Moral Problem in a Contemporary Society
University of Minnesota
War on Terrorism and Basic Human Rights
The essential moral fact about war is that the innocent are suitable targets of physical violence. The morality of the battlefield discriminates not between the innocent and the guilty, but between the combatant and the noncombatant. Combatants, however, cannot be equated with the morally guilty, since opposing combatants are likely to have equally legal entitlements to moral innocence. Each is licensed, legally and morally, to try to kill as many of the other side as possible. Each enjoys this license because each acts in self-defense against the other. The reciprocal burden of risk generates the space that permits injury to the morally innocent. Yet, every military force also has a persuasive ethical duty to abate the risk of injury to its own forces. Each endeavors to create an asymmetrical state of affairs in which the enemy suffers the risk of injury more while its own forces remain safe. The absurdity of riskless warfare arises when the chase of asymmetry undermines reciprocity. Without reciprocal imposition of risk, what is the moral underpinning for injuring the morally innocent? Human rights belong to each and every member of humankind irrespective of sex, race, nationality, socio-economic group, political opinion, sexual orientation or any other status.1
Unconventional, if that is a word in the same sentence with strategic warfare, pushes against the parameters of the traditional (old fashioned) moral justification of war. If it passes those limits warfare must become regulated. Policing is the application of force to the morally guilty. The moral difference between rules of engagement also requires different organizations to govern the resolution to use force. A national military is not an international police force. Effective international policing requires a reliable departure of force from national political securities. Failures to regulate the military to moral grounds of combat will likely result in accumulative attacks on our own civilian populace.
The terms “guilt” and “innocence” don’t drop all sense in the arena. Rather, they denote a distinct moral code that stipulates war crimes. After all, the essential reality of the battle arena is a license to kill. That which is forbidden in everyday life is the point from which moral negotiation begins on the battlefield. Nonetheless, the separation of the political ends of warfare from the moral fabric is always fragile. The more we consider having a stake in the consequence of a war, the less eager we are to uphold this ‘otherness’. Them against us. If we believed that loss of the war would mean the massacre of all the males, and the selling off and raping of the women and children into slavery we would not be eager to respect the distinction of jus ad bellum (principles concerning the just resort to war) from jus in bello (principles of just conduct in war). Restraint in political arena is a required circumstance of preserving the distinct morality in the killing field.
The right of combatants to wound and kill is founded neither on decisions of their own moral guilt nor on conclusions of the moral evil of the end for the sake of which their force is used. Combatants are permitted to harm each other just as long as they stand in a correlation of shared risk. The combatant who removes himself from combat should no longer be an appropriate aim. The morality of the killing field is a variant on the morality of personal self-defense. Harm outside the point required for self-defense is disproportionate and therefore, verboten.
The soldier’s opportunity of self-defense is subject to a situation of reciprocity or mutuality. Soldiers cannot protect themselves by menacingly threatening to do harm to noncombatants; they are not allowed civilian retaliations. Combatants cannot intimidate the family of…