed to increase efficiency and production, as well as the classroom in which order was considered essential to learning. Utilization through discipline was to be seen throughout society and found its roots in the 18th century military machine (Foucault). With the introduction of firearms in the late Middle-Ages warfare changed dramatically, as the average peasant could no longer be equipped with a spear and be expected to hold his own against others of his kind. For the musket to be effective on the battlefield it required more than individual skill and, due to its deplorable accuracy, had to be deployed in strict formation. This, in turn, lead to firing lines and the typical tactics of the period so commonly ridiculed today. Thus, it was the musket that made discipline a requirement and this, in turn, helped to shape society and eventually provide it with a radically romantic view of war.


Yet, had soldiers been the only men on battlefields at the time, I have no doubt that the rules of war would have been trampled beneath sheer practicality. Leaders at the time, both military and political, were drawn almost entirely from the nobility who adhered most closely to the ideals of personal honor and period etiquette; both of which could be only the product of a group so self-absorbed as those born directly into power (Punn). To be a general was to be a gentleman and as such one had to respect his peers regardless of their affiliation. Military leaders often exchanged correspondence prior to battle and would sometimes meet afterwards to discuss the outcome. These were leaders detached from the welfare of their men and, through the discipline so deeply rooted in their society and military conduct, viewed them as nothing more than machines. Yet, machines must be maintained or they will cease to function effectively and so I believe that, entirely inadvertently, these gentleman generals practiced some of the most ethical warfare known to history. During this time prisoners of war were taken and often had the option of parole while wounded were seen to by doctors from both sides. Civilians remained well off limits and, in some cases, even spectated within the range of artillery fire from both sides. Often generals would pay for supplies acquired from nearby farms while on the move and rape, under some men, was punishable by death. Now this isn’t to say that any of these men were resplendent paragons upholding justice, but the rules and those enforcing them were usually effective enough. Leaders, lusting after and fearing for their personal honor, were obliged to ensure the compliance of their men with established military law.


So then, I suppose now would be a good time to ask ourselves exactly how military law and rules of war were established. After all, any side that refuses to comply with these has a natural advantage and surely a nation looking to better itself and its people would do exactly that. If we are to make that statement then we might as well also ask ourselves why our society exists at all. Frans De Waal, a contemporary Philosopher Scientist, in his book named Primates and Philosophers discusses how exactly human society evolved and in doing so touches upon a very interesting subject. Simply put, De Waal argues that culture emerged from our evolved ability to empathize and sympathize with others; to understand their situation and to be able to act upon it. Through our inherent empathic nature we were able to work together, survive better, and, most importantly, gain a sense of mutual trust (De Waal). It is this mutual trust that has allowed us to come closest of all to the realization of ethical war. Just as with Plato’s Noble Lie that allows truth to become fallacy and vice versa, a single exception can be utterly catastrophic resulting in a loss of trust, loss of life, and presumably a lost war also.


This is why we again turn to Foucault’s discipline for answers. Discipline, just as much as anything else, requires the same mutual trust. If a single man in a grand formation fails to comply with orders in time he can effectively cause its total collapse and in doing so he has betrayed this sense of trust presumably engendered by discipline. Discipline has the potential to foster a unique form of mutual trust not necessarily built upon friendship or love but instead upon necessity. A man in a disciplined society is nothing more than a small part of a greater whole. He may struggle, but in order to ensure the functionality of this whole he must likewise ensure his own, which requires close interactions and trust with those about him. This is the trust of the soldier with others of his kind. A general, on the other hand, should also possess this trust but is also socially required to possess a sense of honor. As discussed previously this honor greatly assisted in breaching the gap between military culture and the rest of society; discipline and chaos. The European aristocracy had nearly always possessed this sense however and it was absolutely nothing new. Therefore the newly introduced factor is discipline and this discipline came with the evolution of warfare.


The connection between societies and the ways we fight wars are quite clear, in my mind. Nations like Sparta experienced a very close link, Rome’s military was directly supported by its populace, and the Japanese Samurai operated under a strict code applying both to civilian and warrior life. During the latter half of the 19th century with the Franco-Prussian War warfare began to change significantly and, with the First World War completing this process, any and all attempts to bring about ethical war were effectively shattered. When machineguns scythe through men like wheat, tanks rumble across cratered battlefields, and artillery rips chunks out of hills it can become hard to find a place for ethics amidst the rubble. After the war literature shifted into another era, cynicism and nihilism thrived, while nationalism slowly faded. All of this societal change in the face of war and the weapons used to fight it.


So, what if things could potentially operate in the inverse? Could a societal change be made that would bring about a massive shift in the way wars are fought? Potentially yes. We would simply need the right kind of change and some form of group capable of transmitting it between the social classes where the aristocracy once served in earlier times. In the modern era the internet could potentially fill this role, as could celebrities, or perhaps some form of popular leadership. The people need people to follow. To make war ethical the people of a nation must have an interest in seeing it happen and apathy remains ethicalities greatest foe. Upon seeing the horrors of the Vietnam War American society was able to force the United States government into corresponding with its desires. However, protesting has taken place throughout the duration of current American military operations in the Middle East to little avail as a reasonable portion of the population is driven to disagree. Perhaps the most ethical way of fighting this war would be not fighting it at all. With a new president in power some of this appears set to change, and so we could say that steps have been taken. I say “one step closer” for two reasons. First, because as we saw in the 17th-19th centuries only steps can be taken; hoping for some kind of great leap forward would be nothing less than absurdity. Secondly, because I believe that a society with the capability to force its military into absolute ethical procedures cannot be a human one. As Freud remarked in his correspondence with Einstein regarding the inevitability of war:


…there is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity's aggressive tendencies. In some happy corners of the earth, they say, where nature brings forth abundantly whatever man desires, there flourish races whose lives go gently by; unknowing of aggression or constraint. This I can hardly credit; I would like further details about these happy folk. The Bolshevists, too, aspire to do away with human aggressiveness by insuring the satisfaction of material needs and enforcing equality between man and man. To me this hope seems vain. Meanwhile they busily perfect their armaments, and their hatred of outsiders is not the least of the factors of cohesion among themselves. (Freud 155)



As Freud states, humanity is naturally inclined towards war as it is also naturally contrary. To make war ethical we would be forced to sacrifice our very humanity. Even Foucault’s discipline and subsequent dehumanization does not have the means to go far enough to ensure the absolution necessary. Our contrariety and competition drive us forward as a species and so I see no reason to swap the promise of progress with the promise of peace. To endeavor to make strides towards ethical war is a noble cause indeed. However, these strides must remain nothing more than steps, as going too far, to any extreme, always seems to result in disaster.

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