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Action Alert 

Ethics of This War Have Yet to be Spelled Out

11 October 2001

President Bush has not yet made a full moral case for the war against terrorism. His father, in contrast, made a rudimentary attempt to explain the Persian Gulf war in terms of the “just war” ethic before that fighting started. The high stakes in the current conflict make it imperative that there be a full and public moral discussion. We are watching the beginning of what promises to be a long war without benefit of a vigorous moral analysis. The “just war” ethic is a good place to begin.

The ethic is designed to limit the resort to war and regulate its conduct once war breaks out. With its ancient roots in the thought of St. Augustine, this tradition serves as a guide both for personal conscience and as a means to structure public debate. The initial question is whether or not there is a just cause for going to war. The ethic recognizes the right to self-defense, and the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon provide clear justification for the use of force in response. It is here that President Bush's moral analysis begins and ends. But there are other tests to be met before force may be legitimately used.

First, there must be a right intention. It was Augustine who noted that most wars are fought for motives stemming from the desire to dominate. Instead, he argued the proper intention has to be the restoration of peace, not revenge and retaliation. The president's call to rid the world of evil comes closer to holy war rhetoric than it does to the limited goal of reestablishing peace.

Second, the ethic calls for a public declaration of war. The thrust here is to identify and limit the scope of force to those responsible for the initial offense. To expand the category of war beyond the Al Qaeda network to include the Taliban or any other country that harbors terrorists represents a dangerous expansion. Since terrorists make difficult targets, the administration has issued itself a blank check to pursue governments, individuals, or groups in this war even if they were not directly involved in the attacks in the United States.

Third, the ethic requires that the good to be achieved by going to war outweighs the evil to be incurred while prosecuting the war. By expanding the targets of war beyond the immediate perpetrators, the president risks a huge backlash among many of the world's Muslims. The Taliban regime, as repressive as it is, apparently was not an active participant in the attacks on America.

But by targeting them we risk setting the entire Middle East aflame as some Muslims react to the attacks on the Taliban. In addition, hitting targets across Afghanistan creates the possibility of the largest humanitarian disaster in history as up to seven million Afghanis may flee the fighting. It is not clear that any good produced by an expansive, ill-defined shooting war on terrorism outweighs either of these outcomes. Fourth, all other means of settling the dispute must be exhausted before resorting to force. The administration's refusal to continue to negotiate with the Taliban over the surrender of Osama bin Laden signals an impatience on our part for a solution that might have resolved the conflict without going to war.

The remaining criteria governing the resort to force are legitimate authority and reasonable chance of success. The current conflict is being waged with the consent of the people's representatives. The chance of success depends on how one defines success. We will not rid the world of evil. We can reasonably expect to bring the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks to justice. A limited use of force against them may be justifiable under the terms of the ethic. But such use of force does not appear to be what the president is pursuing.

Once war breaks out, the “just war” ethic has two criteria to limit the conduct of war: noncombatant immunity and proportionality of means. The first states that noncombatants may not be directly targeted.

While our bombing policies in recent conflicts have attempted to avoid civilian targets, the temptation in target-poor areas such as Afghanistan is to strike the infrastructure beyond military command and control sites in efforts to undermine regimes. This is morally dangerous in that civilians are the ones who bear the brunt of such a strategy. The second criterion calls for using only the amount of force necessary to achieve tactical goals. Thus the use of nuclear weapons to destroy bunkered terrorists is not permissible, as other less drastic means would suffice.

The war on terrorism is being waged by hardened realists who see only marginal room for talk of ethics. But the American people deserve better. They need a full moral explanation, and the administration would do well to follow the lead of the earlier Bush administration and make a moral case for its action. The “just war” ethic identifies some important moral issues yet to be assessed.

Sadly, citizens, soldiers, politicians, and ethicists may come to rue the day America went to war without a vigorous moral assessment of what it was doing.

Shaun A. Casey.
Published in the Boston Globe.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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