Cannon fodder and military ethics

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“The best men are no more fitted to be soldiers than the best metal to be turned into nails.”

Forget the Terracotta Warriors. This proverb sums up the traditional lack of esteem for the military in Imperial China. And rightly so.

No one has the right to take the life of another. Except (a) in the immediate defence of oneself or some one else and (b) where there is no other option. Moreover, the judgement that there is no other option has to be made by the prospective killers themselves. It cannot be delegated to another person (eg a general) or institution (eg a defence ministry).

As a result, it is morally impossible to be a soldier. The concept of a “good soldier” is a contradiction in terms.

Soldiers are paid killers. They kill to order on instruction from their commanders. They go to countries with which they have no organic link and kill people they do not know simply because they receive orders to do so.

In processions in peacetime soldiers wear colourful uniform, brass bands play, bunting is hung, crowds cheer. All this is intended to distract attention from the brutish nature of war. On various occasions in Britain the authorities have made strenuous efforts to prevent wounded veterans from taking part in military pageants. One instance was a march in London to celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s victory over the Argentines in the Malvinas (known as “The Falklands” to the Imperial Brits).  Another recent example involved the traditional wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. No reference to the horrific reality of war can be allowed to intrude on its glorification in public. For that would be dangerous. Then the public might begin to question the fairy-tale imagery of soldiering and that could spell trouble for recruitment, military budgets and troop morale. Every time a tourist gazes in admiration at the cavalry manoeuvring on Horse Guards’ Parade off Whitehall they abet this hypocrisy.

Let us examine the exceptions to the rule against killing set out above. First, exception (a). For killing to be justified, the life of the prospective killer must be imminently threatened by another or, where his life itself is not at risk, his physical integrity must be seriously jeopardised. Similar justification can be claimed where a person nearby is seriously threatened and that threat can be averted by the intervention of the killer. Thus, a mother whose baby is about to be killed by someone is ethically entitled to kill that person provided that no other solution is possible in the circumstances.

The important thing is that the threat must be immediate and must concern an individual. Killing cannot be justified on the grounds, proclaimed by government, that another country may be intending to invade our land. The likelihood that another country “may” invade is not sufficiently definite to justify the actual slaughter of others.  The threat must be immediate and in the mind of the killer there must be no doubt whatsoever as to whether it will occur. Even if it is our government’s view that an invasion “will definitely” take place, this still does not justify the killing of enemy troops by our soldiers. For the killer cannot delegate responsibility for his killing to another person, whether that be an individual commander, an institution or a government. He is responsible individually for his own actions. He cannot simply kill at the behest of another.

Our argument is all the clearer in the case of colonial wars of aggression undertaken with a view to conquest and plunder, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the western “democracies” have invaded and occupied territory with a view to stealing the natural resources of the countries attacked (oil, in the case of Iraq) or establishing imperial military bases and puppet regimes (in the case of both Iraq and Afghanistan). Unfortunately for the western invaders, the hitherto subservient Iraqi Government, now taking instructions from Iran, recently gave them their marching orders: the United States must withdraw its remaining troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

To return to the circumstances in which killing is justified. The killer must be personally convinced that the person he kills is about to kill someone else. Take a group of soldiers who come upon an enemy encampment where the soldiers are preparing lunch. It cannot be justifiable to kill those soldiers as they do not pose an immediate threat – even though it is possible that, in a few hours’ time, they may be shooting at you. Similarly, it is not justifiable to bomb an enemy’s factories, even though these may constitute the basis of the enemy’s economy and thus, indirectly, sustain his ability to make war.

Now let us consider(b): no one has the right to take the life of another except where he is himself personally convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no other option. If, for instance, he can avert the threat by shoving the assailant aside, knocking them down or restraining them by other means, then this is clearly preferable to resorting to the ultimate sanction. However, he himself must take this decision. A soldier who is ordered by his commander to shoot cannot ethically do so except where he personally believes that there is no alternative if his own life or those of his comrades are to be saved. Human beings cannot be ethically killed on the say-so of someone else. However, a nuance is necessary here. Let us suppose that the prospective killer has personally given careful consideration to all the circumstances and has concluded that the conditions set out in (a) and (b) have been met. If he then agrees with his commanding officer that there is no option but to kill, then the killing is ethically permissible.

We have immense sympathy for the British and American foot-soldiers killed in Iraq as also for those members of the International Security Assistance Force (aka, the army of occupation) still being killed, as we write, in Afghanistan. They have been stationed in a foreign country which poses no threat, immediate or otherwise, to their own countries. Most of them, we are sure, knew very little about Iraq or Afghanistan or the history of the Middle East. Their knowledge of Islam is certain not to have been of the highest order. The British swaddies involved are youngsters of 18 or 19 from Bradford or Hull, whose lives are being snuffed out prematurely in a foreign country about which they know very little.

We find it particularly stomach-churning to see the po-faced UK Prime Minister David Cameron – exactly like his predecessor Gordon Brown –  weeping crocodile tears over the deaths of British servicemen at Wootton Bassett even as he signs a death warrant for the next batch of rookies that he is dispatching pointlessly into the wastes of Helmand. He would be showing much greater respect for the dead if he had taken action to ensure that they were still alive today in their home towns and villages instead of sending them overseas to fight America’s wars in countries where we have no business being. Instead, they are being sacrificed without mercy on the altar of British subservience to US foreign policy.

All the same, in a country like Britain or the United States, where enlistment is voluntary, the fact remains that these soldiers volunteered to join the armed forces in the full knowledge that they might well be instructed to kill other individuals about whom they knew nothing. In an army, you do not question orders, you obey them. Thus, it seems to us that, by volunteering, they bear a degree of responsibility for their tragic plight.

In mitigation, of course, it is unquestionable that armies recruit from the poorest layers of society, from among those who, without the army, might well not have a job. This was brilliantly illustrated in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2004.

However that may be, it is important to recognise that a person’s conscience cannot ethically be bought or sold. You can buy or sell a shoe or a car. You cannot barter, for material gain, your ethical responsibility. A person’s conscience remains his or hers throughout their lifetime and should determine their action at all times. Its operation is non-negotiable.

This is not to deny, of course, the almost universal flouting of this basic principle in daily life. It is accepted virtually without question that, in exchange for pay (ie the sole means whereby an individual can acquire the food and shelter necessary for his existence), an individual must subordinate to the dictates of his employer his inherent and inalienable obligation to follow the promptings of his conscience. The ethical implications are very easy to see, for instance, in industries such as tobacco or alcohol production. They are not difficult to appreciate either when it comes to the armed forces. The assumption is that when you take the Queen’s Shilling thereafter you do whatever you are told to do. Only a moment’s consideration is required, however, to comprehend the ethical vacuity of this time-honoured blackmail.

It will be asked, naturally, how a country can defend itself if the level of military response to an attack has to be left to the individual conscience of each citizen. Moreover, it is quite true that the world is full of predatory powers (eg Russia or the United States), which might well be tempted to invade a country in the absence of any defences. A major reason why Iran is presumably developing nuclear weapons is to defend itself again US aggression. It is a secret to no one that the reason why the US has not threatened to invade North Korea is because North Korea does have nuclear weapons. Iran wants to jack itself into the same position.

Thus, the possession of aggressive nuclear weaponry does insulate a country against attack.

On the other hand, the actual use of nuclear weapons cannot be justified under any circumstances. If the killing of one individual cannot be justified except for reasons (a) and (b) which we have analysed at length above, how much more is this true as regards the use of weapons which can kill hundreds of thousands, nay millions, of people. In fact, there is only one country in the world that has actually used nuclear weapons against another. That is the United States, which dropped atom bombs on Japan in Word War II.

[The uranium bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy” by the Americans, killed or wounded an estimated 150 000 people when it was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. The plutonium bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man” by the Americans, killed or wounded around 75 000 people when it fell on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. From a scientific standpoint, however, the bombs were a huge success. Moreover, the military scientists involved were able to draw useful practical lessons by comparing the relative effectiveness of the two different types of bomb.]

The thing to bear in mind at all times is the principle which is the basis of all ethics: the end does not justify the means. If something is wrong, then it remains wrong, no matter how many people are affected by it, whether positively or negatively. Fiat justitia, ruat coelum.

Yet if one accepts that principle, how to defend one’s country against aggression? The only ethical answer we can give is to make our non-aggressive defences  impregnable so that no enemy can hope to get past them. The Star Wars shield proposed by the United States is an interesting proposition in this regard. If an aggressor is warned that he will destroy himself if he tries to breach our defences and yet still tries to do so, he has only himself to blame if he blows himself up. However, the United States wants to have its cake and eat it too. It is proposing to put a Star Wars shield on the Polish border to defend “Free” Europe against Russia.  At the same time, however, it insists on retaining the largest arsenal of nuclear offensive weapons that the world has ever known – with a destructive power incalculably greater than the bombs it dropped on Japan to devastating effect.

We conclude by proposing a positive defence role model, namely that of Switzerland. Switzerland’s defences, based on its citizen militia, are geared exclusively toward defending Swiss territory against aggression. Switzerland has not been invaded since the defeat of Napoleon. Nor has it invaded any other country during those two centuries. Could Switzerland perhaps be a model worth imitating?

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, China, Europe, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Military, Russia, Switzerland, UK, UN, USA. Bookmark the permalink.

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