Winter 2017 Bulletin

A Collective Moral Awakening: Ethical Choices in War and Peace

New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War

On November 16, 2016, at the Huang Engineering Center at Stanford University, Scott D. Sagan (Caroline S. G. Munro Professor of Political Science, Mimi and Peter Haas University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University), Joseph H. Felter (Senior Research Scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University), and Paul H. Wise (Richard E. Behrman Professor of Child Health and Society and Professor of Pediatrics and Health Policy at the Stanford University School of Medicine) discussed “A Collective Moral Awakening: Ethical Choices in War and Peace,” which is, in part, the subject of the Winter 2017 issue of Dædalus. The program, moderated by Debra Satz (Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society at Stanford University), served as the Academy’s 2047th Stated Meeting. The meeting included a welcome from Mark Tessier-Lavigne (President of Stanford University) and Jonathan F. Fanton (President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). The following is an edited transcript of that discussion.

Debra Satz

Debra Satz

Debra Satz is the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics and Society at Stanford University.

We’re living at a time when technological and social changes have put tremendous pressure on our ordinary ethical concepts. Commonsense morality tends to favor near effects over far ones. The present seems more real than the future, or as the economist G. L. S. Shackle put it: “Tomorrow’s hunger can’t be felt today.” And it favors individual effects over group effects. We see our own agency as less implicated when many people, of whom we’re only one, produce an outcome than when we produce that outcome alone. This privileging of the near over the distant and the individual over the group makes a lot of sense if we keep in mind that our commonsense morality was developed in the context of interactions between small groups of individuals.

But as the peoples of the world become increasingly interrelated – as technological advances make communication and interaction across borders easier, as institutions like markets link the lives of millions, if not billions of people around the world, and as the effects that we have on the natural environment stretch into the distant future – this view of individual responsibility is under pressure. For example, I can’t make sense of my obligation to diminish global warning from the perspective of my immediate and individually produced effects on the atmosphere, since they are completely negligible. At the same time, there’s no obvious alternative to our ordinary understanding of individual responsibility. Indeed, the competing tendencies in our world between greater economic and political integration, on the one hand, and greater ethnic national identification, on the other, are, to my mind, symptomatic of our current difficulty in understanding the scope of our responsibility. Who these days is my neighbor? Technologies like Twitter and Facebook break down geographical barriers; suddenly we are placed in the middle of events across the world as they unfold in real time. We’re living through profound and rapid technology-driven changes. Few areas of life have been untouched by these upheavals and it’s no surprise that our ethical concepts are also not untouched by them.

War is one of the most consequential arenas in which our technological and social circumstances have created new moral dilemmas. There’s a long tradition of ethical thinking, dating back to the Mahabharata in India and to St. Augustine in the West, that lays down the rules of just war. This is a rich and honorable tradition, but none of the writers in this tradition envisioned drone warfare or the use of autonomous robots, or the phenomena of asymmetric warfare or the development of nuclear weapons. The concepts and principles we’ve inherited from just war theory, which is now our commonsense thinking about the rules of war – including the principles of proportionality and distinction, the injunction to minimalize collateral damage, the prohibition on intentionally killing civilians, and the moral equality of all soldiers fighting in a conflict regardless of which side they are on – are all under pressure today. What, for example, can the prohibition on the intentional killing of civilians mean in the context of nuclear weapons? What difference does a uniform make to the rights of combatants? The technology of war now makes possible immense damages with repercussions across time and space. As citizens, as soldiers in the field of battle, and as members of a fragile global community, we face difficult and sometimes agonizing choices in war. Some of these choices challenge our inherited and commonsense moral ideas. To address these requires input from many disciplines and perspectives, including but not only philosophers.

Scott D. Sagan

Scott D. Sagan

Scott D. Sagan is the Caroline S. G. Munro Professor of Political Science, Mimi and Peter Haas University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2008, he is the Chair of the Academy’s project on New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War, and the guest editor of the Fall 2016 and Winter 2017 issues of Dædalus on “Ethics, Technology & War” and “The Changing Rules of War,” respectively.

In his historic May 2016 speech in Hiroshima, President Barack Obama highlighted the need to strengthen the institutions that govern, however imperfectly, the initiation, conduct, and aftermath of war. The speech marked the first time a sitting American president had visited Hiroshima, a city that the United States had destroyed in August 1945 with a single atomic bomb, killing well over one hundred thousand men, women, and children. Obama ended his speech with a call for new institutions to address the destructive power of nuclear weapons. “Hiroshima teaches this truth,” Obama said: “Technological progress without the equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us.”

The American Academy, over the past two years, has brought together a remarkable and diverse group of scholars and practitioners to analyze and address the challenge of creating progress in such institutions – including theories about justice, military rules of engagement, and different legal and organizational mechanisms – that address dilemmas of technology and ethics in war. At Stanford, at the American Academy, and at West Point, we have brought together political scientists and physical scientists, physicians and philosophers, lawyers, historians, statesmen, soldiers, and even a pilot and a poet. And while we did not try to come up with one consensus position or set of recommendations, we helped each other understand these dilemmas and improve our collective arguments. And that’s important because the kind of progress in human institutions that President Obama called for will not come about unless soldiers, scholars, and citizens alike are engaged in a debate. Clemenceau famously noted during World War I that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” Similarly, just war doctrine is too important to be left to the philosophers and the political theorists. And I hope these debates begun at the American Academy will encourage many other scholars and citizens to discuss the institutions we need for a more just and secure world.

We have never had a president who cared as much about justice and questions of ethics and war as Barack Obama. Indeed, he took advantage of his Nobel Peace Prize speech to talk about just war doctrine. And he made the case at West Point in 2014 that we should uphold standards that reflect our values even in warfare – taking strikes only when we face continuing imminent threat and only when there’s near certainty of no civilian casualties, because, as he put it, we must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield. Obama also gave guidance to the U.S. military, stating that even in planning nuclear weapons strikes, the United States must always follow the fundamental principles of the laws of armed conflict, including distinction, proportionality, and minimizing collateral damage.

In the piece that Jeffrey Lewis and I wrote for the Fall 2016 issue of Dædalus, entitled “The Nuclear Necessity Principle,” we note that military organizations are better than most organizations at following orders. They are also better than most organizations at creatively interpreting the guidelines that they are given to fit their biases and standard operating procedures to get their job done. We argue that the nuclear employment strategy of the United States has created some pushback behind the scenes, evident in the interpretation of laws and resulting practices that have changed. For example, the new Joint Chiefs of Staff guidelines Joint Targeting states: “Civilian populations and civilian/protected objects may not be intentionally targeted, although there are exceptions to the rule.” What are those exceptions? “Civilian objects consist of civilian property and activities other than those used to support or sustain war-fighting capability. Acts of violence solely intended to spread fear among civilian population are prohibited [emphasis added].” Solely intended. This document implies that if you attack a legitimate military target, but “intend” “to spread fear among civilian population” as a side benefit, that is acceptable. Moreover, there have been two new definitions in the list of legal military targets in this document. The official statement of what is a legitimate military objective now includes, and I quote, “its future intended or potential military use.” The given example of such a legitimate military target is a civilian airport because while it may not now be used as a military facility, it could be in the future. The Department of Defense considers that a legitimate war target. Further, they have changed the definition of a legitimate target set from “war-supporting industry” to “war-sustaining industry.” This was done in part to fight ISIS, allowing the United States to target war-sustaining facilities like oil refineries that do not contribute directly to military power, but making war-sustaining industry the new standard for a legitimate military objective opens up the possibility for many new targeting options.

In our essay, we argue that U.S. military organizations should follow “the principle of nuclear necessity” and should never plan to employ a nuclear weapon against any target that we have a reasonable probability of destroying with conventional weapons. We recognize that this change in doctrine would lead to a major new focus on conventional deterrence over nuclear deterrence and would require much consultation with our allies. We also note that reasonable people can disagree about how best to define what is a “reasonable probability” of destroying a target.

In addition to the Dædalus essay, we summarized our argument in a Washington Post op-ed, and I’ve been pleased with the debate the argument has sparked. On the one hand, the argument has created consternation among some specialists in Washington and elsewhere who think this change in nuclear doctrine would weaken U.S. deterrence policy. On the other hand, there are others who have stated that such a doctrine that prioritizes conventional weapons above nuclear weapons is just common sense and are surprised to learn that this version of the necessity principle is not already embedded in U.S. targeting practices.

If there’s that much disagreement within the Beltway, there clearly needs to be a more open and transparent debate about the future of deterrence that will place ethical concerns at the heart of our national strategy, which is where our principles surely belong.

Joseph H. Felter

Joseph H. Felter

Joseph H. Felter is Senior Research Scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His essay “Limiting Civilian Casualties as Part of a Winning Strategy: The Case of Courageous Restraint” appears in the Winter 2017 issue of Dædalus.

I’m going to start out with a thought experiment, to set everyone’s frame of mind. Imagine you are a twenty-two-year-old platoon leader just a few months out of West Point and you’re in Kandahar, a small village in Southern Afghanistan. You’re on a presence patrol and your platoon starts taking fire, separating you into different squads. Your platoon sergeant, who’s a senior NCO and has the respect and admiration of the entire platoon, calls you on the radio and says, “We’re taking fire. We need to drop a JDAM [basically a precision-guided bomb] onto this building that we’re taking fire from to neutralize the threat.” He’s expecting you to say, “Roger that, Sergeant. Let’s go for it.” But you delay because you don’t know what is the right thing to do. You’ve been in this village before. You know the target is a compound that’s normally occupied by an extended Afghan family. On the same transmission, your platoon sergeant says, “And we’ve got two wounded in action, one seriously. What are we going to do, Lieutenant?”

They continue to take sporadic fire from the compound. And then your platoon sergeant says, “If we tie our hands any longer, we’re going to lose half the platoon, Lieutenant. What are you going to do?” All eyes are on you. You know there’s a good chance there are noncombatants in the building. You also know that you’ve received guidance from your battalion commander, your company commander, and even a four-star general back in Kabul, General McChrystal, that says: “This is a counterinsurgency fight in which the relationship with the population is important. Therefore we want you to do all you can to limit civilian casualties and protect the population from harm. We want you to refrain from using these types of munitions, like aerial delivered munitions, if you think there may be civilian casualties at risk.” But then your platoon sergeant breaks in again on the radio and says, “Private Jones, the wounded-in-action, he just died and we just took two more wounded.”

You’ve got about three options here. One, drop the bomb. It’s actually consistent with the laws of land warfare: you’re under attack, and you need to protect yourself. That would make you a hero with your platoon, and you wouldn’t have to write letters to any more of the perished soldiers’ parents or loved ones and avoid the gut-wrenching guilt and responsibility that comes with this and can haunt you for a lifetime. But there may be civilians trapped inside and you know that you may put them at risk. Two, you can lead your platoon to fire and maneuver onto the building, clear the building with direct fire weapons where there’s a much greater chance that you can avoid engaging noncombatants. You can neutralize the threat, but you’re putting your platoon at much greater risk, not to mention yourself, by exposing them to enemy fire as you approach and attempt to clear the compound. And three, just back off; leave. Let the Taliban get away, live to fight another day, face your platoon sergeant and your soldiers who just lost some of their comrades, and deal with the platoon thinking that you let the enemy get away without avenging the deaths of your brothers-in-arms and allowing these Taliban the chance to attack you again in the future. What do you do?

We can work to methodically figure out what one should do in a situation like that. But try to put yourself in that position. As Debra Satz said, the present seems a lot more real than the future. And in this case, your present is chaos and fear, and every visceral emotion in your body says, “Protect my soldiers, protect myself, drop the bomb.”

Laws around just war require us to take measures to protect civilians and exercise restraint, accepting risk to protect noncombatants. And I would argue that’s always a moral imperative in any conflict. And in asymmetric conflicts like counterinsurgency especially, exercising restraint and reducing civilian casualties can also be part of a winning strategy.

When General Stanley McChrystal took command of the International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2009, this is how he felt. He said, “We’ve got to protect the population. We’ve got to limit civilian casualties because that’s the only way we’re going to make progress and win this fight.” He made a concerted effort to limit civilian casualties. He developed a revised tactical directive in which he said, “We’re not denying you the ability to defend or protect yourself, but we are encouraging you to use restraint, to avoid using the types of weapons systems that are more likely to create civilian casualties if civilians are present.” In these revisions of various directives and standard operating procedures, soldiers are required to take more risks in the interests of not harming civilians who may be in the way. And he developed a concept called “courageous restraint,” with the notion that soldiers should be encouraged and in some cases rewarded for exercising restraint in combat situations when it helps protect the civilian population. But it wasn’t popular with some military practitioners who criticized the idea of rewarding soldiers for not fighting.

I was in Afghanistan at the time and my mission was both to educate the deployed forces around the theater and to get them to understand and buy in to the strategy. I had to communicate that we weren’t asking soldiers to tie their hands behind their back, but rather, if a soldier can use another option that will safeguard the lives of civilians, then he or she should do so. We also had to sell this concept by reminding them that not only is it morally correct, but it is also a part of winning. And I tell you, it was a tough sell in theater.

But there were a lot of examples in which exercising restraint was not only the morally correct thing to do, but also helped achieve successes on the battlefield. In January 2010, soon after I got there, in Garmsir, near Helmand, a Marine battalion was surrounded by angry locals because a rumor had gotten out that the Marines had defaced a Koran – an egregious offense. The locals surrounded the platoon and started throwing rocks and bricks at them. One Marine got hit right in the face. Our rules of engagement authorized them to use deadly force in response, but they didn’t. They held back; they held their ground. Fortunately, the locals eventually discovered that this was a rumor planted by the Taliban, and the villagers dispersed. The Marines’ courageous restraint was responsible for not escalating a bad situation, which could have resulted in civilian casualties and increased hostilities. But there’s more to it. Following the incident, this unit had the highest rate of tips that led to finding and clearing improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It takes a lot of trust and cooperation from the local population to get those tips and the practice of exercising courageous restraint went a long way in garnering that trust.

My coauthor, Jake Shapiro, came out to Afghanistan to collect empirical evidence on the level of civilian casualties and the relationship with the local population. Fortunately, General McChrystal’s chief of intelligence, Major General Mike Flynn, cleared the civilian casualty information for unclassified use so we could do the study. Our study showed that a civilian casualty incident resulted in increased attacks at the district level in Afghanistan for a three-week period if it was ISAF-caused, and it resulted in a one-week increase in violence even if it was Taliban-caused. We found through anecdotal evidence that people blamed the United States for the attack either way, since if we weren’t there, the Taliban wouldn’t be attacking them in the first place. We briefed General McChrystal on our findings and he was relieved to hear that his gut feeling on the importance of protecting the population – what he had been talking about for months – was shown through evidence to be true. That was my epiphany. I came back to the United States on midtour leave and realized, boy, in some ways you can make just as great a difference as a scholar as you can as a soldier, in some cases more.

Jake Shapiro and one of his research assistants, Andrew Shaver, did another study in Iraq and have produced some preliminary results, which are going to be published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. These results show the weekly flow of tips provided to coalition forces in Iraq from the local province for about a sixty-week period approximately from June 2007 to July 2008. They were able to get the briefing reports declassified and collected data that showed how week-to-week changes in civilians harmed by either the coalitions or the insurgents led to week-to-week changes in the rate of information sharing. We had direct evidence that proved that harming civilians lead to less cooperation in the form of locals sharing of information on insurgents, which is the key to winning this kind of fight.

Exercising restraint is a moral responsibility, and can also be key to developing and maintaining the support from the local population needed for operational and strategic success. But it’s also hard. It’s really difficult to overcome the instincts to survive and retaliate, and protect your comrades if you can. You need educated, trained, and well-led forces to succeed. So we need to keep making these investments in the quality of the men and women who are serving in these kind of situations with the discipline to achieve the results we want.

Thucydides once said, “The strong do what they can, the weak do what they must.” But in an asymmetric conflict, like the ones we’ve fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and expect to experience going forward, the strong must also do what they must. Protecting noncombatants, and accepting greater risk in the process, is something strong states must do to set conditions for accomplishing their mission. Exercising restraint is both a moral obligation and, in many cases, a strategic imperative.

Paul H. Wise

Paul H. Wise

Paul H Wise is the Richard E. Behrman Professor of Child Health and Society and Professor of Pediatrics and Health Policy at the Stanford University School of Medicine. His essay “The Epidemiologic Challenge to the Conduct of Just War: Confronting Indirect Civilian Casualties of War” appears in the Winter 2017 issue of Dædalus.

Health workers are always the ultimate inheritors of a failed social order. Sooner or later, a breakdown in the bonds that define collective peace and ensure social justice will find tragic expression in the clinics, on the wards, or in the morgue. This reality has always given health workers the opportunity, if not responsibility, to bear witness and provide a human narrative of suffering, particularly in what has always been the most extreme challenge for health workers: the human consequences of war.

Most have seen the picture of Omran Daqneesh, a five-year-old child who was pulled from a destroyed building after it was bombed by either the Syrian government or a Russian aircraft in the North Syrian town of Aleppo. The power of this image is magnified by the recognition that Omran’s injuries were not unique or even unusual. They were typical. Omran was but one of twelve children brought in with similar injuries to the same hospital on that same day – what was, in fact, a typical day for Aleppo. My comments here are in some ways an attempt to make sense of the photograph, and of the other eleven children brought in that day who were not photographed, in the context of a moral framework that has justified and constrained the initiation and the conduct of war.

As powerful as that photograph is, my approach is not rooted in anecdote. It is rooted in epidemiology, a story whose contours are shaped not by individual histories, but by patterns of illness and death in large civilian populations. Just war principles have been around for a long time. Their roots lie in early Christian theology and have evolved to incorporate the insights and approaches of international law, human rights, and philosophy. However, their central focus has always been on the most essential human consequence of war, and that is violent death – the destruction of human life through direct exposure to combat. This has long been the predominant preoccupation of just war theorists, be they saints, generals, or philosophers, and they approach these issues in a sequential temporal format: prewar, war, and postwar. Jus ad bellum speaks to when states can initiate the use of force. Jus in bello describes how states can use force, the conduct of combat operations, and the use of force in war settings. And more recently, jus post bellum focuses on disciplining the provision of the elements for a just peace once the guns have fallen silent. This framework – these principles and aspirations – have been crafted to protect civilian populations, to protect Omran Daqneesh from direct violent injury and death. However, war also generates death, illness, and hardship not through direct exposure to combat, but through the indirect effects secondary to the destruction of the means of human survival: food supplies, water, shelter, and health care systems.

We do have evidence regarding the importance of these indirect effects. A study was done in Darfur at the height of the fighting in Western Sudan to assess the epidemiology of mortality. And, indeed, they found much higher levels of mortality associated with the fighting in Darfur. However, only 15 percent of the increased mortality in Darfur at the height of the fighting was due to violent combat exposure. Eighty-five percent was due to the indirect effects of the destruction of the social fabric of community life, of food supplies, of water, and of what remained of the health care system that had been there before.

Another study looked at child mortality patterns in the Kivu region of the Eastern Congo at the height of the fighting. And, like Darfur, child mortality was much elevated in this area. But, in this case, the causes associated with the elevation in mortality were fever and malaria, diarrhea, acute respiratory infections and pneumonia, and neonatal measles, which are the same causes of child mortality in these populations without war. However, the absolute numbers of deaths occurring from these causes was much higher in these circumstances, and the indirect mortality was far more profound and more prevalent than direct exposure to combat related violent deaths.

We can talk abstractly, we can talk through the epidemiology, but this is what it looks like to health workers in the real world: newborn illnesses, young child mortality associated with infectious diseases like malaria, diarrheal diseases, dehydration, cholera, and, of course, malnutrition and starvation. These are some of the indirect effects of war. We also know something about the scale of indirect effects in different settings. In Iraq, researchers estimate that civilian casualties due to indirect deaths were three times higher than direct deaths during the invasion and subsequent civil war. In East Timor, it was five times higher. In the Congo and South Sudan, it was nine times higher. And in Sierra Leone, at the height of the fighting, the number of indirect deaths was fifteen times higher than violent direct deaths.

A closer look at the nature of these conflicts gives us some clues as to why they have been associated with such high indirect effects, clues that raise an even more fundamental question about the utility of a traditional just war framework. Prewar/war/postwar is the paradigmatic framework for just war theory. However, the reality of these conflicts is that they don’t generally conform to this vision of war and its aftermath. What’s prewar and postwar in the Congo, Northern Nigeria, Gaza, or even Iraq? Fighting explodes and then recedes. Ceasefires are established and broken. Peace accords come and go. In these settings, postwar becomes prewar – there’s no reconstruction post bellum phase. What you see is a kind of churning, chronic conflict that continues to generate some direct deaths, but primarily indirect suffering and death. Displacement is profound. The destruction of normal markets, food, water, and shelter is traumatic.

The largest refugee camp in the world is in Northern Kenya, where some 350,000 people currently reside, although the Kenyan government is threatening to close it shortly. It also is important to recognize that the average length of stay in a UN refugee camp worldwide now is twenty years – these are no longer acute refugee situations. This is a kind of prolonged conflict that just war theory must, and has so far failed to, address. Likewise, just war theory must address the indirect effects, rather than consider them peripheral problems that pediatricians like myself have to deal with in conflict areas. If you list the top twenty countries in the world for young child mortality, nineteen are in conflict or are profoundly politically unstable. Nearly half of all young child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa are occurring in countries plagued by chronic violence, political instability, and conflict. Global child health has become global child health in conflict settings.

Indirect effects of war are not new. The plague of Athens killed Pericles and almost killed Thucydides. During The Thirty Years’ War, the indirect effects were catastrophic. However, what makes the indirect effects particularly important now, and perhaps more than ever before, is technical innovation. Technological advances have dramatically altered our ability to measure and, most importantly, to mitigate the indirect effects of war. We have new technical capacity to assess the indirect effects using mobile technology and sophisticated epidemiologic modeling techniques. We can get a pretty good idea of what the indirect effects are in any given population at a given time. But one could only imagine what the indirect effects are in Syria right now, for example, because we have no system or infrastructure to actually measure and report the indirect effects.

Counting in this context may seem beside the point, but an unnoticed death implies an unnoticed life. There is a justice requirement that indirect effects be measured, that there’s some accounting, some attribution. But we can also focus on preventing indirect deaths and suffering through remarkable advances in public health and medical care. In the Eastern Congo, the best estimates are that 70 percent of the excess mortality is preventable with interventions we have now: immunizations, adequate nutrition, bed nets, and medications. We could have eliminated the vast majority of these indirect deaths.

For the first time in any university program, we at Stanford are bringing together physicians and public health specialists with political scientists and global security experts to create new integrated technical and political strategies that can function in areas of conflict and political instability. We are trying to craft new cross-disciplinary approaches to the delivery of critical health services that recognize the political governance and security requirements of service provision in contested environments, where organized violence and coercion dominate social and community life.

My argument here is based not on the modern origins of indirect effects, but rather their modern neglect. The dramatic advances in our technical capabilities matter. They matter to the negotiation of justice, because as technical capacity grows, so too does the burden on society to provide it equitably to all those in need. The death of any child is always a tragedy, but the death of any child from preventable causes is always unjust. Efficacy and justice are inextricably linked. I recognize the many complexities of any form of intervention. But the failure to act to reduce both direct and indirect deaths when the opportunity exists or can be created is a core dereliction. It reflects a level of complacency that is increasingly consequential and, from my perspective, must not be allowed to persist in silence. The essential challenge lies in renegotiating the tension that exists between the exercise of power and the claims of the vulnerable – a tension that is playing out in the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth.

© 2017 by Debra Satz, Scott D. Sagan, Joseph H. Felter, and Paul H. Wise, respectively