The Moral Character of our Country

Recently, in a speech to Congress and to the American people regarding health care reform, President Barack Obama, quoting the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, reminded the nation that "What we face ... is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country." It is encouraging that President Obama realizes and accepts the relevance and the importance of morality to how we conduct ourselves as a nation, to our character as a country. This recognition clearly indicates, and requires, an acceptance of the fundamental principles regarding the dignity, the inalienable human rights, of all human beings, not just fellow Americans. Consequently, President Obama must realize that morality and our moral character as a people and as a country is determined as well by how we conduct ourselves in our relations with other nations, by when and how we utilize military force, and by whether we abide by the moral (and legal) criteria for waging war.

  Every nation, even subnational groups, recognize this moral imperative and give at least lip service to the importance of accepting and abiding by the "fundamental principles of social justice," - morality (see, for example Osama bin Laden's "Declaration of Jihad)." Morality, as it applies to war, requires that war be just both in its cause (what has traditionally been referred to as the jus ad bellum criteria) AND in how it is conducted (the jus in bello criteria). Please note, that the moral requirement for just war is conjunctive not disjunctive. That is, for a war to be moral, BOTH (not either) sets of criteria must be satisfied. Should, for example, a nation be warranted in its resort to war (the jus ad bellum criteria - just cause, last resort, right intention etc. - are satisfied) but, in prosecuting it, fights unjustly (violates the jus in bello criteria - discriminating and affording of immunity to noncombatants, proportionate response etc.), the war is immoral.

  I have argued elsewhere for the immorality of the Iraq and the Afghanistan invasion and occupation, so I will not belabor the point here. Suffice it to say, that since the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a war of choice (based on a mistake at best, lies at worse), and hundreds of thousands of noncombatants have been killed, violating both the jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria, our continued occupation of Iraq is aggression and, hence, immoral. Whether we were warranted in our invasion of Afghanistan may be less clear - whether the jus ad bellum criteria were satisfied - what is certain, however, is that in prosecuting the hostilities, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, noncombatants are being killed in violation of the jus in bello criteria. Consequently, the AFPAK campaign, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the war in Pakistan are immoral.

  It has become fashionable of late among some "scholars," think tank "experts," politicians and military spokespersons (henceforth referred to collectively as "revisionists") to argue, in this "new era" of asymmetrical/counterinsurgency warfare, that the traditional moral guidelines for war, what philosophers and theologians have termed "Just War Theory," have become outmoded and irrelevant. They advise (perhaps, "warn" may be better) that what constitutes the moral criteria for the initiation and the prosecution of war must either "evolve" to better accommodate both the realities of the dangerous world in which we live and the "new" state of warfare as it exists today or it will lose relevance and credibility. Ultimately, what is being claimed is that morality, if it is to be taken seriously, must allow nations unrestricted response to perceived threats to their national security and interest - pre-emptive and preventive total war (the Bush Doctrine). One possible motivation for such a position is the belief that national interest (and paranoia) trumps any and all other considerations, i.e., the ends justify the means. Another concern may be the fear that should specific moral rules stand in the way of accomplishing "crucial" goals in changing times, ultimately, morality will be abandoned completely. Consequently, rather than face a situation of moral anarchy, the revisionists advise that morality must be flexible, as some "realistic" (accommodating) moral principles are better than none at all (what has been termed 'War Realism").

  What the revisionists fail to understand is that morality is not a tool of advantage for the strong and/or the privileged to be used and appealed to when it is in their interest to do so, and when it is not, to be modified, ignored, or manipulated. Nor is morality a prop, a façade through which we may proclaim our superiority and/or condemn others. If morality is to have any meaning at all, it must recognize as a fundamental principle the dignity and the rights - the lives and well-being - of ALL human beings. If we do not value persons, all persons, not just members of our particular community, religious group, ethnic group, gender etc., and respect their dignity and their rights, then all other things, whether it is property, possessions, national boundaries, the flag etc., lose their meaning and their value as well. Like justice, morality is blind and requires universal and equal application, holding everyone to the same standard. It is the hypocrite, the rogue nation, that attempts to modify the tenets of morality, or argues that it be ignored, or rationalizes loopholes (collateral damage) through which to pursue their individual or national interest.

  Further, the refutation of revisionism rests not on moral argument only but on sound war fighting science as well. Contrary to the view of the revisionists, knowledgeable military tacticians who understand the nature of asymmetrical/counterinsurgency warfare, realize that despite what may have been the perception in the past, morality and military science share common concerns. Consider, for example, the status of noncombatants. While much mental effort has been expended explaining ("rationalizing" is probably better) that innocent deaths, though regrettable, are necessary and justifiable as collateral damage, both the moralists and the military theorists such as Gen. Stanley McCrystal, the commanding officer of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, agree that killing noncombatants is not only immoral and illegal but counterproductive to achieving the military goals necessary for success (victory) in asymmetrical/counterinsurgency war, i.e., winning the hearts and minds of the people. It has become clear, therefore, that morality and military science are fundamentally compatible and the move to abandon or "modify" the former indicates a lack of understanding of the latter. Collateral damage, then, is not only morally disingenuous, it is militarily unsound and those who advocate that we abandon or modify this particular moral (and legal) criterion are both morally and militarily misguided and lack expertise in both areas of study.

  If President Obama truly accepts the wisdom of Senator Kennedy's insights quoted above, he must realize that morality - a respect for persons - certainly includes, but does not end with, whether we provide universal and affordable health care to our citizens. As Senator Kennedy so often reminded us, what we face in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is also, above all, a moral issue. If President Obama's acknowledgement of the importance of adhering to the dictates of morality and of preserving (perhaps, "salvaging" would be better) our character as a nation and as a people is not just political rhetoric aimed at passing a particular piece of legislation, then he must act, quickly and decisively, to end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the war in Pakistan. Morality demands it. At stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.

Copyright © Camillo Mac Bica • All Rights Reserved

Peace Vet
The Writings of Camillo Mac Bica, Ph.D.