The Necessity of Self-Sacrifice

“Because our enemy is unscrupulous, some argue for a relaxation of ethical and moral standards and the use of force with less discrimination, because the ends—the defeat of the enemy—justify the means employed. To think this way would be a grave mistake. The war in which we are engaged demands that we retain the moral high ground despite the depravity of our enemies.”[1]
—Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster

Sometimes popular fiction performs a service in prompting us to reflect on our presumptions and to ask serious questions. The Star Wars film franchise has indulged us for decades with an idealized moral universe that pits a tyrannical Galactic Empire against a freedom-loving Rebel Alliance. The invention of an omnipresent Force, with its sinister yin (i.e., the Dark Side), takes that dichotomy a step further by casting the rebellion as a stark metaphysical contest between the manifestations of good and evil. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story deviates somewhat from the typical Star Wars formula by revealing that not everyone in the Rebel Alliance embraces the pieties of the Force.

Amoral opportunism encourages leaders to apply simplistic tactical calculations guided only by the dictates of a given operation or a commander’s whim.

On the surface, the rebels’ violations of jus in bello (moral conduct in war) are unremarkable. They mirror in fiction what many soldiers have done throughout history. What is worthy of deeper reflection is the consequence such ethical transgressions have on strategy. In Rogue One, the Alliance embraces a simplistic approach where divergent ends justify whatever means are at hand. The rebellion’s incoherence of purpose is concomitant with their abandonment of ethics, but it is the absence of ethical principle that necessarily brings about a withering of strategy. The Alliance had been seduced by their desire for survival and personal justification. In the justification and management of war, this impulse is uniquely dangerous because it can preclude strategic coherence by allowing the primacy of tactics and emotion to override the dictates of jus ad bellum (moral justification for war). For war to have a strategic basis, it must have an objective impetus beyond tribal identity and emotion. Amoral opportunism encourages leaders to apply simplistic tactical calculations guided only by the dictates of a given operation or a commander’s whim.[2]

A proper justification for war is more than merely a license to use violence. It is a distillation of the national interests at stake in a given conflict for which strategy exists to serve. In all but the direst of circumstances, war is not waged for the minimal purpose of physical survival; it is conducted for the achievement of prescribed political aims consonant with a nation’s ethical principles as well as its material interests. These principles are an intrinsic component of all vital national interests. As much as any revered theoretical trinity, ethics are the sine qua non of strategy; there can be no meaningful strategic purpose without them.

If policymakers and strategists ignore the ethical imperatives of their society, they then remove war from its political moorings and purpose the use of violence to serve parochial interests rather than those of the nation. Vague and absolute demands for security beget crude and inchoate campaigns for survival. Self-sacrifice (i.e., valuing the essence of one’s identity over the necessity of one’s existence) must therefore be the first principle among equals. Establishing the primacy of self-sacrifice over other ethical considerations prevents a nation from succumbing to the temptations of amoral chauvinism and nihilistic barbarity.[3]

When taken alone, the simplistic allure of victory at all costs is a poison pill that satiates ambition at such a cost that it will often gravely wound those societies that swallow it. An ends-justify-the-means logic introduces a willful dehumanization that makes the political use of violence something other than war and more akin to butchery; one does not require moral standing to eliminate an impersonal nuisance or hazard. War is conducted between societies, amongst individuals, and its belligerents must therefore privilege moral standing as an explicit foundation for their violence to be considered in any way just. Warfare does not take place in a sterile space where the rationality of military considerations is unfettered by the social and cultural identities of the individual combatants and the belligerent nations. Transgressions against the ethical principles of one’s nation necessarily engenders contradictions in the military and its operations—the more profound the contradiction, the deeper the dysfunction.

Such amorality is premised on a false belief that ethics in the application of deadly violence are inherently asinine. This presumption is demonstrably false. Yet, it persists in the real world because leaders sometimes lack the understanding, the will, or the discipline to submit their decisions to the imperatives of strategy which rest upon the moral justification of a given war. They fail to recognize that tactical exigencies, unconstrained by strategic rationale, lead to operational disunity as well as moral corruption. Pure pragmatism in the context of military violence presumes upon the primacy of survival and success, and it only incidentally finds consonance between the means employed and ethical principles. It is in this way that what appears to be eminently reasonable can open the door to national suicide.[4] 

France experienced this kind of moral drift in its war for Algeria from 1954 to 1962. For many in the French military, the French-Algerian War was a must-win conflict because it was seen as the means for their professional redemption and for rescuing their nation from the betrayal of its politicians. Military tribalism in France had attained critical mass through the serial humiliations beginning in 1940 and culminating with the abandonment of French Indochina in 1954 by the Fourth Republic. In their zeal, French military leaders discarded the ethical objections of their countrymen about the war as being asinine at best or, more menacingly, subversive Communist ploys.

French generals presumed the national interest and identity of France to the point of irrelevance once they established their primacy over policy in Algeria, and French war measures slipped into barbarity and strategic bankruptcy even as France’s enemy, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), faced military disaster across Algeria. The military’s tribal view of the war insulated its conduct from the dictates of ethics and strategy by binding the war’s conclusion to the absolution of France’s military honor. Senior French officers in Algeria were not inclined to be sacrificed for the sake of any political resolution that did not first satisfy their need for victory. Several of them, led by General Maurice Challe, carried this determination to its limit when they launched a failed putsch in April 1961 to halt peace negotiations between France and the FLN.[5]

Beyond predominantly tactical decisions, plans and policies sans ethics can only surrender themselves to the whims of military attrition, annihilation, exhaustion, and all of the irrational forces that resultant actions unleash.

Pursuing war aims without incorporating ethical considerations dooms military campaigns to contradictions that work inherently against a given war’s purpose. An absence of ethics means that the essential basis for defining normative guidelines of cost and benefit is missing from planning and decision-making. Without such a foundation, there is little else to guide decision making other than military logic. One's ends cannot justify a given set of means when those methods contradict the essence of one's society. Beyond predominantly tactical decisions, plans and policies sans ethics can only surrender themselves to the whims of military attrition, annihilation, exhaustion, and all of the irrational forces (e.g., hatred, enmity, etc.) that resultant actions unleash.

Jus in bello and jus ad bellum require an explicit understanding of what gives one’s survival moral standing and what should supersede the primacy of moral and physical self-preservation. Self-sacrifice as a first principle helps strategists to remain faithful to the essential characteristics of a nation’s vital national interests, and it can prevent them from getting lost in moral absolutism when taken as a first among equals rather than as an overriding imperative. In other words, an attitude of self-sacrifice enables strategists to make strategic choices. This principle of self-abnegation is of foremost importance to strategists because its antithesis in limited wars effectively precludes the proper function of strategy and thereby undermines the utility of war.

Robert Mihara is a U.S. Army Strategist. He earned his MA in U.S. History from Texas A&M University and previously served on the history faculty at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David. (Wikimedia)


[1] H.R. McMaster, “Moral, Ethical, and Psychological Preparation of Soldiers and Units for Combat” (lecture, Newport, R.I., Naval War College, 14 May 2010, [accessed Feb. 26, 2017].

[2] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 251-55, 305-6; Andrew Liptak, “How Rogue One complicates the Rebellion’s moral superiority,” The Verge (Dec. 21, 2016): [accessed Feb. 4, 2017).

[3] Pauline Shanks Kaurin, “Strategy and Ethics: Why Strategists Need Philosophical Back-up,” The Strategy Bridge (Oct. 17, 2016): [accessed Jan. 7, 2017); Thomas McDermott, “Burning the Village to Save It: Moral Absolutism, Strategy, and the Challenge of the 21st Century,” The Strategy Bridge (Oct. 18, 2016): [accessed Feb. 24, 2017]; and C. Anthony Pfaff, “Fighting Irregular Wars Well,” The Strategy Bridge (Feb. 16, 2017): [accessed Feb. 17, 2017].

[4] James Dubik, “On the Inseparability of War and Morality,” The Strategy Bridge (Oct. 22, 2016): [accessed Dec. 31, 2016].

[5] Martin Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), 133-34, 189-225, 247-48, and 294-99