The Case Against America’s Brand of 'Ethical War'
Our country would benefit greatly if every soldier and every citizen engaged in conversations about the morality of our wars. Those conversations would be more productive if their participants agreed on five elements of common moral ground: that sometimes peace isn’t an option; that fighting to resist an evil is good; that just wars are fought to protect human rights; that mixed motives are morally permissible; and that immoral incidents are distinct from immoral wars.
—Lt. Col. Pete Kilner, “Moral Misconceptions: Five Flawed Assumptions Confuse Moral Judgments on War,” Association of the United States Army
Pete Kilner is a self-professed “military ethicist” whose 28-year career in the Army included service in the 1st Armored and 82nd Airborne divisions and lengthy teaching assignments at West Point. He holds a Ph.D. in education from Penn State. He knows a thing or two about conversing with American soldiers—he has deployed numerous times to both Iraq and Afghanistan to interview combat leaders for his research projects. In short, Lt. Col. Kilner is a military professional with service that mandates his observations be taken seriously and answered respectfully.
Kilner’s desire for a conversation between soldiers and citizens, however, is more than a little disingenuous in the way it has been presented. The fault for this does not rest with Kilner, but rather represents a manifestation of a larger trend on the part of the American military establishment to frame the debate when it comes to the question of the morality of America’s wars. George Lakoff, a noted American cognitive linguist and philosopher who has written extensively on the topic of “framing,” has noted a trend in the modern communicative interactions of Americans to “frame” a topic so as to guide a participant to a foregone conclusion. According to Lakoff, frames are the “mental structures that shape the way we see the world … you can’t see or hear frames … when you hear a word, its frame is activated in your brain.”
According to Lakoff, physical structures within the brain, once activated by the use of coded and morally loaded language, determine an audience’s response to stimuli. Kilner’s “five flawed assumptions” are little more than a thinly disguised effort to frame a larger discussion on the morality of America’s wars: “Peace isn’t an option,” “resisting evil is good,” “just wars are fought to protect human rights,” “mixed motives are moral,” and “immoral incidents are distinct from immoral wars” all contain coded language. The language is designed to push the conversation Kilner wants toward a preordained outcome that endorses the endless series of conflicts America is engaged in today as “morally justifiable” and, as such, necessary for the greater good. This isn’t a “conversation” as much as it is brainwashing.
The sophistication of this brainwashing effort becomes clear the moment one deconstructs Kilner’s first misconception: that choosing peace is always an option. “This is simply not true,” Kilner notes, “when peace has already been shattered by an aggressor.”
He then frames the subsequent discussion: “For a country debating whether to engage in a defensive war,” Kilner writes, “its options are not ‘go to war or enjoy peace’; instead, they are ‘go to war or acquiesce to major human-rights violations.’ Sometimes, the road to peace must pass through war.” Kilner’s passage is loaded with coded language—when “peace” has been “shattered” by “an aggressor,” “defensive war” requires a nation to “go to war” or “acquiesce to major human-rights violations.” Debate over.
To better frame his foregone conclusion that “the road to peace must pass through war,” Kilner asks his audience to “consider the biblical story of the good Samaritan.” There is no better metaphorical imagery to draw on than the good Samaritan when seeking to frame an argument for a largely Christian-American audience. Anyone who attended Sunday school as a child knows the story from Luke 10:30-37, and the American legal system has made the term analogous to charitable intervention through the passage of so-called Good Samaritan laws that protect citizens who intervene to help a fellow citizen in need. In Kilner’s telling, the good Samaritan is “rightly praised for rendering medical care to the victim of a brutal assault. Faced with the options to either help the injured victim or walk by, he made the morally right choice.”
Kilner, however, is not content to let the story—and its message that intervention to aid a victim in need is the “morally right choice”—stand on its own. Instead, he alters the narrative. “But what if,” Kilner postulates, “the Good Samaritan had arrived minutes earlier when the brutal assault was still taking place? His options would have been either to fight to defend the victim or to permit the continued assault. An option to ‘choose peace’ wasn’t available in that situation.”
“War,” Kilner concludes, “is the realm of bad options. … Sometimes the only available option that leads to re-establishing a just peace is fighting back.” The takeaway from Kilner’s good Samaritan analogy is that bad things happen, and when they do, we can’t simply wish them away. We can run or we can fight, but the bad things are going to happen, regardless. The moral option, Kilner concludes, is to re-establish a just peace. It should be noted that the notion of a just peace never existed in the original telling of the good Samaritan. Only in Kilner’s framing of the argument does it enter the conversation.
This is not the first time Kilner has used the good Samaritan theme to frame a larger discussion of moral war. A decade earlier, Kilner conducted what he called a “thought experiment” using the “exemplar given to us by Christ of a person who loves his neighbor”—the story of the good Samaritan. “What would the Good Samaritan do,” Kilner asked, “if he had arrived at the scene earlier, while the robbers were assaulting the man?” Kilner laid out four options: Walk on by, stop and wait for the beating to end, rush to find help or “risk his own safety to stop the attack and protect the victim, using violence as necessary.”
“When we look at it this way,” he concluded, “I think it’s pretty clear that the loving, decent, honorable, courageous and Christian thing to do is to stop the attack. After all, Jesus calls on us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I know that if I were ever being beaten mercilessly, I would fight back, and I would want any passerby to join in my defense. So, I will do the same for others.”
Kilner tries to shoehorn the moral lesson of the good Samaritan into the framework of the larger question of America’s wars of intervention in the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind, with several more examples today in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and west Africa.) In doing so, however, Kilner misses the central point of the good Samaritan parable, which was driven by a question directed to Jesus by an expert in the law, who asked, “And who is my neighbor?”
The Samaritans of the Bible were “people of the land” who lived in the same region as the Israelites and were culturally, linguistically and religiously attuned to them. As such, the good Samaritan who stopped and helped the stricken Israelite on the road was not a foreigner, but someone who had a shared interest in the land they lived on and the people who resided there, regardless of their differences. He was, literally and figuratively, a neighbor. And therein lies the rub. Kilner tries to juxtapose the actions of the American military, having invaded and occupied a foreign land thousands of miles from its home, with that of the good Samaritan, a neighbor of the attacked man who had a vested interest in coming to the assistance of a neighbor in need.
Kilner uses specific language to couch his modified good Samaritan scenario—the “re-establishment of a just peace” by “any passerby”—that is intended to frame the debate in the psyche of an American audience. In doing so, he ignores some pertinent facts, namely that in America’s wars of intervention in the Middle East, America was not a simple “passerby” seeking to “restore a just peace,” but rather an aggressor who engaged in a war of choice. Neither the Taliban nor Afghanistan nor the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq had attacked anyone when the United States made the decision to wage war. The fact of the matter is that, if we are to accurately apply the story of the good Samaritan, it is the United States military that has assaulted the “man on the road.”
By extension, any party who comes to the assistance of either the Taliban or the people of Iraq in the face of this aggression is the true good Samaritan.
This, of course, is the last message a military ethicist like Kilner wants to impart, because from this uncomfortable truth, the rest of his “moral misconceptions” fall apart.
In arguing against the second of his misconceptions—“both sides in war are always wrong”—Kilner argues, “On almost every war, one side is guilty of initiating the violence or creating an imminent threat. … That side is the aggressor.” Having aligned the American military with the imagery of the good Samaritan, Kilner has framed his second misconception in a way that automatically guides the audience into defining an American opponent as the aggressor.
Kilner notes that “both sides in war engage in the same types of violent acts, those acts have different moral meanings when performed by the war’s aggressors and defenders. Germany was wrong to invade Poland in 1939; the Polish were justified in fighting back. Iraq was wrong to invade Kuwait in 1990; Kuwait, the U.S., and their coalition partners were justified in fighting back.” What Kilner doesn’t say is “America was wrong to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq; the Taliban, Iraqi insurgents and Iran (the proverbial passerby) are justified in fighting back.” But the analogy he offers, if perfectly applied, would require that such language be used.
Similarly, Kilner’s third misconception that “warfighting is analogous to a sports competition” collapses under the weight of his flawed analogy. “Sports analogy,” Kilner argues, “misrepresents the moral framework of war because it omits the central role that civilians have in war. In sports, defeating the other side is the goal, and both sides compete voluntarily as moral equals. Sports fans are extraneous to the purpose of the competition (with the exception of professional sports, which are really entertainment).”
War differs from sport, Kilner argues, in that in war, “defending a civilian community is the goal, and one side’s aggression has forced the other side to fight. Civilians watching and hoping in a war’s outcome are the very reason for the competition. The aggressors threaten them, and the defenders risk their lives to protect them.”
What Kilner fails to introduce into his argument is how a civilian population whose military is responsible for perpetuating the aggression views a war of choice. “War should be understood as a struggle over the most fundamental rights of a civilian political community, not merely as a battle between armies,” Kilner believes. “Aggressors and defenders are defined by their relationship to that community, not to each other. War and sports have little in common morally.”
This logic collapses, however, when the aggressor has no relationship to the community involved, such as America in Afghanistan and Iraq (and elsewhere in the ever-expanding, never-ending war of terror). The American civilian population has zero viable connectivity to either the Afghan or Iraqi communities. There is no “role” for the American citizenry other than to cheer on its forces to “victory.” We are distant observers to an act playing itself out “over there.” It is a one-sided competition, with only one team worthy of support—ours. Because of this lack of connectivity, the American public views its wars as a zero-sum game, where “victory” is the only option, not because our collective survival or way of life depends on it, but because our military is “our team.”
The U.S. military has gone out of its way to create a linkage between America’s sports culture and the armed forces—one only need attend a NASCAR race or an NFL football game to see this correlation play out. For America, war is a sport, with the death and suffering that results pushed aside by the glory and the glamour of the “fight,” with the medals and insignia that adorn the uniforms of the service members who are paraded around various stadiums like so many Hollywood extras an extension of the trophies and rings our sports champions seek through their actions on the field of play. Kilner is wrong to argue otherwise.
In his fourth misconception—“motives must be pure”—Kilner declares, “Just like people, countries act on multiple motivations. In fact, the motives of our national security strategy are threefold—to protect American rights and to promote American interests and values. When the U.S. is attacked, our rights, interests and values align to fight back. In cases where another country is attacked, however, our rights are not directly at stake. Still, if promoting our interests and values motivates us to uphold the rights of others, that behavior should be praised, not condemned.” Again Kilner ignores a premise that has the United States engaged in an unprovoked war of aggression. One would assume, having articulated so strongly against those parties who have the label of “aggressor” attached, that Kilner would conclude that when it comes to the actions of an aggressor, no motive—whether pure or not—can justify the actions taken.
“We must keep in mind that worse things happen when aggression is permitted to prevail.” This is the core argument Kilner, the military ethicist, makes when countering his fifth misconception: “Any immoral acts are evidence of an immoral war.” According to Kilner, “All parties in war should train and lead their soldiers to act morally, but no person and no organization is morally perfect. As long as moral violations in war are not systemic, they do not make an otherwise just war unjust.”
War is, by its very definition, the systemic practice of sustained moral violation. The taking of human life, both in terms of combatants and, increasingly, civilian “collateral” casualties, is the harsh reality of war. For someone who so freely leans on Biblical analogy, Kilner seems to have overlooked the Sixth Commandment of the Bible: “Thou Shall Not Kill.” While the Bible does make an exception for killing done in the conduct of “legitimate warfare,” further delving into the religious texts presents the military ethicist with a quandary Kilner fails to adequately explore.
Legitimate combat, it seems, is not the only exception to the Biblical prohibition against taking human life. The Book of Exodus 22:2-3 allows for a thief who is caught breaking into a home at night to be killed by the homeowner. This basic Judeo-Christian ethic has manifested itself in America today in what is popularly called the “castle doctrine,” derived from English common law that holds that “a man’s house is his castle, and each man’s home is his safest refuge.” How, then, would Kilner explain the countless killing that is done by the United States in the conduct of its various wars where American soldiers kick in the doors of civilians in the middle of the night, drop bombs on homes from aircraft directed by American soldiers on the ground, or fire missiles into these same homes from drones hovering overhead.
These aren’t armies in the field, but rather civilians—most often innocent—who are safely ensconced in their domiciles. Does Kilner’s definition of “legitimate warfare” extend to the routine violation of the castle doctrine on foreign shores? It is far too easy to justify war by blithely dismissing any contention that immoral acts are evidence that war is immoral as a misperception on the part of those ignorant of the realities of war. The reality is that war is an inherently immoral act that can only be justified through those actions conducted during the course of legitimate self-defense. Wars of choice, carried out thousands of miles from the American homeland, involving the regular violation of the sanctity of civilian households by the American military, is the very definition of a war of aggression.
Kilner argues that “aggressors usually propagate false narratives that portray themselves as the aggrieved victims in the war. Their lies are obvious to impartial, informed observers. Yet because both sides claim to be victims and one side clearly is not, some observers cynically conclude that both sides must be lying and thus both sides are wrong. An alternative, better conclusion is that aggressors’ reality-twisting narratives are evidence of humanity’s recognition that wars do involve unjust aggressors and just defenders.”
There is no better example of a reality-twisting narrative than Kilner’s misguided five misconceptions. He framed his arguments supporting the morality of American war today around the parable of the good Samaritan; I’ll respond with my own parable of the Wolverine, drawing upon the Hollywood movie “Red Dawn” (either the 1984 or 2012 version will suffice). In this story, the United States is invaded and occupied by a hostile foreign army. A group of American high school students band together to resist the subsequent occupation, forming an insurgency they nickname the Wolverines after their school mascot. (Who says sports and war don’t mix?) The enemy has superior numbers and equipment, forcing the Wolverines to resort to a war of ambushes, assassinations and improvised explosives as a counter.
It doesn’t take a stretch of imagination to alter the script slightly—say, having the United States invade Iraq, and Iraqi citizens forming an insurgency to resist the occupier using any means necessary. Then one sees that the same Wolverines the American audience loved to cheer become the enemy.
As a military ethicist, Kilner is supposed to focus on the ethical principles that guide military forces as they engage in military operations. He also is responsible for exploring the moral basis for the American government’s authority to raise and employ military forces, especially as it relates to the moral connectivity between the American military and American society. In framing his five moral misconceptions about war through the vehicle of the good Samaritan, Kilner does his cause a disservice, acting more as a propagandist and apologist for unconstrained wars of aggression than serving as the conscience of the American armed forces.
In the end, Kilner is wrong on all counts. When dealing with a war of aggression, any immoral acts committed are evidence of an immoral war. There can be no pure motive for war. Void of any connectivity between the purpose of the war and the American community at large, war does, in fact, become analogous to a sporting event. While both sides in a war might not always be wrong, the aggressor is. And, when it comes to a war of choice (a war of aggression), peace is always an option—the preferred option, to be precise.
The fact that Kilner doesn’t understand this is unfortunate. The fact that America continues to sustain Kilner’s flawed argument through its actions and deeds is tragic—but not unsurprising. All Kilner did in framing his position is exploit an underlying moral compass that has already been collectively hard-wired into the American subconscious.
Instead of misrepresenting the parable of the good Samaritan, Kilner, and indeed the American people as a whole, would do well to heed the words contained in Luke 4:23: “And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself. Whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.”