Foreign Policy Blogs

Moral Logic And Military Force

A comments section conversation about WikiLeaks between myself and my FPA-o-sphere colleague Patrick Frost has morphed into a conversation about the morality of American military force.  Patrick wrote:

The US military’s history of bringing literally unsurpassed prosperity, liberty, and security to the world in the past 70 years cannot even be compared to a minimal anti-war website.

While it may be worthwhile to examine the comparative moral standings of the U.S. military versus WikiLeaks (after all, I brought it up), I think it might be more worthwhile to zero in on the morality of the U.S.’s use of military force.  Interestingly, many of the same issues that arise while assessing U.S. military strategy arise while assessing military morality.  For example, I wrote last month of the Afghan zugzwang in which the U.S. finds itself.  The potential strategic costs of staying are great, as are the potential strategic costs of withdrawing.  No matter what the U.S. decides to do, it risks weakening its position.

But the same is true from a moral standpoint.  Since there are moral costs either way, the U.S. finds itself in a moral zugzwang.  The problem is also similar to one touched on by Stephen Walt in a post he wrote a couple months ago.  If we want to make a strategic argument for withdrawal, we must argue that the strategic costs of continuing to fight outweigh the strategic costs of withdrawal.  From a moral standpoint, we encounter the same issue.  If we want to argue that the suffering we cause by waging war is moral, we must argue that the suffering that would have resulted had we refrained would have been greater.  This moral logic is often applied to the Afghanistan War, as Patrick’s FPA Afghanistan colleague Faheem Haider noted last week.  The same logic is often applied to the Iraq War as well.  As Tom Engelhardt wrote:

[Saddam Hussein’s] was a brutal regime; his killing fields were a moral nightmare; and in the period leading up to the war (and after), they were also a central fact of American life.  On the other hand, however many Iraqis died in those killing fields, more would undoubtedly die in the years that followed, thanks to the events loosed by the Bush administration’s invasion.  That dying has yet to end, and seems once again to be on the rise.

Even if we take what to many is the most uncontroversial use of U.S. military force, World War II, moral complexities arise.  What was the moral value of the bombing of Dresden, or Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  Or the pre-Hiroshima bombings of Japan, as Robert McNamara outlines in The Fog of War:

The bombings, McNarama states, were “not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve.”  U.S. officials “were behaving as war criminals… What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

Noam Chomsky has a different take, boiling it down to the maxim that we are responsible for the predicted outcomes to our actions.  With this logic, he argues that the war in Afghanistan is immoral (starting at 4:10):

He uses this same logic elsewhere to argue that the U.S.bombing of Serbia in 1999 was immoral.  Is there a flaw in his moral assessment?  How can we best gauge the morality of using military force?  I write this in the hopes of sparking more conversation, with Patrick, Faheem, and of course, anyone else who desires to join.