It is the objections independent of technological capability that are gaining prominence among opponents of lethal autonomous weapons systems. These objections include the question of whether the use of autonomous weapons might lead to a responsibility gap where humans cannot uphold their moral responsibility, whether their use would undermine the human dignity of those combatants who are targeted, and the possibility that further increasing human distance from the battlefield could make the use of violence easier or less controlled.
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.
The trinity is a useful tool to conceptualize the chaos of war and has been described as the tension between three fundamental elements of war: the government, the people, and the army. The legal discipline, whether intentionally or not, reflects this trinity in the development of the modern day law of war. Contemporary law of war reveals a sort of legal trinity in which legal documents seek to regulate each point of Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity. In the legal trinity, the Charter of the United Nations holds the position of the government, the Geneva Conventions represents the people, and the Rules of Engagement cover the military.
Without doubt, recent expressions of international violence, such as targeted assassinations, wartime actions in undeclared war zones, or the use contract mercenaries, force philosophers of just war to pause and consider some, perhaps under-explored, nuances. However, contrary to Professor Jeff McMahan's beliefs, this does not require significant modification of the just war tradition.
Understanding Western precepts of Just War Theory, analogous concepts within Islamic jurisprudence, and analyzing militant Islamic movement actions against them may offer strategists and policymakers philosophical means from which to attack the legitimacy of militant Islamic movements and thereby weaken their critical popular support.
Man, since creation, has had to kill and pillage in his quest for security and survival. Our complex characteristics such as greed, ambition, and lust have led us through generations to bear the teeth and spear against our kind in order to keep land, power, and wealth. War and the art of it has therefore been a handy tool for man to either destroy or rebuild.
Just War Reconsidered is an absolute and urgent must-read for scholars of Just War, ethics, and strategy, as well as anyone involved in the enterprise of war—military and civilian alike. And after reading it, an energetic dialogue needs to develop and be sustained as the implications of this important contribution are gradually worked out.
The ethical concerns surrounding international arms sales should meet the criteria outlined in the jus ad bellum framework whenever politically possible. The jus ad bellum framework encourages policymakers to take the long view by considering the broader strategic implications of the decision to export weapons. Though not a panacea, arms transfers that meet the jus ad bellum criteria provide policymakers with some assurance that the recipient state’s government will use the arms in question responsibly, and in a manner that aligns with broader American foreign policy goals.
Too often, strategy discussions are seen as dominated by pragmatism, while discussions about ethics are considered more abstract or theoretical. What is often missed by people who approach the Just War Tradition as an abstract theory, rather than as a true tradition, is that as part of this evolution, it has incorporated prudential calculations that acknowledge the crucial importance of context when determining a correct course of action.
The philosophical tradition in the West began with Socrates asking difficult, important, and sometimes annoying questions of those in power to explore ethical life and the nature of human society. He claimed to be a midwife of ideas—to help others in the painful process of giving birth—and to the extent that strategists are birthing strategy and creating means to achieve political ends of the State, a partner seems in order.
This essay is part of the #StrategyAndEthics series, which asked a group of academics and national security professionals to provide their thoughts on the confluence of ethical considerations, the development of strategy, and the conduct of war. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.
When discussing ethics in a national security or military context, most people immediately think of the tradition of moral discourse about war, dominated by the Just War Tradition or Just War Theory. In this tradition, especially as it is taught in most civilian and professional military education largely based on the moral and legal principles first championed by Augustine and Aquinas, the only consideration of ethics in war involves either the morality of the choice to enter war in the first place or the ethical aspects of the tactical practices employed during the conflict.
What of the ethical nature of choices made at the level of strategy and/or policy? Rarely are there discussions of the morality of the lessons passed down by strategists and war theorists such as Thucydides, Realists of various stripes, Clausewitz, and more contemporary figures such as B. Liddell Hart and Colin Gray who tend to root themselves in practical considerations and historical precedent. What role do ethical considerations play in the selection of policy goals, the approaches employed to meet them, and the level of resources dedicated to the wartime effort?
To address this lack of understanding of ethics across the spectrum of war, the Ethics and Strategy series is designed to explore some of the following questions about these two traditions and the lack of intersection and discourse between them:
- Why? What are the reasons for this lack of discourse and discussion between these strains of thought?
- What are the points of intersection and common interest?
- Is there a moral obligation to have and maintain effective strategy? Why? What would be the moral grounds of such an obligation?
- What are the moral obligations that ought to contain or limit strategy? Are there any?
- What strategic considerations ought to constrain or inform moral discourse about war?
- What of the role of moral theory in strategy education and training?
- What is the role of various aspects of strategy (history, psychology, political science, military science) in the training of military ethicists and others involved in moral discourse about war
- What are future directions and considerations for dialog?
- Are certain kinds of conflict (responsibility to protect, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency) more amenable to a moral/strategic intersection? Why?
We hope you enjoy this series as much as we did working on it. If the articles generated ideas or you want to join in the conversation, put it down on paper and send it our way. Some submission guidelines to support your efforts can be found here.
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Header image: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, also known as Wanderer Above the Mist, an oil painting composed in 1818 by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich (Wikimedia)
Our soldiers, officers, and civilians have faced the most intense fighting since Korea, and they have endured the stresses admirably (with remarkably few mistakes given the corrupting nature of war). Nor do I fundamentally disagree with how leadership theory has developed from these experiences; works such as Team of Teams by Stan McCrystal are already helping develop military leaders fitter for the future challenges of war. The problem is that all these remarkable feats of leadership have ultimately been tarnished, infected if you will, by one thing: the dramatic absence of strategy in the Western world since September 11th, 2001.