Barry: Major Ian Fishback served his first deployment in Afghanistan six months after the initial push in 2002. It was a good deployment; he was engaged in counterinsurgency operations the way he expected and trained for. He spoke and learned a lot from locals about their security situations and he came away hopeful about the course of that war. That changed very quickly. Last week, we heard that after his first two combat tours, Fishback went down in the history books as an army whistleblower during the detainee abuse scandals in the mid 2000s. Afterwards, Fishback returned to combat in Iraq as a captain and team leader in the Special Forces. Because of his actions as a whistleblower, he was around soldiers who were pretty hostile to him. Meanwhile, the US counterinsurgency campaign was reaching its apex. We pick up a story where we left off last week.
Ian: I was sitting with my team in Iraq on my last deployment and I was explaining why we had to go talk to some sheikhs and to some local leaders and my team started to, in front of everyone else, took out a coin, we had these unit coins, heads and tails, but he flips it on the table in front of everyone else, undermining my command, obviously. He says, “we just need to go back to the days where we start bashing each other over the head with rocks.”
Barry: the Iraqis decide to do a helicopter raid on a small target, a target that Ian thinks is insignificant, some petty criminals. His team sergeant wants the Special Forces team to go on the raid but to Ian, there is no long-term value in going after car thieves on helicopters. The team sergeant persists and they have a blow-up.
Ian: and then he actually accused me of cowardice. He said, “well, you’re just a coward. You don’t want to go out” and I was just like, “all right, man; whatever. I’m not going on this. If you want to go on this, you can take some of our soldiers from the detachment, but you have to be training. At least take some of the Iraqis we’re training so that there’s training value for them. Still a waste of time. So anyway, he goes, does it. Fast-forward one week. There was a really dangerous town in the area and there was a group of Arab sheikhs that hadn’t met with Americans for the duration of the war. They were obviously hostile.
Barry: the Sunni sheikhs made some motions that they were willing to sit down and talk with American forces. There was a trend at the time, where Sunni insurgents started openly showing their willingness to cooperate with the Americans. These Sunni sheikhs could have wanted to adopt that stance or they could have been setting a trap.
Ian: the potential that this is fruitful is very hot. These guys were so influential in the Sunni insurgency that if they did adopt that stance, it could have a lot of positive effects. So I said, “I want to risk assessment on this; risk assessment was done, when it was done, so I said, “all right, we’re going to go meet with them.” Then my team sergeant to gets up and says, “this is reckless.” I said, “look man, I can’t be cowardly and reckless at the same time. You got to pick.” And the difference between these two missions is the last one was you got to go shoot stuff and fly around in helicopters, and this one you don’t. This is the most important type of mission for our sector; it’s the type of thing we’re going to be doing. So, get on the truck. And that fundamental disagreement was the heart of the issue.
Barry: it wasn’t just that soldiers around him disagreed with him about torture policy it was a disagreement that went all the way back to his experiences with the 3rd ACR. In one kind of war, you display overwhelming force. In Ian’s kind of war, you minimize damages even at the cost of increasing risk to your own forces. His stance on torture just followed from this view. The other side just didn’t see it this way. Moral obligations are primarily to your fellow soldiers and the most efficient annihilation of targets is the best strategy. This disagreement didn’t just happen between Ian and some of the soldiers he commanded; he ran into it again and again with commanders above him.
Ian: at the height of the surge, which is well after the outset of the war and well after we should have been learning lessons, I had a conversation with the commander. I was trying to explain why we should use an Iraqi unit that was extremely well-trained. When it came down to it, you gave them a target, they were really good. They were better than most American units, actually. So I said, “just give them targets” and his response was, “yeah, but we have the A-team,” referring to the Americans. And I was like, “well, in counterinsurgency, the normal problem is that you have host nation forces, but they’re not as good as you. So, you have to make a decision about whether or not you want them to do it or you want yourself to do it. That whole dilemma was completely eliminated in this situation.
Barry: so Ian goes to a commander one level down, a brigade commander, and explain to him that they should have the really good Iraqi unit going after the targets. That commander says to Ian that he realizes how good the Iraqi unit is, but that he wanted Americans to get better, so that by the end of the deployment, the Americans could take all of the operations.
Ian: which is counterinsurgency in reverse! Actually, that’s the opposite of what we’re trying to do; we’re trying to get the Iraqis to take the missions. It was so frustrating to be that far into that type of war to not be given way together.
Barry: despite all the struggles, it looked like all of Ian’s work had bore some fruit by the end of that deployment. American counterinsurgency operations led to a significant decrease in sectarian violence in Iraq between 2007 and 2010. There was relative peace in the region, so his replacement arrives.
Ian: and I tried to explain to him how fragile the region is, how the leaders he needs to meet and work with, etc., etc. And he just looks at me and goes, “I just want to hit as many targets as I can.” He says, “if I can die driving 100 miles an hour doing coke, then that’s the way I want to go out” and I was like
Barry: it sounds like you were working with people who want to be in an action movie.
Ian: that’s exactly right; that is exactly right. At the end of the day, I wasn’t in an action movie; we weren’t in an action movie. Action happened. A lot of my soldiers liked that aspect of the job, I didn’t dislike it, I actually kind of like that, but now it’s 2010 and I’ve had too many Iraqis I’ve worked with get ruined. I’ve seen too many of my fellow soldiers killed. I’ve seen too much of this going on to have tolerance for the adrenaline-junkie mentality. I could have tolerated it if we were doing the right thing and if I thought we were still moving in the right direction, but it was like being in catch-22, except you don’t have the overall justification of beating the Nazis because you’re not accomplishing anything. You’re, at best, kicking the can down the road instead of making things better, you’re probably making things worse. And so, all this pain, hard work, suffering is for naught.
Barry: Ian Fishback’s story isn’t the story of a whistleblower who had to keep working in the organization he criticized; it’s the story of two kinds of soldiers and two kinds of wars. He’s the embodiment of one. His team sergeant, the Baghdad commanders, the incoming special forces commander, the entire 3rd ACR is the embodiment of the other.
Ian: I find it really odd that so many soldiers I’ve worked with could deploy to Iraq for a year and come back and hardly know any Arabic. Like that, to me, is very telling because what would happen is soldiers would look at what Iraqis did and their response would be something akin to, “that’s completely crazy.” Well, it wasn’t that crazy. You just didn’t understand the situation that person was in. If you’re able to put yourself in the Iraqi’s shoes, it would make a lot more sense. A lot of the problems we had in counterinsurgency were a conjoining of moral and competency issues.
Barry: in one kind of war, you annihilate the enemy, maximizing damage to them, minimizing risk and damage to you, and for that, you do need Abrams tanks and the A-team. Moral obligations are primarily to your fellow soldiers. The counterinsurgency campaign that Ian was fighting was about developing relationships to get insurgents to trade violence for political participation. It required military leaders to be as much negotiator and anthropologist as hired gun. Empathy and moral conduct are the same thing as effective military strategy. Years of counterinsurgency work can be easily undone with one tank or bomb, without everyone giving way together. The consequences of different soldiers fighting different kinds of wars can be disastrous for everyone.
Ian: and I can remember sitting there on the last day, I’m like sitting out there, if you’ve ever been in the desert, like the night sky is crystal clear. And I just remember standing out there and I’m like, “I don’t think I’ll ever be back here.” And I remember looking up at the night sky and just being totally depressed. People talk about vets or soldiers having solidarity and all that; not all soldiers go through the same stuff. Little things that shouldn’t have been a big deal to me because they were more or less inconsequential in terms of outcomes would really bother me because the thought process was the same thing that led to catastrophic outcomes downrange and so I get really upset by them. It wasn’t healthy and I realized that part of the way through and I said, “you know, ultimately, I just need to leave, for all parties. I don’t hate the army; I love the Army in a lot of ways. This isn’t working.”
Barry: Ian may be out of the army now, but the debate continues over whether the military ought to be engaged in counterinsurgency campaigns. Supporters think that these are the kinds of wars needed to avert security threats of the 21st century and that they’re far less destructive than conventional wars. They say that it’s the military’s job to fight and win whatever kind of war their democratically-elected government orders them to fight. Dissenters believe that counterinsurgency campaigns aren’t the kinds of things that militaries ought to be doing; they’re not good at it, nor should they be. Meanwhile, soldiers are caught in the middle, fighting on the same side in different kinds of wars. There were two generals who spearheaded an effort to write a new counterinsurgency field manual for US forces in 2006. One of them was David Petraeus; the other was James Mattis, the current Secretary of Defense under President Donald Trump.
Montage: “welders make more money than philosophers; we need more welders and less philosophers.” “Plato would have been so much more successful if he’d just welded and stopped yappin’ about his philosophy.” “Scott, things aren’t as happy as they used to be down here at the unemployment office; joblessness is no longer just for philosophy majors. Useful people are starting to feel the pinch.”
Ian: for West Pointers, you really can’t separate school from your career. At West Point, everyone knows what they’re going to do and everything you do every day is, in large part, oriented on becoming a military officer and succeeding as a military officer. Your entire life is structured around that. After you graduate, you go out with all your peers and you serve as officers and in our particular case, that meant about a decade of war.
S. Parsons: we want people to be engaged; we want people to think about things and so we encourage them to do a deep analysis of the things, we don’t want people just to go out bloodthirsty and just kill people to kill people. And there may be people in the army that are perceived that way. These young people I’m teaching philosophy, they’re just, some of them, a year, some two years older than my oldest son. You see them in uniform and you have these engaging conversations with them; definitely, when you get into the meat of Just War theory and everybody in the room all of a sudden realizes we’re talking about what’s going to happen when I leave here in four years, when I’m old and sitting in the chair and eating and watching the evening news and they talk about where we’re at war, the guy that goes on that the interview there in the combat zone could have been one of my cadets. My name’s Scott Parsons. I’m a captain in the United States Army and currently I’m a philosophy professor here at West Point.
Leone: when you’re home, you wear many hats, you know. You’re a father, you’re a husband, you’re a wife, you’re a mother. But then you go to combat, where you have one role to play and literally your life depends upon it because you truly have looked people in the eyes and said, “what I do today keeps you alive. What you do today will keep me alive.” That interconnected nature that a soldier feels, that camaraderie, that’s you know, found nowhere else and that really gives life and kind of motivates morality in a new way. So I’m Major Tim Leone and I’m a graduate of West Point in 2004 and I’m a commissioned officer in the infantry.
Barry: you’re listening to Hi-Phi Nation. I’m Barry Lam. The soldier philosophers I’ve met for this episode all have roots at the US Military Academy at West Point. As state universities cut funding in the liberal arts, at places like West Point, philosophy is actually expanding. There is a new philosophy major and philosophy has been a requirement for cadets for quite some time. West Point has a large department, with more than a dozen active duty army officers with a masters or PhD in philosophy. New batches of officers with advanced degrees come in every three years. I wanted to know what they teach there; why a military academy, of all places was so devoted to philosophy and why the military seemed to fund more philosophy MAs and PhDs than any other single institution I could think of.
Courtney: I’m Courtney Morris and I’m an assistant professor, I just started my second year here at West Point.
Barry: Courtney Morris was one of two civilian professors I met at West Point. She was new enough to give me an outsider’s perspective on teaching philosophy to army cadets.
Courtney: there’s two differences: the cadets wear uniforms and the cadets always show up for class. You know, it is intimidating, walking in particularly when they’re wearing their combat uniforms and, you know, they’re supposed to stand at attention at the beginning of the class. You know you’d have one cadet to give you the rundown of the class for that day and you know the first time they did that, you know, I didn’t realize that I was supposed to direct them to, quote, “take seats.”
Barry: I sat in on a section of the required philosophy course that day. The topic of the day was Plato’s dialogue the Crito.
Cadet: I know for me at least looking at this, he seems like he’s a lot more devoted to the state than I am, than I would be in a situation like that. Wow he didn’t worry that if we dare say that?
Barry: the cadets are debating the central issue in the Crito: how far should we obey our own state or government? Should we obey it to the point where we are ordered to die unjustly at its hands? Plato thought so, but the cadets don’t seem to agree with Plato or each other.
Cadet: well, if you think about, like, the argument of the founding fathers, their ideas where that if the state becomes oppressive or starts doing things that it’s not supposed to, you are supposed to overthrow it. So, it seems kind of like an un-American concept to me to just blindly follow the state.
Cadet: that’s something you should probably try to realize before you sign up. Once you’re in this agreement with the state, your word is your bond, right?
Saythala: I’m Saythala Ponsypove. I’m a major in the US Army. I’ve been teaching at West Point for two years, this is going into my third year.
Barry: in the course of the class, Major Ponsypove pushes the cadets to see if their views are consistent with decisions they might be obligated to make in the army. He would know; he was a West Point cadet just like them. I think the course is stuck out in my mind simply because it was a course that provoked thought, reflection, forced me to reflect about the things I believe, in terms of my world views, forced me to think about my future service and what I’m doing there at West Point to begin with. I think cadets who don’t have a lot of time to reflect, to critically reflect about themselves, about their experiences here and what they would do in their future.
Barry: courses in philosophy at West Point are unique in that cadets get a strong sense from their instructors that philosophical thinking is essential to their future careers. Here’s Mike Robillard.
Mike: what was really crazy about 9/11 was that I was taking Kantian ethics and just war taught by one of my mentors. The first two weeks of classes, we start off going through these really really tricky scenarios and then 9/11 happened and then suddenly, the gravity of that class just took on a totally different feel. The next time we went in and for the remainder of the semester, it wasn’t this abstract thing anymore; we’re going to have to have some sort of answer when these scenarios are, sort of, thrust upon us.
Barry: instructors are trying to instill in their cadets sustained attention to the reasoning behind certain principles of morality, but not in a preachy or religious way. Major Ian Fishback.
Ian: when I talked to cadets about torture, and I said, “you’re professionals. What does it mean to be a professional? There are two aspects of military professionalism, is you’re supposed to be more knowledgeable than everyone else in society and what are you supposed to be more knowledgeable about? Violence.” How violence achieves certain type of ends and the types of side effects that violence has. You’re also supposed to have a certain kind of moral trustworthiness about how to use violence, you’re expected to use it in certain ways that are considered to be morally upright by the people who entrust you with this power.
Barry: Fishback taught philosophy at West Point in his last years in the army. He sees his teachings as backstops to the pernicious effects that professional institutions of violence can have on people. Others in the Army, like Majors Leone and Ponsypove, mentioned instrumental reasons for its dedication to philosophy. More often than not, in unconventional wars, it is lower-level officer decisions that will achieve or undermine military objectives. Philosophy trains all officers to think in more comprehensive, non-mechanical, but still rigorous ways.
Saythala: I think challenging authority is an important idea that they should be able to have. Maybe the people that are in charge of them, they don’t have all the answers. Maybe the answers they give are faulty ones based on fallacious thinking, based on premises that are untrue. And they have to have the moral courage to challenge those ideas.
Barry: this is not a statement I expected from a military academy instructor. This is what philosophy at West Point looks like. It makes me wonder why philosophy has such a poor reputation in our broader culture, when the top leaders of an institution Americans hold to such high esteem seem to think otherwise. My guess is that it’s because West Point is an elite institution. West Point and the other service academies, like the Naval and Air Force Academies, are educating the elite commissioned officers of the military, the managerial class of the institution. Liberal arts subjects never get threatened at elite places like Harvard, Princeton or Vassar, where I teach. Those who educate and propagate the managerial classes seem to recognize the importance of philosophy for the managers of the world’s institutions. The soldier-philosopher instructors at West Point all seem as dedicated to their job as any other job they’ve had in the army. The cadets see it too. These officers are their role models, but it’s easy to forget that we’re talking about 18, 19, 20-year olds. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be constantly barraged with very heavy and difficult questions you feel you have to solve because you’re going to live a life of these heavy decisions. Professor Graham Parsons.
G. Parsons: I think the cadets are tired of talking about war. It feels like training. Last fall, we put all this effort into organizing a panel on drones. We got more for the following event, which was on adapting comic books into movies. There is a hunger for just being a student.
Jeff: one of the fundamental tenets of the traditional theory of the Just War is that it is permissible to participate in a war irrespective of whether its aims are just or unjust, provided that the soldier fights according to the rules of war. I’m Jeff McMahon. I have a position called the White’s Professorship of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford.
Barry: Jeff McMahon, who’s written about many issues concerning life and death, is talking about classical Just War theory. It’s the central theory taught to cadets at West Point. Just War theory underwrites international law, the UN Charter, the Hague Conventions, the Geneva Conventions, and the International Criminal Court. Just War theory is the culmination of over 2000 years of Western philosophy. Some of the central tenets include the idea that the only legitimate reasons for going to war are self defense or the defense of others from aggression, and that war must be a last resort: all other possibilities for defense must be unavailable or ineffective. There are a host of other rules, but what’s important is that these are rules about the resort to war and in classical Just War theory, these rules apply only to the conduct of leaders of countries and their decisions to go to war.
Jeff: one of the fundamental tenets of the traditional theory of the Just War is that the principles that govern the resort to war and the principles that govern the conduct of war are distinct and separate and independent of one another.
Barry: according to classical Just War theory, it isn’t a soldier’s job to determine the justness of his or her cause.
Jeff: the motivation, I think, is largely pragmatic; these are people who want to constrain war, make it less barbarous, less total. And the way to do that is to persuade both sides to act in accordance with certain rules. To get them to do that, though, you have to have the same rules applying in the same way to both sides because soldiers on both sides tend to think that they’re in the right. They have to be neutral between the two sides.
Barry: the rules that McMahon is talking about are numerous, but we’ve already seen many examples of them today in our stories. For instance, you have to use the minimal amount of force you need to accomplish your military goals. If, for example, you can accomplish your goals by killing ten soldiers, you don’t get to kill a hundred just because the opportunity arises. You can’t use means that are evil in themselves, like mass rape campaigns or poisoning the enemy’s water supply. You can’t intend to kill civilians in order to further your military aims. It doesn’t matter whether you fight on a just side or unjust side; combatants on all sides are legitimate targets. Finally, you can’t violate any of these rules in retaliation for the other side violating them. If the other side indiscriminately targets your civilians, it’s still unjust for you to target their civilians. Rules such as these that govern the morality of soldiers in war explain why, for instance, we would prosecute a Nazi soldier or leader for participating in the Holocaust, but not, for instance, for participating in the killing of French and American soldiers. For the longest time, Just War theory was the only moral theory around for West Point cadets to study and scrutinize. That’s no longer the case.
Helen: I’m Helen Frowe. I’m the director of the Stockholm Center for the Ethics of War and Peace at Stockholm University.
Barry: Helen Frowe, along with Jeff McMahon, are seeking to revise some of the central tenets of Just War theory. For this reason, they are called revisionists. The central thesis of revisionism is really quite simple: committing violence and war is no different morally than committing violence anywhere else in life.
Helen: so, it’s a mistake to think that war is morally special in this way, so the reductivist part of the view is a claim that we can understand the morality of war by reducing it to the morality of ordinary life and we should focus on the rights and duties of individuals, rather than collectives.
Barry: in particular, Frowe and McMahon want us to think about when self-defense is justifiable in ordinary life. Under what conditions can we rightfully kill in self-defense?
Jeff: the reason I start by thinking about individual self-defense and individual defense of others, say, third-party defense of other people, is that I think that the justifications for killing in war are exactly the same as the justifications for killing outside of war; there is no special morality of war. Now, individual self-defense and defense of others are very like killing in a just war; killing in a just war is generally defensive in this way and so, if we can understand the justification for killing in self-defense or in defense of others, we will have understood the principle justification for killing in war.
Barry: think about someone coming over to your house; it could be someone you trust, like a sibling or parent or it could be someone who has some authority over you, a teacher, a police officer, even the president. Suppose they tell you to go over to the house next door and kill the family there. They might give you a reason, like the family is a threat to some people. We wouldn’t think that you have sufficient justification in this case to go over there and kill the family. If you did do that, you would be doing something morally wrong. It takes a lot to make it morally okay for you to kill that family. If you thought that the morality of killing in war is no different than everyday life, then the soldier going over to another country to kill people, even other soldiers, on the orders of others does not act morally okay just by following those orders.
Helen: a soldier should no longer think that it’s okay to relegate the question of the justness of the war to political leaders. The sort of familiar view is that the justness of the war overall is the business of the state and that combatants should just concern themselves with their individual actions, right. But the revisionist view really says, “look, it’s not possible for you to fight well if you lack a just cause” and so, it’s not enough for combatants to just think about whether or not a particular offensive in which they might be engaged is just or unjust because whether or not it meets the conditions of justness; it’s going to depend on whether or not you have a good end that you’re fighting for.
Barry: McMahon and Frowe point out something else about killing others in self-defense in ordinary life. Suppose you do go over to the house next door to kill that family, based on completely insufficient reasons. The family tries to defend itself by attacking you. The family has the right to defend itself, but you don’t because you’re at fault for getting yourself into this violent scenario. If this is true in everyday life, this is true in war, also. If a soldier is fighting on a side that is, in fact, unjust, whether they believe it or not, they will act wrongly by killing an enemy soldier who just happens to be defending her country from unjust aggression or invasion. The repercussions are vast. If you and a good friend both break into the family’s house to kill them, and the family reacts with violence against your friend in self-defense, you can’t kill the family to defend your friend’s life since both of you were doing wrong in the first place. This means that soldiers don’t automatically have a right to defend their fellow soldiers.
Jeff: the idea that you should allow your friend to be killed rather than kill the person who is going to kill your friend because you and your friends are wrong and the other person is just defending himself in his fellow countrymen from wrongful aggression; it’s one that a lot of people very strongly disagree on.
Barry: the primary way to question revisionism is to point out essential differences between violence in war in violence in everyday life. But here, McMahon and Frowe have a point; war just isn’t easily definable anymore. Unconventional wars look just like other kinds of civil violence. Most violent conflicts involve splinter groups of individuals fighting each other. Is it okay for those groups to kill each other, since they represent sides in a war? Or are they more like street gangs and the Mafia, where more often than not, all sides act unjustly? If you’re McMahon or Frowe, you don’t have to make a decision about this question; all killings get judged by the same moral standards. It doesn’t matter whether something is called a war or something else. One critic of revisionism is Major Ian Fishback.
Ian: let’s start with what I agree with from McMahon and that is that soldiers should deliberate and they don’t have a carte blanche, absolute permission, to participate in any war no matter how obviously unjust it is.
Barry: but Fishback does believe that there are key differences between self-defense violence at home and self-defense violence at war.
Ian: in Ann Arbor, if I perceive a threat and I call the police, I have good evidence that the police will handle that threat, that I’ll come to minimal harm, that if I am harmed, I’ll probably be compensated in some way and that the police, they’ll deter that criminal from posing a threat to other people in the future and you’ll deter other criminals from posing threats to other people; all of those things mean that I ought to call the police. That’s not what war is like. There are no police to call in war. In societies where you can’t call the police and expect that kind of response, individuals have to achieve all those ends. When individuals act in those types of situations, they’re more likely to get it wrong and they’re more likely to harm more innocent people, but if as a matter of necessity, that’s the only way to defeat and deter injustice, then it can still be justified even though you’re taking a greater risk of getting it wrong. And an interesting fact is that in societies adapted to conditions without police or centralized courts, individuals are permitted to take a much greater risk of getting it wrong.
Barry: Fishback is making many points here; the first is that the morality of everyday life itself depends on a lot of variables, including features about the culture you’re in and the availability of reliable security institutions that deal with violence. I didn’t have to look very far to see confirmation of his views; my own childhood neighborhoods in North East Los Angeles in the 90s or nearby neighborhoods of Compton or South Central, where there was a complete breakdown of the security institutions, the Black, Latino, and immigrant communities just stopped trusting the police and courts. They all have far more permissive views about the morality of intervening on your own behalf or your fellow friends behalf. Of course, looking back most of these kinds of actions on the streets were probably wrong, some even egregiously wrong, but Fishback’s point is not that they’re all okay, only that in situations like these, even the morality of everyday life dictates that it’s okay to be more interventionist in confronting violent threats.
Ian: I think since those conditions, no centralized police or courts, are analogous to the context of international relations or Civil War we ought to be comparing those types of judgments about self-defense to judgments about war. My argument is that the risk of being misidentified by a defender and accidentally harmed by that defender carrying out a mistake in case of self- or other-defense has to be weighed against the risk of that innocent person being harmed, if threats aren’t stood up to because if they refrain from carrying out self- and other-defense, then innocent people are going to be at risk, too. Society, as a whole, wants threats to be confronted.
Barry: there’s another objection the revisionists get very often and that is that their view undermines the military. There is such a high threshold in ordinary life for justifiable violence, but if soldiers didn’t fight unless they met that threshold, then they would never fight at all. Another worry is that soldiers would have to make up their own mind about whether they meet the threshold for killing morally in a war. Soldiers, in fact, can’t determine their own thresholds for justification for when they will participate in a war. Once they sign up in the Army, they give away that right and there are reasons for this.
Ian: the reasons underlying those restrictions are several. If we’re going to get individuals to participate in war, we have to see it as some kind of requirement and so, in some ways, what McMahon is saying is he wants to leave it to individuals to deliberate what that threshold is and I’m arguing that that is going to undermine military effectiveness.
Barry: professor Graham Parsons at the US Military Academy at West Point.
G. Parsons: my view is that what McMahon is arguing is that there really shouldn’t be soldiers I don’t think he appreciates that. If we embrace his view and reformed our legal system in accordance with it, we would really be reducing soldiers to a kind of mercenary status, they’d be employees. They’d maintain all their basic civil liberties, they can quit at any time for any reason they want, including moral reasons and soldiers, I really don’t think many people appreciate this, soldiers are not in that position.
Barry: McMahon’s response to this problem is very interesting.
Jeff: the danger of soldiers being unwilling to fight in a war that is, in fact, just, is very very low. Soldiers are always strongly disposed to believe that any war that their own country fights must be a just war. They are patriotic, they trust in their leaders. So it’s very difficult for a soldier to come to believe, “we’re the Nazis.” So, if you do get a situation in which a significant proportion of soldiers are saying, “we think our war is unjust and we ought not to be fighting,” the explanation of that is almost certainly going to be that the war, in fact, is unjust. There’s not a great danger of undermining the efficiency of armies in wars that really are just.
Barry: it might seem that the repercussions for thinking of the morality of war in the same way as we think about the morality of personal violence, in many ways, places much stronger prohibitions on a soldier’s action and it does. But there’s another side to revisionism; revisionism also permits a greater range of violence, as well.
Jeff: I would say that civilians can make themselves liable to attack when they make a significant enough contribution to their side’s unjust war and are morally responsible for doing so.
Helen: there are various ways in which I can defend myself against a group that’s trying to attack me and it could be that one way is to kill the people on the front line, but it could also be, say, cutting off their supply chain. This just extends to the civilian population, as well, because there’s lots of cases in which the civilian population make causal contributions to the threats that are posed by their country in war. Developing weapons, right, developing nerve gas, propaganda, sort of working in newspapers, these kinds of things. There’re lots of ways in which civilians contribute to the war effort and if they’re making these contributions, then it seems to me that harming them to prevent them from making these contributions counts as defensive harm.
Barry: there is no more civilian immunity from attack, according to revisionism. On Frowe’s view, there’s actually no prohibition on targeting a group like the Red Cross, who claim to be neutral.
Helen: we don’t normally think that people are allowed to be neutral between those who are opposing just threats and unjust threats, so if I attack you and then you try and defend yourself against me, it doesn’t seem like a third party should be neutral between us, it seems like they should take your site rather than mine. So there are interesting questions about why we would think that just because the Red Cross say, “look, we’re prepared to help both sides,” that we should therefore think, “well, okay, well then we should refrain from attacking these people.” It seems that if I’ve attacked you and then some third party comes to assist me, knowing that if they help me out then I’m going to get up and I’m going to come at you again, it seems weird to think that that person wouldn’t also be a legitimate target of defensive force.
Barry: I met one soldier-philosopher whose work takes revisionism even a step further. Sometimes, you don’t even have to contribute to an unjust threat to be liable to be killed in a war.
Steve: I’m Steve Woodside. I’m a PhD student at Rutgers University. I’m also a lieutenant colonel in the US Army. I actually am writing my dissertation now and it’s on responsibility by omission; what kinds of moral responsibilities we have for those things we fail to do.
Barry: Colonel Woodside is arguing in his dissertation that under the right conditions, failing to do something to prevent a harm, even if you aren’t the person who is actually doing the harm, might make you liable to attack in a war. The example Woodside has most clearly in mind are people in a position of power who witness, but do nothing, about war crimes or egregious moral violations in war and who can act to stop them at very little cost to themselves.
Steve: one could be liable to to be killed even if they have nothing to do with contributing to the threat, that they were just, in some ways, a bystander.
Barry: the view departs greatly from classical Just War theory when it comes to the obligations of citizens to act to prevent their government, their family members and friends from committing unjust violence.
Steve: this is going to have some radical implications on civilians or bystanders, in general, about they could be liable to be harmed or killed based on what they fail to do, but so let’s take the case of a civilian. Let’s just stipulate that this person has a moral obligation to demonstrate against this unjust war. So the first thing to say is that I don’t think in that case, I’m not committed in that case to say that person’s liable to be killed.
Barry: but even though you’re not liable to be killed, you’re liable to some harm. For example, suppose that the US unjustly invades a country and hackers in the occupied territories get access to the bank accounts of Americans. The funds would be used for resistance to the occupation. Now imagine that there are two sets of bank accounts the hackers can use; the accounts of a group called the “Americans Against Unjust Wars” or they can use the accounts of “Americans Who Don’t Care About American Wars.” According to Woodside, the Americans who don’t do anything are liable to have their money stolen from them precisely because they’re failing to do something they should do, namely, protest an unjust war.
Steve: this is what sort of attraction to the whole thing of this, the relevance of this view to war. It’s not enough in war, in many other cases to just, “I’m not going to be involved with this.”
Barry: depending on where you stand, thinking about the morality of war in the same way as the morality of everyday violence can seem obvious or can seem outlandish, but with all this said, every revisionist I’ve met: Jeff McMahon, Helen Frowe, Colonel Steve Woodside, are very moderate in the kind of real-life policy reforms they propose.
Helen: raising the age at which people are able to join the armed forces, I think, would be a really good thing because one of the reasons that people often give for why, for example, we shouldn’t think that soldiers have to care about the justness of their war is that they tend to say things like, “look, you’ve got a bunch of very young uneducated, often not very well-off young men. They can’t be expected to think seriously about these things.” So it seems, well, it would be a good idea if we try to change the way in which we make up our armed forces so that we have people who perhaps are capable of thinking about these ideas.
Jeff: in my view, the most important institutional change that we could make wouldn’t be really in the military or the government or in the law; it would have to come from somewhere else because it would have to be completely impartial and that would be an institution that would look at the facts and render judgments about the morality of particular wars and make those judgments available to ordinary soldiers on both sides. This would be an institution that would be designed to provide authoritative guidance to the consciences of soldiers about the morality of the wars in which they were being ordered to fight.
Barry: raising the age; that’s something that Mike Robillard thinks will lower the prevalence of moral exploitation among soldiers, as well. An international institution, while not a completely trustworthy court and police system, is something that is a step in the direction of what Ian Fishback thinks is needed to reduce the risk of unjust wars. Like anything in philosophy, the dispute will continue, but there’s always some progress. Future leaders of the US Army are now aware of how many different ways they can see the morality of war. All of the soldiers-philosophers you’ve heard from are at the beginnings of their philosophy careers. They, too, will have an influence on how the elite members of the military will understand the morality of war. It’s just too bad that there isn’t similarly enough awareness among the public and our politicians who do all of the policy-making. Maybe we can change that. This was Hi-Phi Nation. I’m Barry Lam.