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We Are Holier Than Thou

(On Violence wil be off for the holidays until Monday. Happy Thanksgiving!

To read the entire "War is War” series, please click here.)

As I continue down the path debunking anti-ROE critics and what I like to call "war-is-war"-iors, I need to make four points very clear:

1. Americans, and the West, must fight wars according to our moral, ethical and legal principles.
2. Terrorists--be they Christian, Muslim or other--twist ethics to justify their immoral behavior.
3. As a result, Americans and the West tend to fight wars more ethically, morally and justly than non-state groups acting out of zealotry.
4. And most importantly, this isn’t a bad thing.

It seems like most people agree with my first two points, and then grudgingly accept point number three (though I have heard anti-war activists argue against this, they are wrong). The issue is with point number four. The main complaint being that our morals put us at a tactical disadvantage in messy, unconventional wars (what I call political wars), like the two counter-insurgencies America waged in the last decade.

When your enemy hides without wearing a uniform, threatens the population with violence, and launches attacks against weak civilian targets, it can seem very hard to fight them ethically, whether it is asymmetrically against trans-national terrorists or irregularly against insurgents.

Who wants us to fight immorally? Well, our old punching bags Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson. They wrote in Lone Survivor, “There is no other way to beat a terrorist. You must fight like him.” Eric C wrote an entire guest post about this role reversal on Permissible Arms. Others just bemoan that our values could cost American lives. Politicians after 9/11 repeated this idea saying that the Constitution is not a “suicide pact”, meaning if it comes down to survival or the Constitution, goodbye Constitution. (This is a quote behaving badly, and the second edition is coming soon.) Like this, Dick Cheney advocated for the US Intelligence Community to work on the “sort of on the dark side” to defeat terrorism, the “dark side” clearly meaning illegal and unethical side.

Today’s post is a short one because the point is simple: in war, we should never sacrifice our morals; our morality is everything. That is why the Christian tradition and the American tradition are histories of martyrs, people dying for their causes, faith and freedom respectively. We should embrace the fact that America—on the whole—fights morally just wars in a morally sound way.

And largely, the US has conducted itself in a moral, ethical manner. If we had never conducted “enhanced interrogation” in Abu Ghraib, if we had never abducted people in the rendition program, and if we had actually tried the people held in Guantanamo, critics of the US would have almost nothing to complain about. Yes, civilian casualties are too high in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yes, the Iraq war was a tremendous mistake on a number of levels, including morally. But the point remains: America is a moral nation based on strong principles.

We should strive to keep it that way.


A clarification, in my mind. Is America’s military a more moral military? A tentative yes. How does this square with my belief that all war destroys? B/c our army is not pushed to its limits. Economic, international power give us the ability to be a better army.

We need to take that opportunity when given it.

(and again, this isn’t to ignore the ugly, cruel side of war.)

I think your four points sum things up nicely. I would point out, however, that the Islamic tradition is also based on a history of martyrs. In the case of the “non-state groups” we’re currently facing in Afghanistan and (in a reduced capacity) Iraq, the interpretation of the morality of that history is simpler and more rigid than the modern tradition and allows a wider range of justifications for a violent response. This simplification and in many cases historical interpretation of a given moral tradition is evident in other belief systems as well. Just look at the variety of interpretations of the Christian moral tradition or our own American tradition.

The difference to me is evident in practical terms in the range of actions and responses available to you. Our “modern” American/Western moral tradition prevents us from justifying the same amount of violent action, keeping us from taking action against civilians or using force to coerce civilians to aid our mission. That translates into a greater sacrifice in terms of financial and human investment. It’s a difficult investment to make and it’s much easier to sacrifice or compromise our moral tradition than it is to accept the immediate and tangible personal costs required to uphold every facet of our morals. Arguing that compromising our morals for the sake of reducing the cost of the mission is rationalizing and is not a trade we can responsibly make.

Sorry for the doublepost, but I just had a chance to read Eric C’s article from Permissible Arms. Short and sweet. Pretty much what I was trying to segue into/echo in my response above.

We’ll always accept double posts like that. Thanks for the props.

This blog makes me think. It is a beautiful thing. Both authors and contributors do a lot of deep thinking. I appreciate your time and work.

Okay so how do you take out the bad guys if they use civilians as shields and cover for their evil, unprincipled acts?

I’m not saying the U.S. should act contrary to ethical standards, but one must, at some point, take the Pepsi Challenge and explain how this is all going to work in practice.

The U.S. acted ethically when it did not conduct a missile strike against a funeral held in Afghanistan even though most of the people at that funeral were Taliban who would certainly go on to kill or help to kill Americans.

The story from 2006:


I’m just not sure that a victory at any cost attitude has ever achieved the kind of victory originally aimed at. In extreme situations, such as the times we are currently in, the end result is often one that no side is truly happy with. Did you win yes but how you won usually matters more…

We could blast any area of the world into extinction, but to what end. It only intensifies the resolve of those who disagree with our stance. To become immoral now is in result admitting defeat.

The ugly truth is that in war we have to make it so very uncomfortable for the general population that support is eroded for the local oppressors. That might be done via sanctions or through brute force. However, playing the middle, as we have become comfortable with, is not healthy for either side.

What is “very uncomfortable”? And why would the general population support foreign armies if they’re making their lives “very uncomfortable”?

To be clear, I am not advocating that we invade other countries. I don’t have specific answers to your questions and any answer would probably vary from conflict to conflict. What I am arguing against is fighting a war with half measures. That seems immoral to our military. I am most concerned with our people. But having never fought in war I’ll leave that thought to be answered by those that have. I couldn’t begin to know other than what others have told me. Some have cried recounting what they had done. Others were matter of fact. I could only guess that it would be some of both and that we are actually protecting our guys and gals mental health by insisting we fight morally.

How uncomfortable do a people have to be to attempt to overthrow an oppressive government? If that were our goal then my answer would be more uncomfortable than Iran or North Korea currently are.

I’ll just quickly address the points Harrison and KP brought up.

First, Harrison. You asked me to “take the Pepsi challenge” and answer the conundrum “how do you take out the bad guys if they use civilians as shields and cover for their evil, unprincipled acts?” Well, by following our Rules of Engagement. That’s it. Our rules of engagement work perfectly as is.

Instead I think the challenge is on your part. Give me the specific TTPs you think the US should employ when fighting against terrorists. Critics of our ROE, the people who say it endangers our troops, are notorious for not providing specifics. They argue against our ROE, but never provide an alternative (kind of like what politicians out of power do). So your provide specific changes you would make, then provide the historical example of when those techniques worked.

Now to KP. You did another common tactic of “war is war”-iors, you were vague. You said, “The ugly truth is that in war we have to make it so very uncomfortable” for our enemies. EC is right, what the hell does very uncomfortable mean? “War-is-war”-iors love to hide behind vague terms like uncomfortable or get the job done or take care of business.

So yeah, you haven’t been to war, but use specific terms. What does it mean to make life uncomfortable?

If the constraints are following ethical guidelines for warfare and the enemy hides amongst civilians as a shield then there is no much to be done unless you don’t mind angering the local populace by killing innocent civilians. For a situation like Pakistan, I would suggest our current president is not following the ethical guidelines of warfare considering he has launched 153 attacks and they have killed between 935 and 1,562 people in the last 2 years vs. 43 attacks and between 349 and 405 people from 2004 to 2008.

You would need a Special Forces team on the ground to weed out the combatants from the civilians but, like Somalia, this would quickly turn into a bloodbath on both sides and I doubt if the American public would tolerate such casualties for very long.

So this returns us to the original point that puts the ethical warriors at a tactical disadvantage compared to our enemy.

It would seem that the only solution is to have the local population have a dog in the fight and if they reject the introduction of guerrilla forces amongst their population then the battle can be won. If the locals can’t or won’t do this then, sticking to an ethical plan, there is little which can be done except have our troops slowly get picked off one by one over time.

You seem to say that our ROE are working but I’m not sure the results bear that out.

I personally don’t believe Dick Cheney’s advocacy of the “dark side” was illegal or necessarily bad. If those are the things we need to do in order to gain intelligence then so be it. The terrorists we picked up certainly received much better treatment than the people they captured. In fact, last I read, the GITMO bunch might suffer health consequences from their diet more than any other factor.

We’re preparing a post on drone strikes. I think it is too complicated to say whether they are ethical or immoral. I will say that they don’t work at all, not one lick, and no one seems to acknowledge that.

As for ROE working, it worked fine in Iraq with a combination of good policies. It worked in my sector in Afghanistan too. The problem with Afghanistan isn’t the ROE, it is the strategy and political situation.

As for Cheney’s darkside, it might have yielded small tactical gains immediately afterwards, but the prolonged strategic situation is not good.

I agree, the political situation in Afghanistan is very poor. Also, American forces and their allies control very little of the country, not to mention the Pakistani border regions which are totally wild.

I’m not so sure the Predator drone strikes are good policy. Yes, they do take out some bad guys but they are conducted in a way that seems a lot like what Bill Clinton did with the Cruise missiles – as a replacement for a solid on the ground policy. The results from his actions weren’t so hot long term.

I would be curious as to why you feel Cheney’s ideas did not payoff over the long term.

i’ve got a great “specific” for you.

as a junior 2LT at my first unit, prior to our deployment, we had some sort of guest speaker address the officers of the BN. i forget who, and i forget why. but i do remember a question he asked us (be sure i’m paraphrasing, but the elements are accurate):

“if you had a detainee who had time-sensitive information that could save the life of one of your soldiers, would you torture him to get it?”

as you imagine, the unanimous consensus was “of course! absolutely!”

…but, where i was skeptical then, and unsure of my place in the military at the time (re: jaylo; still being socialized into the “total institution”), i am certainly sure now – i should have vocally disagreed with the consensus.

this post is, i think, extremely relevant and necessary. i agree that our nation has been established with a number of significant principles – but i haven’t seen enough confirmation of those principles at the pragmatic level. The loud, public proclamations are ARMY VALUES! and LAW OF WAR! but the quiet, private socializations i have encountered in the past 4 years have been a forfeiture of principles for the benefit of pragmatism. there aren’t enough voices saying “no – i would not torture a detainee for life-saving information, because i joined the military knowing full well that we are a moral, principled fighting force and that you and i may have to die to keep it that way”.

although, even that response seems somewhat contrite.

here’s why: while my example is specific the question illustrated therein is not. it is a very vague question asked by a “war-is-war“ior to incite a “war-is-war“ior feeling and response from its audience.

and this is exactly what i’m talking about. his emotional baiting worked without any second-thought or critical analysis from the OFFICERS of my BN. the “war-is-war“ior has a very tight grip on the military psyche, and there are not enough voices for more nuanced, reality-based expressions of what our military’s values mean WRT the current conflicts.

so – thanks for this post. it seems to me “war-is-war” makes for almost brain-meltingly easy PR, but the more difficult sale of nuanced, moral combative thought is where real victory lies.

Michael, thanks for your input. I went back and read the links under the post “Who Thinks War is War” and more about “War-is-war”-iors. It is very thoughtful and thought provoking. Makes me want to remove my post.

I didn’t consider myself anti-ROE or a “War-is-war”-iors, but it could just be that I don’t know enough on the subject to recognize that I am. I will give this much more thought.

Most people spend their lives trying to learn by taking something from “what we don’t know” and moving it over to “what we know”.

In this case, after reading back on the topic of “War-is-war”-iors I see that I have missed the entire domain of “what we don’t know and don’t know we don’t know”. That is, I may have blind spots I wasn’t aware of. Significant change and leaps of progress come from overcoming blind spots. Thanks for helping me along.

@ Michael C:

“I think it is too complicated to say whether they are ethical or immoral.”

so does that mean that if they were working, you wouldn’t bother trying to untangle the moral ramifications of drone strikes? Seems like a very “war-is-war“ior sacrificing of morality for pragmatism…

or was this only to delay an examination of their morality for the actual post on drone strikes?

forgive the jabs, but i am interested in your answer. that statement doesn’t seem to jive very well with the intent of the original post…

I think you need to define “torture.” Saying “torture” is like saying “best price.” Everybody has a different idea. I don’t call putting bugs on somebody who is afraid of them torture but I would call electrocuting someone torture. I also don’t think pouring water into KSM’s mouth torture.

@ soturi- I think it is like saying a rifle is immoral, its not the tool but how it is used.

For ex, artillery shells aren’t immoral, but when you fire 3000 into a 40000 person town, then yes it is.

I would say, based on the high number of civilian casualties, they are immoral.

For the record, America punished german and japanese soldiers after world war two for crimes b/c they water boarded our soldiers, and American soldiers in Vietnam were court martialed for water boarding.

Regarding this the techniques were a little more “invasive” than waterboarding:

Between 1942 and 1945, Bruns used the method of “verschärfte Vernehmung” on 11 Norwegian citizens. This method involved the use of various implements of torture, cold baths and blows and kicks in the face and all over the body. Most of the prisoners suffered for a considerable time from the injuries received during those interrogations.

Between 1942 and 1945, Schubert gave 14 Norwegian prisoners “verschärfte Vernehmung,” using various instruments of torture and hitting them in the face and over the body. Many of the prisoners suffered for a considerable time from the effects of injuries they received.

On 1st February, 1945, Clemens shot a second Norwegian prisoner from a distance of 1.5 metres while he was trying to escape. Between 1943 and 1945, Clemens employed the method of “ verschäfte Vernehmung “ on 23 Norwegian prisoners. He used various instruments of torture and cold baths. Some of the prisoners continued for a considerable time to suffer from injuries received at his hands.

@ eric

“its not the tool but how it is used”

@KP- Don’t worry about it, I was just trying to let you know that the “war-is-war” mentality is very sneaky, and that is why I always strive for specifics whenever possible.

@Soturi- Yeah all I can say right now, based on my research, is that drone strikes are ineffective. I need to do more research to determine if they are immoral, though I have a feeling they are. They just kill too many innocent people to be an ethical method.

@Harrison- As for Cheney, I am using him as a substitute for the administration and several of their policies. That said, the use of torture was horrendously bad for America’s reputation around the world. Images of American torture and stories of the CIA rendition program ruined our reputation and created more terrorists. If a policy takes on terrorist off the battlefield, but creates two more, isn’t that a bad policy?

Finally I think the best definition of torture is applying physically coercive methods to suspects. So anything physical is probably torture: bugs, cold, sleep deprivation, drowning a suspect. There torture, none of them are allowed in American courts so they shouldn’t be allowed to be used by intelligence people abroad. (And yes I believe American values are universal, so we should treat all the people of the world as if they were Americans. Of course, if you don’t think American values are universal, then you should read the Declaration of Independence.)

I suppose we will simply have to disagree about our “reputation.” The fact is, people will always find reasons to hate America. Certainly, these things you mention did no exist on 09-10-01 but did that mean the WTC didn’t come down? The Islamic terrorists already dislike the fact we don’t murder gays, allow women to vote and allow them to show more than their ankles on the street, that girls learn how to read and write, and that we do not all believe in Allah.

So I don’t buy that argument.

Before our current president was elected, everybody in the rest of the world talked about how much they would love us if Obama was elected because Bush was so divisive and “hated.” Doesn’t look that this “love” has improved our conditions at all in the previous 2 years.

@Harrison – I found it pretty eerie reading those quotes you posted. “Verschärfte Vernehmung” is the literal German translation of “enhanced interrogation”.

@soturi – It’s fascinating and heartening to hear your take. I absolutely sympathize with and understand why the willingness to compromise moral guidelines to save a life is the prevailing attitude of our military. In a sense any military must break down its recruits innate repulsion to do incredibly violent things to others. IMO that’s where the “war is war“ior attitude originates. As I understand it (being outside the military), one of the primary ways the military instills this need for immediate and violent action is by emphasizing that a lack of action will get you and your buddies killed. It isn’t a huge leap in my mind to transfer that requirement for violent action to justify torture for intelligence gains that will save your buddy’s life. Straddling that line between the need for immediate violent action and the need for that action to be ethically justifiable is extraordinarily difficult. I struggle with that dichotomy and tend to reserve judgement, uncomfortable with my limited theoretical knowledge. I recognize that that is perhaps a dangerous deference to the professional military and an argument the “war-is-war“iors love to make, but it still makes me uncomfortable to take a firm stance without having the first-hand experience.

Again, it seems like the point we arrive at is the human cost on our part we are willing to pay to maintain our moral standards. The unequitable burden placed on the minority of our population actually making those sacrifices makes many of us on the outside uncomfortable demanding more to maintain our ideals.


Everything sounds scarier in German, doesn’t it?

More details may be found here:


The interesting thing is that the Norwegian court did not find them guilty of murdering a prisoner as he was trying to escape even though he apparently testified that he was trying to shoot them in the legs when, in fact, he shot him in the back of the head.

Also comparing WWII to the WOT is somewhat different as WWII dealt with sovereign nations attacking each other whereas the WOT is generally people who are not covered by the Geneva Convention (regular military fighting under a nation’s flag under a central command structure).

@ Harrison – in the future, try to not post large blocks of content from other sites. Links will usually work fine. Google punishes sites with duplicated content.

“Everything sounds scarier in German, doesn’t it?”

No. Government-utilized euphemisms for torture are significantly more horrifying to me in American English than they could ever be in any historical, foreign usage.

Harrison. Weren’t the three Germans found guilty of torture for the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques (particularly sleep deprivation, waterboarding and enforced stress positions)? And shot?

Additionally, the lurid confessions that were the hallmark of the Stalinist show-trials were extracted by no more sinister means than not allowing the accused to sleep.

A similar twisted justice was recently on display in the trial of Omar Khadr – a confession under extreme duress for allegedly defending himself when attacked – followed by the choice of a guilty plea OR life imprisonment.


On the subject of RoE’s, here’s a battalion commander quoted a few weeks ago in Afghanistan: “Right now we’re losing the tactical fight in the chase for a strategic victory. How long can that be sustained?”

Think about that for a while; it’s not a good position to advocate: lose the war to win the battle. The use of force is a means to effect a political goal.

Like a game of chess, the point of the game is not to take out the other players pieces but to occasion a checkmate.

In modern war – among the people – the casual disregard for innocent life casts us into a deep well of consequences and they don’t end at the boundaries of Helmand province.


Regarding the “enhanced interrogation” excerpts from the indictment from Norway may be found here:


I’m pretty sure Bush & Co. did not authorize things like using leg screws, throwing someone unconscious into a cellar and leaving them there for 4 days unattended, shooting prisoners (accidentally) in the head, kicking people in the body and head, shooting people through doors, and refusing medical attention to the point where they died. According to the site, those three were executed, but it was for a variety of offenses, as well as a few others, so the comparison is not quite the same.

It seems, also, as though the Court made a key distinction in order to convict that the Norwegian underground “did not constitute a breach of International Law” so different rules did not apply to them as, say, stateless terrorists which is what we find at GITMO where, for example, they get religiously appropriate meals and better healthcare than most people on Earth enjoy.

I agree with your quote regarding Afghanistan. It seems as though American and allied forces are getting killed simply to keep the war “over there not here” as Bush would say. I don’t see how these loses are sustainable, either.