War & Morality: Collateral Damage

Jus in Bello

In today’s class, we had this discussion on Walzer’s views on the obligation on soldiers to defend and protect enemy civilians, even at a greater cost to their own lives and efforts. The rationale behind this appears to be simplistic enough: Since soldiers are the ones who have caused the civilians to be put in danger in the first place, they have a moral obligation to protect them from any consequences of this danger.

Surprisingly, the entire class chose bluntly utilitarian justifications for the bombing of, say, food-supplying factories, on the ground that an attack at these levels would result in a faster end to the war itself,  as opposed to one that just concentrates on attacking the front-lines. And, Walzer is only in agreement with a host of other scholars who stress on the importance of war being short and fleeting, not drawn out and torturous. (Interestingly, Sun Tzu also recognizes this necessity of brevity in war in, well, The Art of War)

Anyway, I found it rather bizarre that not one single person stood up in defense of the civilian population. If I had to say it in one sentence: it was like everybody was only focused on the ends of war, and not the means. Even the idealists looked at this “end of war” as the ideal, instead of stressing on the lives of ordinary citizens, let alone minimizing the risk to civilian population.

I believe that, in order for Walzer’s theories to be absorbed efficiently, it is important to look at what forms the basis, or the crux, of the majority of his arguments. And this can be found in his consistent recognition and reaffirmation of the humanity of every single living person, no matter what side of what war he or she is fighting on.

You can see this in the emphasis Walzer places on the distinction between fighting and murder, using personal accounts and anecdotes to illustrate just how difficult it is to kill an innocent man, leave aside women and children.

Here again, Walzer gets really interesting, because at first glance, his views appear to be sexist and old-fashioned, but with his consequent example of the rape of Italian women carried out by Moroccan soldiers fighting with the Free French forces in Italy in 1943, one is forced to slightly moderate that view. Perhaps he is a tad old-fashioned, but that in itself is no crime.

He says, “These were mercenary troops who fought on terms, and the terms included license to rape and plunder in enemy territory….A large number of women were raped; we know the number, roughly, because the Italian government later offered them a modest pension.

At this point, Walzer contends that though the right to rape and plunder has been given to soldiers time and again through the passage of history, rape is still considered a “crime, in war as in peace, because it violates the rights of the woman who is attacked.” He immediately notes that it is the recognition of a woman as a person, instead of chattel, that drives us to condemn rape, whether committed in times of peace or war. Interestingly, Walzer himself raises and immediately rejects the idea that the basis for our condemnation of rape rests on the fact that the benefit derived by the soldiers in terms of morale is too insignificant as compared to the pain and trauma that women who are raped undergo.

In fact, Walzer goes as far as to say that it is his sincere belief that it is not brave men who are rapists.

And, with that bracketed line, Walzer reveals a lot about himself.

He values bravery and courage, but above that, he holds honor, duty and integrity. Yet, in all five of his examples, he emphasizes the courage of the soldiers in terms of the risks undertaken by them in protecting civilian lives, and speaks regretfully of every time duty has been chosen over this need; the need being one he repeatedly, but implicitly, attributes to a feeling of the existence of a certain connection between himself and the man who is fighting on the other side of some war.

I think that one of the problems with Military Morality is that the Civilian population will never understand. To a citizen of a State that has never been involved in active warfare, in today’s world, the word “war” brings forth to the mind only the war on terrorism. (Or the distant borders, where countless young men pointlessly lose their lives like pawns in a never ending chess-game where the rules keep changing.) And, the morality of terrorism is very different from that of war. It does have one, though. But that’s even more difficult for us to comprehend than this so-called morality of war. Because, for all that terrorism is based on loss and fear, it is also firmly rooted in faith and a certain kind of absence of choice.

And the reason the morality of war is utterly incomprehensible to people who have never been in war is that “Death” is a word used to catch the eye, whether it’s on Television or Newspapers or Tabloids. Death has been as sensationalized as rape for even longer than the latter. And the masses are just as desensitized to both.

So, our country’s rockets will kill 1000 of their men? How does it matter? If we don’t kill them, they will kill 900 of our men over the next one year, and end up losing those many lives anyway!

But, lives are not numbers.

I think that’s what Walzer’s trying to say, in a way… Collateral damage, deaths of innocent civilians, the bystanders of war – these are not okay.

A War is not a wrestling match, it is a duel. And, just as duels have rules, so does War.

Walzer recognizes that. And, just as a duel requires both men to trust that the other shall not turn and shoot him in the back before they have taken their ten steps, soldiers (and I mean this term in the loosest sense) of Nations trust each other to not shoot them in their proverbial backs. And just because the “audience” (all the World’s a Stage, after all) is too loud and boorish to appreciate the nuances of that trust, it loses its ability to condone or condemn the men for their actions.

For it is not in our power to understand the rules governing life and death, if we do not even know the meaning of death itself. And, if there were ever a Morality of Death, it would be found in the Morality of War.


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