Altered hearts and mlnds: the ethics of combat

Download 154.07 Kb.
Size154.07 Kb.
  1   2   3   4   5   6

Honor Patriotism and Vengeance Helena Meyer-Knapp

Draft 9/13/01

When Napoleon asserted that "morale is to the physical as three is to one," he was not merely thinking of whether a soldier was optimistic or pessimistic at the moment of going into battle. He was referring to the moral component of fighting power   that deep inner motivation of a soldier which makes him willing to sacrifice his life on behalf of a common cause.l1
Resilience and resistance to peace

Since any war can take months if not years to resolve into an enduring cease fire, to understand cease fire we need first to understand how people and communities build the resilience to withstand the agonies and ambguities at all. Combat can have such horrendous results, and inexorably each war demands significant sacrifices. Among the people who start to kill, many are conscripted, driven into becoming killers by the law or by terror. Among the people who die, so many are lost randomly, just because they happen to farm a field that has been laid with land mines or were born into a particular social/ethnic community. Buildings end up shattered and limbs crushed, while ordinary daily survival is threatened because basic supplies are gradually drawn down and transportation systems collapse. And people suffer not just because they are war’s victims, but because they are forced into inflicting pain on others. Wars are voluntary, at least in some ways, and most people seem to accept it when their leaders opt for war. Following Napoleon's dictum about the essential moral foundations of combat makes that acceptance more comprehensible.2

That war creates a special ethical context is made vivid in the biblical narrative that describes the very same Jews who received the Ten Commandments, including the injunction not to kill, transforming themselves into the Jews who immediately thereafter laid waste the city of Jericho.3 "Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and asses, with the edge of the sword."4 Having no doubts about the justice of their claim to the land of Canaan, and having labeled Jericho’s existing occupants the enemy, the men and women newly arrived at the city’s walls were free to ignore the sixth commandment, "thou shalt not kill." They were at war.

This chapter highlights three of the key foundational principles that make significant contributions to the open-ended willingness fight in war-time. They are 1) a sense of honor, 2) patriotic/personal loyalties, and 3) vengeance. Each reframes the suffering whether experienced oneself or inflicted on others. Each mitigates the pain by ascribing to it an inevitability, a legitimacy, and a sense of service to the greater good. Each of these specific values has both seductive and coercive effects. Each seduces because it promises power over life and death, over resources and people. Each coerces in the sense that war, though seemingly voluntary, is actually inescapable, to warrior and to civilian alike.

That such moral systems take over in wartime was evident in each of the wars covered in this book. Highlighting the war in the North of Ireland once more, all three permeated the rhetoric repeatedly. During the "Troubles" the Unionist side took patriotism so far as to name themselves "the Loyalists." Someone cried out for revenge after each IRA bomb blast, each British soldier’s assault, and after every Protestant Unionist march through “enemy” communities. In 1998, recovering from a post ceasefire bomb blast, leaders on both sides warned against revenge which would destroy the fragile new peace. The ?????? newspaper described their warnings:

[Sinn Fein leader Gerry] Adams said the bombing was "wrong  totally, absolutely wrong." He added, "I call upon whoever is responsible to admit responsibility and cease these actions."

Many fear that the pain and anger left by the bombing will translate into a desire for


Television reports said Protestant paramilitaries planned to meet in secret Sunday

to decide whether to break their cease fire and retaliate against Catholics. Northern Ireland's first minister, moderate Protestant David Trimble, called on all sides to avoid renewing the cycle of violence.

"Above all, I call on any individual or group seeking retaliation to think again. Not only would it be wrong, it would be foolish," [Trimble] wrote in London's Sunday Mirror.5
As the war in the North of Ireland was ending, advocates for peace asked everyone to abandon their desire for revenge, to ignore old humiliations. A key report on peace and police reform put the challenge this way:

Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly in 1998 to turn its back on the politics of revenge and retaliation. As the Episcopal father of the poet Louis Macneice once advised his diocese, "It would be well to remember and to forget, to remember the good, the things that were chivalrous and considerate and merciful, and to forget the story of old feuds, old animosities, old triumphs, old humiliations ... 'Forget the things that are behind that you may be the better able to put all your strength into the tasks of today and tomorrow.’6

Ordinary people as well as soldiers often spoke about these values:

[There is a] widely held fear that the British government will eventually betray the unionists of Northern Ireland by giving in to Catholic Nationalists and allow unification with the Irish Republic.

“The majority of the people of the UK want nothing to do with us, because they think that all our fighting and arguing has been trivial.... But what if they had to endure 25 years of what we've had to stand here, our loved ones taken away, bombed out of existence?," Mr. Simpson says.

“We can't ignore that, for if we did, we'd be letting down those who have died in the Troubles for this land," he adds.7

Across the world during the war between Iraq and the UN, Saddam Hussein too talked about his obligation to honor the dead, to avenge their lost lives:

Saddam Hussein vowed today to avenge Iraqis who died in the southern city of Basra, apparently victims of a stray American missile.

"Your blood will not be shed in vain," he said in a message to the city's people. "Be patient, as victory is achieved through patience."8
This chapter shows in considerable detail the specific contributions that patriotism, honor and vengeance each make to resilience in the midst of suffering. First, it seems important to explain the resonances in each term a little more fully.

It is hardly surprising to suggest a close association between patriotism and war. Though the term may, to some, carry disconcerting resonances of archaic nationalism, all political entities explicitly teach their soldiers and also the general population, in different ways, to develop a dependable love of country/community, a love which responds quickly at the first signs of war.1 Despite some people’s fears that patriotism can all too easily be summoned to justify nationalist aggression, and despite modern internationalism which is said to reduce the hold that local communities have on many people, any claim that the willingness to fight depends on a widespread sense of patriotism should be easy to accept.

Identifying honor as especially significant in wartime is also hardly an original notion. Soldiers know that honor entitles them, indeed insists that they take actions in war that would be reviled in peace. Furthermore, a sense of honor is a reminder of a nation’s promise that soldiers who die will neither be forgotten nor repudiated. Warriors are also instilled with the knowledge that they are obligated to respond to the demand that they fight because honor binds them to do so. In the rhetoric of national emergencies, politicians regularly begin to talk about national honor. Nations and groups that flee a fight, when honor calls on them to take a stand, are humiliated. Indeed, since World War II with its pre-war attempts to come to terms with Hitler, the practice of “appeasement” is usually described as shameful. Honor and humiliation are each other's opposite, and soldiers and governments affirm honor while avoiding humiliation.

It is perhaps more surprising to identify vengeance as a war time ethic and yet wars often start in retaliation for earlier defeats. Equally important, in the midst of ongoing combat, each new injury raises the cry for retribution, for retaliation. Saddam's words, above, frame one of the central energies that sustain a war: the fighting cannot end before vengeance tallies equally against enemy actions; the death and suffering of war must not have been "in vain." So damage done by one side is repaid, and thus in some sense repaired, by damage returned.

In wartime, adherence to these values is not primarily a matter of individual choice. Although in some people opt out of most wars, becoming refugees or soldiers who flee the front, such people are normally the minority.1 In most people’s eyes, war is not “voluntary” and peace-time, traditional civic freedom of choice inevitably is curtailed for both civilian and soldier.9

The onset of organized violence creates a consuming reality, self-justifying and dreadfully convincing on its own terms. Physical violence having actually begun, the majority of people set aside their normal economic and creative incentives, in favor of those that serve in an emergency, where life and death are at stake. The seductive and coercive qualities of war are heightened by the immediacy of the hazard.

So, why are people able to tolerate living in the midst of combat when they would act to escape at once if they found themselves in the midst of a burning house? Escaping from a burning house is straightforward prudence. By contrast, war is inescapable precisely because the leaders and their supporters have purposefully decided to risk danger to achieve their ends.2 “War is an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.”10 In wartime, violence and destruction are anticipated; they are intentional and thus even "reasonable." Success in war entails imposing harm beyond their resilience on the enemy, while withstanding the dangers that assault one's own side. The ethics that underpin the shift from peace to war, which enable ordinary citizens to become convinced that destruction makes sense, are among the strongest impediments to the search for cease fire.

• • •

These assertions about honor, protective/patriotic love and revenge are bald enough to suggest that I consider them universals, values found in all people across all time. References to each of the three are indeed very widespread, found in war stories from Spain to Japan, from the American South to India, from ancient history to recent times.11 Still, rather than labeling them "universals," they are better described in the terms used by Michael Walzer in Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad:12 In times of crisis, passions like patriotism and vengeance easily transcend local differences and their existence can be accurately recognized and understood even by enemies from very different cultural traditions.13 Still, when Walzer describes this recognition as “thin,” he is cautioning against assuming that shared words are representations of deep, shared understandings.

Despite the immediate similarities, once each honor, patriotism or revenge is given tangible expression in a specific culture, tremendous variation appears. They become, in Walzer's terms "thick." Thus combat and persistence to the bitter end, which were essential to Japanese honor traditions, were judged brutal and wasteful by Americans in World War II. Ethnic loyalties in Bosnia in the 1990s, which seemed completely natural to Serbs and Croats, appeared archaic to Europeans beyond the war zone. When Israeli missiles were targeted at particular Palestinian leaders, Israeli generals were widely condemned for “assassination,” and Israeli government spokesmen described such attacks as prudently preempting dangerous attacks on their own people. Although a “thin” universal means that women are virtually excluded from combat in all wars, the roles they have begun to play in the last century vary widely from place to place.14 In the tactics used to fight, in the distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable weapons and casualties, and in local definitions of courage and cowardice, the dimensions of honor, of loyalty and vengeance in each warring group differ, and the differences shape the chances to end a war.

Perhaps it is best to rephrase the abstract ethical labels as actions. People at war value courage over cowardice. They demand, and their survival depends on, a shared love of community, and on each soldier’s loyalty to his military unit. Very quickly, sometimes within hours, ordinary people are impelled into supporting brutal actions by their own side to avenge pain and asuage the passionate desire to punish harm done and lives lost.1


By the end of the twentieth century, the internationalization of global interactions had made it possible for some idealists to imagine that people were "more civilized" than the armies had been at Jericho in ancient times. Such notions inspired the social development agendas of multinational agencies like the United Nations, and impelled the creation of an International Criminal Court at the Hague, which promised to punish those who violated the new peaceful social norms. In this world view, multinational collective decision-making embodied the hope that the whole world shared a respect for human rights and for the settlement of disputes by peaceful means. The vision of global harmony was inherent in in economic transactions as well.

The blueprint for the perfect form of contemporary global capitalism, in which people around the world would encounter no impediments to their right to be consumers of each other’s products, rested on a similar hope of a shared sense of value and work . Corporations, other than military contractors, had long had a huge interest in preventing war, because combat is so profoundly disruptive to commerce. The WTO and other international systems increasingly depended on a shared ethical framework, based on trust in the common acceptence of market rules, property rights and a widely accepted series of methods for resolving conflicts.15

And yet, despite both the political ideals and the commercial imperatives, the evidence remains inescapable that nation states exist to protect and to fight as well as to foster individual rights and encourage trade. Power over when and how to go to war remains one of the most obvious attributes of a sovereign government. Furthermore, dissident communities still regularly depend on violence to achieve the political readjustments they seek. The US Constitution contains clear evidence of the dual purpose of the state. The President is designated both the chief "Executive" who manages the peace time government and "Commander in Chief," leader of the armed forces in time of war.

War was still so common in the 1990s that more than 5 million people died worldwide.16 Neither international organizations nor international trade had done away with war, nor even managed to assert persuasively that war is aberrant behavior. Carrying out the guardian function of a state and, for dissidents, the need to press extraordinarily hard for change, often demand the resort to violence.

Jane Jacobs, a modern social theorist, offers a persuasive argument that there exists a sharp contrast between the ethics of "commerce," the Presidential Executive realm, and the ethics of "guardianship," including war.17 It is Jacobs’ contention, and the evidence from the seven cases in this study supports her, that when a state or other political entity is performing its protective function, it will base its decisions on a special set of ethics, many of which are in direct opposition to the standards necessary for commerce. Jacobs offers a long list of contrasts including: 1) the willingness to lie for the sake of the cause, which is necessary in all military strategy, but which would be a disaster in commerce where contractual agreements depend on the trustworthiness of the opposing parties; 2) a strong system of hierarchy and patronage, standard command mechanisms, which would limit the individual initiative essential to commerce, and might even seem almost corrupt in corporate promotions; and 3) loyalty as opposed to profit, as a key determinant in relationships. The structure and management of the state are reconfigured along these lines in times of war.

Citizens of a community under threat allow their “guardians” remarkable civil powers, though some concede the powers hesitantly. They surrender their freedom of information, of movement, and even of opinion. In another example from the war over Northern Ireland, Londoners learned to stop at police check points, to have their bags searched entering museums, and to adapt to sudden subway closures. Often they did not seem to mind:

"It slows things down a bit, but I don't mind at all if it stops a bomb from getting through," said Ruskin as he worked on the clutch of his car in front of his apartment. "They can stop me every time I come through if they want."18

When a community goes to war, to some degree all of its members become guardians, keeping secrets where once they valued honesty, accepting censorship where once they demanded free speech, dependent on orders from above, and surrendering their individual liberties to security systems, the draft board, the rationing committee and the lieutenant of the newly conscripted unit of scared recruits.1 To understand honor, patriotism and vengeance fully, we need to see

them as guardianship ethics. They are made concrete by the fact that in war the task is to do damage, and the outcome will favor whichever side out injures the other while protecting their own.

As ordinary people participate in war, they are often active and not merely submissive subjects in a guardianship state. To a startling degree, individuals become capable of personally doing concrete harm and injury to other people, in ways they would consider abhorrent in peace. Above all, ordinary people in wartime kill each other. Death totals for 1994, the worst year in the period covered by this book, amounted to over 1 million "purposeful" deaths, and an additional 750,000 deaths of people officially indentifed as non combatant.19 War is also conducted at the expense of the material wealth of the combatant cultures. Governments and voters spend vast amounts of their shared wealth, their tax revenues, on weapons and soldiers. They place at risk their factories, their houses and even their irreplaceable cultural treasures, because inflicting losses on others and withstanding them oneself make it possible to determine the outcome of the war. Guardian ethics serve not only for political institutions but also to build resilience in the minds of individuals.

The authority to make decisions in times of crisis rests in a much smaller group of people than in more carefree times. Risk demands a speedy and often a chancy response. War is not a time for the lengthy process of building consensus. Risk itself has two important ethical consequences: One is that in war, as in gambling, it is possible to keep on trying to “win it all,” one more time down to the very last coin or battlefield. The other is that in times of high risk the inevitable social pressures, which in a medical emergency would call for “triage” to prioritize treatment of the injured, make it legitimate to sacrifice ordinary people for the sake of the war effort. There is nothing more important in war than protecting key leaders and key military resources from destruction, and if this lowers the priority placed on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people, that is what happens in war.

To look first at gambling as an analogy for war: Strategic theorists often argue that wars cannot end until the opposing sides reach a stalemate that hurts enough. But, in truth, military forces would not find support for their actions if the only justification they offered was a drive towards “stalemate.” Rather, until the very last moment of all, the public rhetoric of war is framed by images of victory. Research suggests that once a gambler reaches the point where his losses total more than he began with, most will refuse to quit until their resources are close to exhausted.20 The equivalent in war is that, despite the fact that defeat begins to look very likely, a war may well continue until conditions have become desperate. The payoffs and risks of war entail so many uncertainties that a big, decisive turning point, like a jackpot, goes on seeming possible.21

Gambling is analogous to military action because even the most carefully considered military strategies have unforeseen consequences. While history textbooks are arranged to show how battles and wars unfold towards an inexorable outcome, in day-to-day experiences, choices made in wartime are considerably more ambiguous. Thus the notion that one more push for victory, one more battle, one more bombing run or one more naval battle will turn the tide and change the outcome seems remarkably easy to believe. Suggestions that it is time to seek a cease-fire then sound like premature defeatism rather than like sensible strategy. Weakened leaders receiving settlement "offers" face choices like the gambler down to his last few coins: to quit with virtually nothing in their pockets, nothing left to bargain with, or to wager one more time in the hopes that this one will make the big payoff. The payoff often comes. At various junctures, the IRA, the African National Congress, the Chechens, and the Palestinians each wagered yet another hope, against apparently overwhelming odds, and in doing so actually postponed if not altered the outcomes of their struggles.

The other ethical dimension of risk, the “triage” dimension, is that in war, communities calculate and allocate resources in much the same way emergency services set their priorities after large scale disaster, ensuring first that key officials and decision makers have all the resources they need, and then saving those whose survival is most likely. As Mary Douglas, an anthropologist observed, this kind of behavior is also apparent in peace-time crises like famine. “A community switches from its regular set of moral principles to its regular emergency set. The emergency is not an abrogation of all principles . . . On the contrary, the emergency system starts with a gradual narrowing and tightening of distributive principles. ... Protecting those in command and those already advantaged results in the skeletal institutions being preserved and channels of communication kept open. . . . (T)he preordained victims meekly accept their fate.”22 [italics added]

The people at war in each of the cases adopted similar priorities. From South Africa to Bosnia, from the North of Ireland to Washington DC, the leaders were normally far from the front lines. Even the notoriously engaged Chechen leaders survived the Russian scorched earth policy for years longer than their soldiers, and longer than most of the civilians they were fighting for. 23 In the late 1960s, one of the signs that the Vietnam War was losing ethical legitimacy in the United States was that the country began to be riven by criticism of the class privileges which enabled well educated and well connected men to avoid being drafted and sent to war.24

Strategizing and mobilizing to use violence to achieve a particular political outcome and seeing ourselves as "guardians" represent facets of the human willingness to function in the special civic and ethical framework of war. Sadly we cannot call war an "abnormal" condition; it is, however, an "altered state" of mind and heart and nation, made coercive by war's risks to life, land and community. Simply framing their resolve as "almost no price is too high" endows each combatant community with resilience.25 To make this wartime attitude possible, nations and groups ensure, even in peace time, that they are establishing powerful grounding for the key pillars of the wartime ethical framework: patriotism, honor and vengeance.

Download 154.07 Kb.

Share with your friends:
  1   2   3   4   5   6

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page