Resolving Ethical Challenges in an Era of Persistent Conflict
Authored by Colonel Tony Pfaff.
The character of irregular warfare has challenged the American “way of war” in a number of ways. Not only does it challenge how U.S. forces fight, it also brings into question the ethical norms that they employ to govern the fighting. The resulting confusion is especially evident in the public debate over the use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, traditional just war thinking has permitted collateral damage that has undermined the civil order that those military operations are intended to impose, while at the same time has prohibited Soldiers from killing or detaining the enemy who threatens that order in the first place. These counterintuitive outcomes suggest that the traditional view needs to be revised in light of the demands of combating irregular threats. Revising this view will have to take into account the emphasis that combating irregular threats places on populations rather than on military capability. In doing so, it expands the ends and means of war requiring Soldiers to not only defend the state, but to impose civil-order outside the state as well. These complications fundamentally change the character of warfare and require Soldiers to rethink where they may accept and place risk when balancing the ethical demands of their profession. This point has important implications for the way the United States should fight irregular wars and the norms they should employ to govern them.
Combating irregular threats has challenged the American “way of war” in a number of ways. Not only does it challenge how U.S. forces fight, it also brings into question the ethical norms they employ to govern the fighting. The resulting confusion is especially evident in the public debate over the rules of engagement used in Afghanistan. On the one hand, many are concerned that restrictions on the use of force have placed Soldiers' lives needlessly at risk. On the other, many are concerned that risking civilian casualties is not only immoral in irregular war, but undermines the war effort.
The rules of war entail balancing three competing imperatives: (1) accomplishing the mission; (2) protecting the force; and (3) minimizing harm. Determining that balance entails determining where one should accept risk. Accomplishing missions risks Soldiers and civilians; protecting the force risks mission accomplishment and civilians; and minimizing harm risks mission accomplishment and force protection. Where risk should be accepted depends on the ends the use of military force is intended to achieve, as well as the character of the adversary.
To understand why the ends and adversaries associated with combating irregular threats pose special challenges to ethical decisionmaking, one must first grasp the complex relationship these competing imperatives have with the amount of risk Soldiers may accept or the amount of risk to which they may assign to others. Confronting such threats emphasizes populations rather than military forces and capabilities. In doing so, it expands the ends and means of war, requiring Soldiers not only to defend the state, but to impose civil order outside the state as well. These complications fundamentally change the character of warfare, requiring Soldiers to rethink where they may incur and assign risk when balancing the ethical demands of their profession.
This point has important implications for the way U.S. forces should fight irregular adversaries, and the norms they should employ. First, it suggests that destruction of the enemy combat capability may paradoxically put true mission accomplishment at risk, especially when civilian lives are jeopardized. Second, it suggests that as the supported government develops the capacity for governance, the use of military force must itself transition from warfighting, where some collateral damage is inevitable, to law enforcement, where it is not. This monograph will offer a number of policy recommendations to accommodate these two propositions.
What should also be obvious from this introductory framework is that the identity of the military professional will have to evolve to meet the demands of the environment of irregular conflict. The good qualities of a military professional derive from the purpose and function of the profession and the environment in which it is practiced. As the function and the environment change, so must the qualities of the good professional. This monograph will thus offer policy recommendations for future Army leader employment and development.
Access Full Report [PDF]: Resolving Ethical Challenges in an Era of Persistent Conflict
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|