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. Continue reading