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The Army is a state institution that possesses the force of weapons. Under what conditions is the use of armed force legitimate? The answer to this question lies in military ethics. For a soldier, working for a better world is to reconcile the occasional need to use force with the obligations of the principle of humanity. This principle states that all human beings belong to one same humankind, and every individual has an inalienable right to respect of his life, integrity, and dignity.
This article contains some observations for a possible and necessary military ethics. It deals with aspects such as the legitimacy of recourse to war and legitimacy in warfare.
An ethics based on the principle of humanity
Awareness of the unity of the human species has gradually spread over the centuries.
Paradoxically, it is possible to think that the magnitude of the barbaric regression of the twentieth century and the horror inspired by images conveyed the world over through modern means of communication have contributed to increasing awareness of what we will call the principle of humanity:
All human beings, whatever their race, nationality, gender, age, opinion, or religion, belong to one same humanity, and every individual has an inalienable right to respect for his life, integrity, and dignity.
This principle, which is at the core of the commons in our henceforth global world, includes three different aspects:
the universality of humankind
the value of the human person and his or her life, integrity, and dignity
our obligation to work for a better world.
The army: a state institution possessing the force of weapons
An army is an organization possessing the power given to it by the arms, or weapons, with which it is equipped. In other words, the awesome power to cause destruction and death.
It is accountable to a state; otherwise it is not an army, but a gang or militia.
Its out-of-norms nature makes it one of the strongest expressions of the power of the state.
The primary role of the state is to look after the protection of all citizens in a context of world violence.
The army, at the service of the state, is thus the most powerful means to divert and, if necessary, to face and to defeat this violence.
How can the use of force that this supposes, with its capacity for destruction and death, be compatible with the obligation of service to the commons, subordinated to the “principle of humanity”?
In other words, under what conditions is the use of armed force legitimate?
This is the question that must be answered by military ethics.
The legitimacy of recourse to war
This question has been raised for centuries.
The answer formulated in the West as early as the Middle Ages is once again becoming current. Recourse to war is legitimate:
if the authority that makes the decision to wage war is itself legitimate
if all other means to reach the stated ends have been exhausted
if the intention is right, that is, if the purpose is to return to peace and not some other hidden agenda
if the means implemented are proportionate to the danger to be combated
if there is no risk that the damages brought about will be greater than those to be prevented
if, finally, there is no other reasonable course of action that might succeed.
Recently, however, we have witnessed
“military operations other than war,” with soldiers armed only for self-defense, generally under a United Nations umbrella,
and war operations, with the immediate implementation of considerable means of destruction.
Experience has shown the inanity of these concepts.
In the first case, “force” is powerless before the violence that has been unleashed, as could be seen in Bosnia in 1992-95 and in this, betrays the values it claims to defend.
In the second case, these values are betrayed by excess and the subsequent magnitude of destruction and “collateral damage.”
In fact, military action is one: it is always, at least potentially, the use of force in proportion to the violence to be fought against, from the lowest level of intensity, to the highest if needed. But it should always be measured, controlled force, neither too much nor too little.
Thus, the conditions for the legitimacy of war recalled above are more than ever topical; proof of this, if needed, is largely found in the current, deadly war of Iraq.
Legitimacy in warfare
Supposing that a war is legitimate, it is still necessary that in its conduct the behavior of soldiers does not tarnish said legitimacy with cruelty or barbarism.
Today’s “law of armed conflict,” ratified by all the nations of the world, has also revitalized the ideal, many centuries old, of a “war without hate.” This ideal can be summed up in two obligations:
Belligerents must be concerned with sparing those who do not bear weapons, in other words, civilian populations.
The adversary must be respected; when he is disarmed, injured, or made prisoner, respect due to his human dignity also extends to his life and his physical integrity.
These obligations run up against a number of realities: the realities of combat, with the murderous intoxication that can take hold of the fighters; also those of unbearable scenes that can rouse to vengeance or reprisal.
In these specific situations, it is not the grand principles that will motivate actions. The ultimate motivation, sometimes the only one, is the force of cohesion of the group. This cohesion relies on the “brotherhood of arms,” a connection that unites both fellow soldiers with one another and soldiers with their chiefs, thanks to which an exceptional collective confidence develops.
This is obviously, however, for better or for worse.
For this reason, the role of leaders is decisive. It is up to the leaders to win trust, first through their competence, as well as through an authority combining a necessary firmness with a flawless exemplarity and understanding care for each of their subordinates. On this basis, they will be able to train their soldiers to neutralize any impulse of hate and murder.
It is also up to leaders, in those terrifying situations where there is no good solution, to cultivate the kind of discernment and character that will allow them to choose the best of all evils and to decide in full human freedom.
In conclusion …
For a soldier, working for a better world is to reconcile the occasional need to use force with the obligations of the principle of humanity.
This is why the role of leaders is decisive.
Awareness of their enormous responsibilities and the positive experiences they may have in this area should not however blind them. Their exorbitant de facto power is submitted, to avoid running the risk of going off course, to a twofold command:
strict subordination of military matters to political decisions, assurance of the common good;
a close relationship to be cultivated with civil society, the army being no more than the latter’s delegate in shared values.
Building a better world, here too, depends on this.
General Jean-René BACHELET