This is a response to recent posts on The Bridge that began with Michael Lortz’s “National Security Goals and the Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” and continued with posts from Nate Wike and Justin Lynch.
At some risk of misrepresenting previous authors, I revisit the place and nature of morality in war that several contributors to The Bridge have already commented on. Thus far, the arguments have approached the subject from three alternative points of view that I believe deserve further context drawn from the theory and art of strategy.
Michael Lortz in “National Security Goals and the Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” began the discussion by defending a form of hard pragmatism, arguing that morality must serve the object in view and not hinder the pursuit of that end. Simplistically summarized, he argues that the ends do in fact justify the means, articulating an “ends-determined” view. Nate Wike, in a later post, rejects the premise of Lortz’s ends-determined view by asserting that moral thresholds can and should be applied as independent criteria for determining methods and policies for military operations. In “What Would We Lose by Winning,” Wike argues that operations consistent with our moral norms are both more effective for the ends we claim to seek and also less corrosive to the moral fiber of US troops witnessing abuses such as the bacha bazi in Afghanistan that Lortz and Wike describe. Wike presents a “normative-constrained” view that establishes morality as an imperative. Most recently in “National Security, Pragmatism, and Human Rights,” Justin Lynch posted an argument that is similar to Wike’s but focused on the efficacy of normative-constrained methods. Lynch’s rejoinder holds that permitting or condoning immoral practices naturally threatens indigenous support in the conflict area and undermines domestic public support at home. All three arguments are potentially misleading in that they overlook the strategic foundation to such complex questions of morality and the determination of means and methods in war. I will present my criticism in two parts, continuing their focus on Afghanistan.
First, the presumption of efficacy from either the ends-determined or normative-constrained viewpoint is logically flawed. The effectiveness of a morally-blind or morally-bound approach to war is determined by nature of the ends sought and the feasibility of the strategy. In many respects, the controversy over bacha bazi is reflective of the apparent infeasibility of the strategy (or operational approach) in Afghanistan. The breathtaking ambition of remaking Afghanistan has collided with the reality of NATO’s relatively weak hand in Afghanistan.
Time, money, and manpower have always been a scarce resource in the Afghan theater of operations even during the peak of the US surge of troops. There is ample evidence that the inundation of resources thrown at Operation Enduring Freedom was sloppily applied, but it requires some suspension of disbelief to see a better outcome in Afghanistan had the US-led coalition provided better oversight. A comprehensive critique of population-centric approaches is beyond the scope of this essay, but, in studying historical cases in Algeria and elsewhere, I am persuaded by neither the ends-determined nor the normative-constrained efficacy arguments as reliable theoretical perspectives.
We compromise our morality because we lack the material means and time to operate in the way most acceptable to us.
Having been dealt such a bad set of cards, what determines the morality of our methods? Is it the morality of the actions themselves, or is it the thin hope of preserving an opportunity for indigenous reform through turning a blind eye to heinous traditional practices? The choice is dissatisfying to say the least, but the threshold to sufficiency for social engineering is high. Cultural reform puts the reformer in charge of refashioning a given society. Failure to finish the process leaves the subject society a ghost of its former self and compromised to infection by malign external actors.
The daunting nature of social engineering does not, however, give a free pass to those who endorse an ends-determined approach to morality in war. The very consideration of moral compromise for the sake of our desired ends should immediately bring into question the strategic basis for a given military venture because it is an obvious indicator of weakness. We compromise our morality because we lack the material means and time to operate in the way most acceptable to us. If the venture is not necessary to the national interest, we should look to assume the risk of omission rather than systemically abetting abuses such as the bacha bazi.
The very consideration of moral compromise for the sake of our desired ends should immediately bring into question the strategic basis for a given military venture because it is an obvious indicator of weakness.
Second, morality and strategy cannot be seen as discrete elements with one determining the other. Morality, in practice, should be reflective of sound strategy. This relationship returns us to the essential considerations of necessity and feasibility. How necessary is this military venture? The more necessary a venture is to our national interest the more appropriate violations of moral norms (in practice) become for the sake of clear moral principles. For example, American jurist Alan Dershowitz has suggested that it can be legitimately deemed necessary to torture a prisoner when there is certainty of a catastrophic criminal act (i.e., small nuclear detonation by a terrorist group) and that prisoner is known to have information critical to preventing said act. The moral principle of subordinating the humanity of the individual for the sake of the majoritarian interest applies in this scenario. One must wonder if the aims in Afghanistan rise to a sufficient threshold (if such a thing exists) to justify the empowering of local Afghan elites to sexually abuse untold numbers of pre-pubescent boys.
Again, how feasible is the pursuit of our desired ends? If our desired ends fall short of perfect necessity, we must ask if the venture is feasible. The less plausible a plan is for achieving its stated aims the less accepting we should be of compromising our morality for its implementation. If we are consciously (albeit unwillingly) enabling bacha bazi in Afghanistan to reduce the risk of terrorist attack on the US and her allies by some unquantifiable degree, we should be questioning the wisdom of our ambitions.
National strength in a given military venture is therefore a reflection, an indication, of the soundness of our chosen strategy.
Morality should thus be seen as an indicator of the soundness of a given strategy rather than its determinant. Alexis de Tocqueville has falsely been attributed with having said that the US is strong when it is morally right. Regardless of who originated the assertion, the idea is correct in that sound strategy, conferring strength, departs from a basis of our necessary national interests which are rooted in liberal democratic ideals. Those ideals embody the national moral character. National strength in a given military venture is therefore a reflection, an indication, of the soundness of our chosen strategy. If we embrace or discard our morality as a discrete issue, we forget ourselves and miss the insight that is in that oft-quoted claim linking strength with being good.
Robert Mihara is an Army Strategist with US Army North. He has previously published articles in Infinity Journal and E-IR.org as well as posts on The Bridge. Robert earned his MA in US History from Texas A&M University and previously served on the history faculty at the US Military Academy at West Point from 2007 to 2010. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of U.S. Army North, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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