I try to think about the ethics of war as little as possible, much less write about it. It is too frustrating, and ultimately a waste of time: the same debates and philosophical arguments have been made, eloquently and passionately, for not just hundreds but thousands of years, and only the mechanics of warfare have changed.
My father, a war hero and a man who would have loved to have devoted his life to the military if his wounds hadn’t prevented it, used to say that war was the stupidest of all human activities. “There is nothing good about war,” Dad said. “Yet it is sometimes necessary and unavoidable. And don’t ask me to reconcile those statements: I can’t. Nobody can.” I remember asking him about General Patton, who led my father and his comrades during the Battle of the Bulge. “Patton supposedly loved war,” I said. “He did,” my father replied. “He was insane.” He loathed Patton.
The Syria crisis has triggered all the same arguments again, and I want no part of them. Ethical analysis doesn’t work where warfare is concerned. The conduct of ritualized killing combatants and innocents is, at best, an extreme utilitarian act that always creeps into ethically indefensible “the ends justify the means” territory before the end of hostilities. So many invalid rationalizations are used to justify killing—“It’s for a good cause,” or the Saint’s Excuse, prime among them, with “They started it!” following close behind—that it is useless to tote them up. The war most often cited as a “moral war,” World War II, still involved the killing of innocent non-combatants by the Allies. ( My father remained amazed at the efforts at “limited war” in Iraq, noting that Allied soldiers were expected to accept civilian deaths as unavoidable and not a matter of concern. He also felt that the current dedication to half-measures just guaranteed longer wars, more deaths, and less satisfactory results. “It’s war,” he said. “You can’t make it humane or sensible; you can only make it shorter. Telling the military that it has to waste time and military personnel to avoid civilian deaths makes no sense. There is no such thing as a humane war.” Naturally, he approved of Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb, in part, he admitted, because he was slated to be in the Japanese mainland invasion force that was likely to sustain up to a million casualties.) The Allies engaged in atrocities too, such as the fire-bombing of Dresden.
You want to talk about the problem of supporting terrible people and factions to defeat another? World War II is the champion on that score. The U.S. partnered with Stalin, who was a greater mass murderer than Hitler, and defeated Japan, the enemy of China, allowing Mao, a greater mass murderer than Stalin and Hitler combined, to enslave a billion people. The peace negotiated after the Second World War was only slightly less destructive than the one that ended the First World War (and led directly to the Second): The U.S. handed over half of Europe to Communism, laying the seeds of the Cold War that only avoided ending humanity in a nuclear holocaust by pure moral luck. The fact that WWII is the “best” war powerfully makes the case: ethics and war have nothing to do with each other. Each renders the other useless and incoherent.
The absolutist position that war cannot be justified and thus should never be undertaken is no better. Pacifists engage in an intellectually dishonest form of absolutism that argues that if everyone eschews war on moral grounds, the world will be a better place, and thus it is each individual’s moral and ethical duty to refuse to fight or support armed conflict. But pacifists, unless they are deluded, know that everyone on earth will not behave in this noble fashion, and those who don’t will spread carnage without opposition as a result. I heard Daniel Berrigan give a jaw-dropping interview in which he suggested that non-violent protest might have stopped Hitler, if it had been given a chance. Look, he said, at what Gandhi had accomplished in India! Was Berrigan serious? Gandhi had the considerable advantage of dealing with the British government, which cared about its image in the world; Hitler would have reduced the Mahatma to a grease spot.
To fight evil, sometimes you must engage in evil. Nietzsche was wrong about a lot, but he wasn’t wrong about that….unfortunately. It was perplexing but instructive watching BET’s Tavis Smiley, as a guest on ABC’s Sunday Morning With George Stephanopoulos, protest that calls for strikes against Syria were an affront to the memory and teachings of Martin Luther King. Smiley said that non-violent means should be used to stop the killing. He had no idea how that could be done, or even a coherent argument for why King’s methods could prevail in Syria: he just kept saying that it was a disgrace that there wasn’t a peaceful alternative to violence. Yes, war is a disgrace to humanity. But ignoring reality is neither responsible nor ethical.
What would be, or have been, the most ethical response by the U.S. toward Syria? If I look at Syria, Rwanda, Libya, Iraq and Bosnia as international equivalents of the Kitty Genovese syndrome, or this, or this, I can easily reach a conclusion that the United States is ethically obligated to step in and rescue the innocents who are being slaughtered. It has the power to do good, and the U.S. aspires to be a force for good worldwide, not merely at home. I have always been proud and supportive of that traditional idealistic impulse, first posited by Teddy Roosevelt, but it is hard to deny the evidence that U.S. police actions and international adventures have done at least as much damage as good over the last century or so.
For these are usually not simple rescues, like the individual cases I linked to, but are more like the disastrous rescue in Star Trek’s famous episode,“The City on the Edge of Forever,” where McCoy’s courageous and well-intentioned act saving a courageous woman’s life begins a chain of events that alters the course of history in terrible ways. Ultimately, the ethical act is to let her die, not rescue her. It is tempting to argue that the U.S. should have intervened in the Syrian conflict before 110,000 Syrians had died and over a million refugees had been displaced; pundits like the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen have written repeatedly that the U.S’s failure to stop the killing is immoral. That argument has natural appeal for me, but I am not so sure it is correct.
Post writer Max Fisher assembled a useful and much quoted overview of the conundrum that is Syria; if you haven’t read it yet, it is here. What he describes is a classic chaotic system; indeed, international affairs, and war of course, are all chaotic systems. Chaotic systems are by their nature unpredictable because of their complexity; unintended consequences are not merely likely, but certain. If we define an ethical act as that which is most likely to have the result that will lead to the most good for the most people, then the only honest answer to the question, “What is the most ethical course for the U.S. to take in Syria?” must be, “I have no idea, and neither do you.” Unfortunately, taking no action is also action, and that could be disastrous too.
The individuals who have the courage, fortitude, intelligence and boldness to make decisions under such impossibly murky, risky, uncertain and dangerous conditions are called leaders. Those who are incapable of making such decisions, and who refuse to accept the fact that making them is an essential part of their duty and an unavoidable burden of the job are called incompetent leaders, or perhaps “people who have no business being leaders at all.” The current turn in the Syrian crisis, regardless of one’s position on the ethics of war or the most ethical U.S. involvement in that nation’s conflict, has exposed President Barack Obama as an incompetent leader, and to a frightening extent I would not have believed possible.
The President’s planned course of action is to a few launch missiles against specific targets in Syria. This is being done, apparently, to avoid the consequences of the massive gaffe the President made, asserting in public that the use of chemical weapons by the forces of Syrian President Assad against the insurgents would cross a “red line” in respect to the U.S.’s policy of avoiding military involvement. This was recognized at the time, at least by media commentators and analysts who were not committed to ignoring this President’s blunders whatever they may be, as a dangerous statement, risking U.S. credibility and international influence in ways that could provoke Iran, North Korea, and China. Sure enough, Syria’s government crossed that “red line,” and the President initially stalled, as is his habit. Finally, the photographs and the evidence created too much pressure and criticism, and President Obama was faced with the necessity of taking action that Senator Obama would have certainly condemned.
This is not hypocrisy,* as the President’s critics have claimed, any more than it was hypocrisy for Candidate George W. Bush, who famously called for “humility” in U.S. foreign policy and a retreat from “nation building,” to take diametrically contradictory action in the wake of 9-11. Candidates and Senators, much as they would like us to think otherwise, have no idea what the realities of being President of the United States will be, and it is far, far more responsible that they reject their previous pronouncements and act according to the inconvenient challenges of reality once in office than to seek a foolish consistency.
However, the course of action being proposed—well, first announced, then proposed…also typical of this President’s weak and feckless style—is unethical, even within the ambiguous ethical frameworks of war and Syria. That is quite an accomplishment, one that only the most inept, untalented and unschooled of leaders could manage:
- President Obama insists that the U.S. should engage in an act of war—shooting missiles at another country is an act of war by any definition—while insisting that it will not constitute an act of war. Dishonest. Unethical.
- He says the missile attack is “punishment” for the Assad government’s using banned chemical weapons. However, the missiles will not target Assad, nor will they target the chemical weapons, or do anything to limit their use. They will, instead kill Syrians who are not Assad, which, in a context that has already been declared not be warfare, is either terrorism, or murder. They will not constitute real punishment, only a weak imitation of it. Unethical.
- Obama had his Secretary of State, John Kerry, make the case that the strike was “urgent,” and make the same case to the British Government, causing a rushed presentation to Parliament that resulted in a humiliating rebuke for the Prime Minister. Incompetent. Irresponsible. Unethical.
- Gauging the negative polls and seeing the result in Great Britain, the President suddenly did a turnabout while, we are told, consulting with a political advisor, not his military advisors. He would now seek Congressional approval. Suddenly, the “punishment” was not so urgent. Now, in order to provide political cover, the Syrian government would have an opportunity to move or hide the chemical weapons, and prepare for the strike. The reversal was widely received as a sign of weakness by the President and the U.S., which it is. Incompetent. Dishonest. Irresponsible. Unethical.
- The President has described the missile attack as a warning, and a “shot across the bow.” It is not a warning, however, because the President has already promised that there will be no further engagement. Dishonest. Irresponsible. Incompetent. (Idiotic, but I digress…) Unethical.
- The authorization the President seeks is far broader than necessary for the action he seeks, and opens the door to wider engagement and presidential over-reach. Untrustworthy. Unethical.
- The President refuses to agree that he will abide by Congress’s decision, making it appear likely that this is not a bow to Constitutional process, but a political maneuver rooted in cowardice and cynical strategy. Though the perceived need to respond to the crossing of the “red line” in Syria is entirely of the President’s own making, he is forcing Congress to share accountability for the unpredictable results, or, in the alternative, to give him the excuse, when he is accused of making a threat he could not back up, that a hyper-partisan Congress wouldn’t back him. Of course, making threats one is incapable of following through on is still poor leadership—dishonest and humiliating, leading to the speculation that if Congress does not provide political cover, Obama will shoot the missiles anyway. Untrustworthy. Unaccountable. Irresponsible. Dishonest. Incompetent. Unethical.
- The President appears to be risking (in the view of many experts) a wider war in the region, an attack on Israel, the killing of innocents, and projecting an image of weakness to Iran and others, all to send a “warning” that is not a warning, since the threat of further measures has already been denied, while intentionally neither weakening Assad nor helping the insurgents, in order to save face personally.
Shockingly, his party appears to be willing to accept that. Here is D.C.’s (non-voting) representative in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, in an interview with Bill Press:
Del. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (D-DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA): I happen to believe there has to be a response. I do, I do believe in crimes against humanity need to be addressed, and I am, I can’t believe that the only way to address it is a slight bombing which will somehow punish somebody or deter somebody. I don’t know if there’s some way other than a military way to address this.
BILL PRESS, HOST: You’re kind to join us this morning, Congresswoman. Let me just ask you one final question before we let you go. If, as you said, if the vote were held today, the president would probably not win it. If he doesn’t win it, a week from now, do you think the president will be justified in taking action on his own, you know, unilaterally with Congress having voted against it?
HOLMES NORTON: No, oh boy, no. I think it’ll be like the red line trap. He said if the red line you cross it. I think once you say, “I’m going to Congress,” you can’t say, “Okay, I’m going to do it anyway.”
PRESS: Yeah, yeah, I don’t…
HOLMES NORTON: So I think he’ll be in real trouble if he then does it anyway. No president has done that.
PRESS: It’s not an easy decision for any of you, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.
HOLMES NORTON: Oh, and I’d like to say, Bill, that if he gets saved at all, I think it’ll be because, it’ll be because of loyalty of Democrats. They just don’t want to see him shamed and humiliated on the national stage.
PRESS: Yeah, right.
HOLMES NORTON: At the, at the moment, that’s the only reason I would vote for it if I could vote on it.
Let’s kill some random Syrians because Barack Obama is hopelessly over his head and can’t devise or execute a coherent foreign policy strategy in one of the most perilous and difficult periods our nation has ever faced. Somehow, “unethical” fails to express the enormous cynical, horrifying wrongness of this, and the utter debasement of the United States this episode symbolizes on the world stage.
* If you want a sample of why so many critics call Obama’s current position hypocritical, however, you should read James Taranto’s essay here.
Graphic: A Piece of Monologue