In Other Words

A New Ethical Front

A New Ethical Front

Journal of Military Ethics, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2002, Oslo

The moral certainty of the war on terrorism raises more questions than it resolves. The civilized world has made its position clear: Killing innocents is wrong, and terrorists should receive the full force of moral condemnation, law, and state and military power. But we must also make more complex judgments. How far should we go in applying the principle of anticipatory self-defense in this war? What restraints apply? What is the proper relation of the use of force to the pursuit of peace?

The Journal of Military Ethics (JME) could not have appeared at a better moment. With the realization that asymmetry now defines the modern battlefield, the moral climate for the use of force is changing. The JME, which will be published quarterly by 2004, is well positioned to reflect on what that change means. Based in the Norwegian Military Academy in Oslo and relying on distinguished editorial advisors, the journal is a rare space where policymakers, military officers, and philosophers can meet on equal footing.

Stephen Wrage’s article, "Captain Lawrence Rockwood in Haiti," appearing in JME’s inaugural issue, is an excellent case in point. Wrage, an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, provides a telling account of the moral dilemma that Captain Rockwood, a young U.S. Army counterintelligence officer, faced when he was dispatched to Haiti in 1994 to support the mission to promote human rights and to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.

As Wrage details, "Captain Rockwood felt that his conscience, his humanitarian duty and international law all required that he inspect the National Penitentiary where, intelligence reports showed, political prisoners were being tortured and murdered. His chain of command was unanimous in refusing him permission to inspect the prison and in directing him to do nothing that would endanger fragile relations with the… departing Cedras regime." What should Rockwood do — grab his gun and climb over the wall to fulfill his moral imperative or fall into line as ordered? After failing to gain the support of his superiors, Rockwood jumped over the wall. And in dramatic fashion, he left a note: "You cowards can court martial my dead body." Yet Wrage ends this story with deliberate ambiguity, letting the reader speculate about the propriety of Rockwood’s actions and his punishment, if any.

Reflecting on Wrage’s analysis, Albert C. Pierce, director of the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy, explains that "[t]he point of teaching this case… is not to argue that one ought to disobey orders." Pierce continues, "Rather,… the value of this case… is in examining the tensions this particular officer felt between his sworn duty to obey the lawful orders of his superiors and his humanitarian values…"

In "The Moral Limits of Military Deception," Lt. Col. John Mark Mattox examines the ethics of war. An active duty professional U.S. Army officer, Mattox emphasizes that war is a social convention — a system of codified rules and practices. He argues that military deception differs from ordinary lying and that, within limits, deception is an accepted military practice. These limits are not always easily defined, but Mattox identifies them in terms of both the laws of war and the tenets of "good faith." Ruses used to gain intelligence information, for example, might be considered permissible under the law of armed conflict and accepted professional military practice. But the use of a flag of truce to gain access to an enemy position "to kill treacherously" would not. Mattox argues that good faith is essential, quoting Emerich de Vattel, Swiss author of The Law of Nations: "If there were no longer any faith between enemies, the only certain end to a war would be the complete destruction of one of the parties."

The simplistic rhetoric of the early days in the war on terrorism will certainly give way to complex cases like Captain Rockwood’s. This conflict will also test the definition and limits of the ethics of war. Soon the need to consider competing moral claims will become imperative. And JME is an excellent arena for this debate.