Military ethic by Declan Murphy

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In western philosophy, just war theory legitimates killing on the battlefield, inter alia, for reasons of self-defense. Thus, Prof. Hude argues quite correctly that

Mais, dans la pratique, personne ne soutient le pacifisme radical, par crainte de donner pour toujours le pouvoir aux plus violents (le cas Hitler, par exemple). C’est probablement ce qui se produirait, si personne ne reconnaissait aux Etats un droit et un devoir de résister par la force. Aussi rejette-t-on le pacifisme inconditionnel.

Radical pacifism simply disallows, a priori, the rationale for war based on legitimate self-defense.
Few would subscribe to this position.

But there are other ways in the modern world that soldiers are asked to act in their nation’s self-defense besides killing the enemy on the battlefield. I have in mind the role of the military in providing self-defense through deterrence. While nuclear deterrence would certainly qualify for inclusion here, I want to address more specifically a kind of deterrence that is of quite recent vintage: modern “peacekeeping missions” that, if I am not mistaken, only date from Suez in 1957.

It seems to me that there is a vast array of unresolved ethical issues that attend peacekeeping missions of the kind the United Nations typically sponsors. We Americans, like our French friends, reacted with dismay over the recent revelations that U.N. peacekeeping forces engaged in rape and other abuses of the very civilian populations they were allegedly there to help. There appear to be large areas of moral confusion that surround the attempt to convert traditional soldiers into “peacekeepers.”

Here are some examples.

In a peacekeeping mission, soldiers are expected to uphold “the moral standards of the international community” rather than the moral standards of the national militaries where they trained. Western concepts of human dignity and human rights suffuse many of the texts and documents that define “the international community.” But what if French or American soldiers in a U.N. peacekeeping mission find themselves outnumbered by soldiers from other cultures that have no regard for Western thinking along these lines or are simply ignorant of it? What is the moral responsibility of the French or American soldiers if their fellow peacekeepers begin to act in ways that contravene the moral standards of the international community?

Another area of moral confusion concerns the degree of responsibility peacekeepers have for protecting the local population. Should lightly armed French or American peacekeepers be expected to sacrifice their lives to protect local civilians? Or is the only legitimate protection peacekeepers can offer the symbolic one of their presence?

Do we have the right to ask soldiers to lay down their lives for any reason other than the defense of their native lands? Certainly most soldiers enlist with the expectation that they may be asked, quite legitimately, to sacrifice their lives for their countries? Do they enlist with the expectation they may have to sacrifice their lives as well for something as amorphous and abstract as “the international community?” Perhaps it is legitimate to ask them to die to uphold international law. If so, have we trained them with that expectation?

These are the kinds of challenges the field of military ethics has yet to grapple with successfully. It is incumbent upon the militaries of the advanced Western countries to find satisfactory answers to these questions. If we do, we will have a leadership opportunity to take the entire world to a better place.

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