The Coming Storm: Ethics in the Next War

Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.

Now, we are pleased to present an selected for an Honorable Mention submitted by Joseph O. Chapa from the University of Oxford.

[War] is at all times a sad and cruel business. I hate war with all my heart, and nothing but imperative duty could induce me to engage in its work or witness its horrors.
—Ulysses S. Grant


As the U.S. military transitions from a strategy-level focus on violent extremist organizations (VEO) to great power competition, Americans would do well to establish reasonable expectations for the future. The U.S. Department of Defense’s recent National Defense Strategy (NDS) has suggested as much. Secretary Mattis warns that “without sustained and predictable investment to restore readiness and modernize our military to make it fit for our time, we will rapidly lose our military advantage, resulting in a Joint Force that has legacy systems irrelevant to the defense of our people.”[1] David Barno and Nora Bensahel have described this kind of language throughout the National Defense Strategy as a “clear warning shot,” and a “message to the American people” that without adhering to the principles laid out in the strategy, the U.S. “could actually lose those wars.”[2] The message, according to Barno and Bensahel, is that the American people must accurately manage their strategic and operational expectations of their armed forces.

If a justified war is a political endeavor aimed at securing the political community, throughout the struggle participants must also ensure the political community remains one worth preserving.

In addition to managing expectations about warfighting efficacy in the next war, Americans must also manage expectations about warfighting ethics in the next war. Military ethics in general, and the Just War Tradition in particular, are often taken to be moral constraints on the conduct of war. The tactician works to win battles, the strategist to win wars, and policy-makers strive to preserve the polity through the war and into the better peace. But morality demands that the tactician, the strategist, and the policy-maker operate within certain boundaries. If a justified war is a political endeavor aimed at securing the political community, throughout the struggle participants must also ensure the political community remains one worth preserving.

History is replete with circumstances that have forced decision-makers at every level to balance the conflicting pressures of military necessity on the one hand and military ethics on the other. In this century, however, western powers that have participated in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations have witnessed an alignment of strategic and ethical demands. In fact, the strategic demands in such operations have often been more stringent than the ethical ones. The proportionality requirements in just war theory and in international law do not prohibit foreseeable civilian casualties, but only those foreseeable civilian casualties that “would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”[3] In recent conflicts, however, civilian casualties have carried tremendous strategic significance in addition to their moral significance. I recall one Air Force squadron commander (for whom I have great respect) who distilled the airpower realities of counterinsurgency when he said “one good shot is not going to win the war. But one bad shot could lose it.” Strikes against high value targets, for example, that are within the bounds both of international humanitarian law and the Just War Tradition are frequently aborted to avert risk to a single noncombatant. In some counterinsurgency environments, one civilian casualty is simply one too many. The high levels of scrutiny over military engagements, and the low strategic-level tolerance for civilian casualties, have rendered many ethical concerns in recent wars redundant.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

As the U.S. and it allies pivot from a focus on transnational terrorist threats to great power competition, we would do well to remember that the recent alignment of strategy and ethics may be a temporary phenomenon. While reducing civilian casualties to near-zero might be a strategic necessity in a military environment focused on supporting a fledgling democracy, the same will not likely be true of the high-end combat missions Secretary Mattis predicts.[4] Those who are concerned both with strategy and ethics face a challenge. In the years since 2001, the ethical burden has been carried largely by strategic considerations. There is a real possibility the relevant ethical muscles have atrophied as a result—and we cannot know for sure until we again need to put those muscles to use.

In this essay, I briefly look at recent asymmetric conflicts, the 2018 National Defense Strategy, and at some differences between terrorist and state actors to suggest the pivot in strategic focus in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere must be accompanied by a reinvigoration of ethical discussion and debate among the relevant populations. It is entirely plausible that in the next war—a war marked by technological symmetry in which consequences of failure will be measured in existential terms—strategic inputs by themselves will be unable to constrain the horrors of war. Participants at every level—to include tacticians, strategists, policy-makers, and citizens—will have proactively to decide where to draw the ethical bounds of war.

Wars of the Recent Past

Though enthusiasm for counterinsurgency doctrine has waxed and waned since 2001, it has had important effects on the public conception of military operations against non-state actors.[5] After removing the Taliban government in Afghanistan and toppling the Saddam regime in Iraq, the U.S. and its coalition partners engaged in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations to support those nascent governments. Though the hybrid war in Syria has been different in important ways, the common chord in all three cases is made up of the following threads.

  1. The coalitions in question were not engaged in state-on-state conflict.

  2. They were engaged in fights in and among the local population.

  3. They were engaged in fights against non-state actors who challenged the local state’s monopoly on violence.[6]

Moreover, the global connectivity of combatants and civilians has brought us into an age of the so-called strategic corporal, in which actions at the tactical level can go viral to generate strategic-level effects.[7] The implication in these three theaters is two-fold. First, the support of the local population is often a necessary condition for winning the war. Second, civilian casualties can have a devastating effect on the support of the local population. When coalition forces cause harm to the local populace—whether the harm is justified on ethical or legal grounds or not—the coalition supports the enemy’s narrative, and therefore its strategic aims. In conflicts of this kind (or these kinds), the host nation population is a center of gravity.[8] As a result, the “by, with, and through” posture that relies upon host nation capabilities and the demand to reduce civilian casualties are strategic and operational requirements.[9] To summarize, in this kind of environment, ethical concerns are strategic concerns.

General Petraeus identified this relationship between strategy and ethics in his 2007 open letter to forces under his command in Iraq.

Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right. Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy. This fight depends on securing the population, which must understand that we—not our enemies—occupy the moral high ground.[10]

In a conflict in which the host nation population is the focus of military operations, many ethical requirements are subsumed under strategic and operational imperatives.[11] Petraeus pleads for respect for human dignity, integrity, and ethical behavior, but he does so for instrumental reasons; in such an environment, occupying the moral high ground is what it takes to win. But in the next war, strategy and ethics might—and probably will—come apart. Strategists will no longer lean upon ethical principles for their operational value but might instead find their strategic mandate at odds with the ethical one.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy

As noted above, Secretary of Defense Mattis has suggested the next war will be substantively different from the recent ones. “America’s military,” Mattis reminds us, “has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.”[12] The fact that “great power wars are more likely than they have been in decades” leads us to an inevitable tension between strategy and ethics.[13] To avoid losing those wars, the U.S. military will have to engage in operations unlike those that have become the mainstay of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns of the 21st century.

Self-interest, realpolitik, and brinkmanship might still generate constraints on violence, but we should expect those constraints to be marginal. For example, in 1945 the U.S. chose—against the advice of the Target Committee—not to drop an atomic bomb on Kyoto because it was Japan’s cultural center and historic capital. This was not an ethically-motivated kindness to the people of Japan. Rather, both Secretary Stimson and President Truman believed “the bitterness which would be caused by such a wanton act might make it impossible during the long post-war period to reconcile the Japanese to us in that area rather than to the Russians.”[14] This was a pragmatic, and not—or at least not entirely—an ethical, decision. U.S. self-interest in the post-war peace eliminated Kyoto from the target set, but it did nothing to reduce the noncombatant deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson (Getty Images)

Distributive and Retributive Justice

Ethical concerns are not limited to civilian casualties, but also pertain to combatant casualties. Another common feature of many of the west’s recent enemies is their willingness—or perhaps eagerness—to engage in terrorist tactics. There is a sense in which our ideological differences are so significant that many hold those enemy combatants not only responsible but morally culpable for their actions. For many westerners, the maleficence of the Islamic State, for example, is met with strong retributive intuitions. That is, we might naturally want retribution in the name of justice for the evils that have been committed. In recent asymmetric conflicts with non-state terror organizations, those retributive intuitions conveniently align with distributive justice—the just distribution of benefits and harms. The former is the rhetoric of policy-makers; but the latter is the language of just war theory and international law. The language of bringing terrorists to justice might have great rhetorical force, but it teeters between distributive and retributive justice.[15] Just war theory—for the last few centuries at least—and the international law that has grown out of it, reject such retributivist justifications for killing in war. The justification for killing in war is not backward-looking retribution for past wrongs, but forward-looking defense against future unjust harms. Even so, it is easy for western combatants and civilians to sidestep the tragedy of death in such conflicts because our retributive intuitions convince us (rightly or wrongly) that those we are justified in killing also deserve to be killed.

There are good reasons to think a great power conflict will be different. The citizen soldiers or conscript armies fighting for their own nation-state are not likely to be seen as culpable in the same sense the terrorist is. Dave Blair and Karen House distinguish between the malicious and the tragic enemy.[16] If combatants in the great power conflict are tragic enemies, then the tragedy of war will extend beyond civilian casualties, and beyond casualties to friendly forces, to nearly all casualties in war—including combatants on the other side. The moral costs of such a conflict promise to be high.


The strategic demands of a great power war with a peer-adversary—the high-end conflict—will inevitably push decision-makers to the pale of that which is ethically permissible. We have seen it in the two great wars of the 20th century. In the next great power war—and one hopes it never comes—western states will put their strategic and operational capabilities to the test. But such a war will also test the moral will of their citizens—the people in whose name the killing and dying will take place. It is all too plausible that recent wars in which strategy and ethics have shared a comfortable overlap have lulled us into false sense of ethical security. Some wars surely are morally worth fighting—but one would be wise to count the cost.

Joseph O. Chapa is an officer in the U.S. Air Force and a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Oxford. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Boston College and a B.A. in Philosophy from Boston University. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: “El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May)” by Francisco Goya (Wikimedia)


[1] James N. Mattis, "Summary of the National Defense Strategy," Department of Defense (Washington, 2018), 1.

[2] David Barno and Nora Bensahel, "Jim Mattis Fires a Clear Warning Shot," War on The Rocks  (2018).

[3] Geneva Conventions. Additional Protocol 1, 5(b). There is a debate among just war theorists as to whether any harmful action in support of unjust military aims can be permissible. The so-called “traditionalist” view suggests that the harm must be proportional to the military advantage. The so-called “revisionist” view holds that the harm must be proportional to the moral good to be obtained in the military operation. Therefore only those military actions in support of a just cause can meet the proportionality requirement. For the former, see, e.g., Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 128-37.  For the latter, see, e.g., Jeff McMahan, Killing in War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 18-32.

[4] Mattis, "Summary of the National Defense Strategy," 9.

[5] See, e.g., David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006); James F. Jeffrey, "Why Counterinsurgency Doesn’t Work: The Problem Is the Strategy, Not the Execution," Foreign Affairs 94, no. 2 (2015); John A. Nagl et al., The Us Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (University of Chicago Press, 2008); The Joint Staff, "Joint Publication 3-24: Counterinsurgency," Department of Defense (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2013); Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (Simon and Schuster, 2013).

[6] James M. Dubik, "U.S. Strategy for Al Qaeda and Isis: It’s Groundhog Day," The Strategy Bridge  (2017).

[7] General Charles C. Krulak, "The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War," Marines Magazine (1999).

[8] Joint Staff, "Joint Publication 3-24: Counterinsurgency," III-4.

[9] Ibid., xvii, VIII-8.

[10] David H. Petraeus, "Open Letter to Multi-National Force-Iraq," (Global Security, 2007).

[11] Joint Staff, "Joint Publication 3-24: Counterinsurgency," III-4.

[12] Mattis, "Summary of the National Defense Strategy." 1.

[13] Barno and Bensahel, "Jim Matts Fires a Warning Shot."

[14] Henry Stimson, “Hiroshima: Henry Stimson’s Diary and Papers: Part 8, July 21-July 25,” (1945).

[15] See, e.g., George W. Bush, "Statement by President George W. Bush before the 56th regular session of the UN General Assembly on November 10, 2001," (2001) President Obama has used similar language. For Obama on the Libya embassy attack, see Jennifer Epstein, "Obama: Libya Aftermath Not ‘the Time for Politics’," Politico44 (12 Sept 2012). On the Boston Marathon bombings see TIME Staff, "President Obama’s April 16 Speech on Boston Marathan Bombings (Transcript and Video)," TIME (2013).

[16] Dave Blair and Karen House, "Avengers in Wrath: Moral Agency and Trauma Prevention for Remote Warriors," Lawfare (Nov 12, 2017).