Best Defense

Maj. Pryer: War’s moral dimension has been magnified in the Information Age

By Maj. Douglas Pryer, US Army Best Defense guest columnist It is increasingly clear that the most significant military outcome of the Information Revolution has been the magnification of the importance of war’s moral dimension. Or, to put this more simply, moral judgment and this judgment’s effects on the fighting spirit of nations and warriors ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

By Maj. Douglas Pryer, US Army
Best Defense guest columnist

It is increasingly clear that the most significant military outcome of the Information Revolution has been the magnification of the importance of war’s moral dimension. Or, to put this more simply, moral judgment and this judgment’s effects on the fighting spirit of nations and warriors matter today more than ever.

That moral considerations are the most important ones in war is nothing new. Great military theorists have long emphasized their primacy in war.

To Sun Tzu, those "who excel in war first cultivate their own humanity and justice and maintain their laws and institutions." By doing so, warriors "make their governments invincible." In On War, Clausewitz described war in its pure, idealized form as one in which violence is applied without restraint. But he also understood that actually waging war in such a manner is impossible: social conditions, political limitations, and other sources of moral "friction" all serve to temper war’s violence. It is by understanding such practical constraints that "real wars" — wars as they must actually be fought and strategized — are won.

More recently, Colonel John R. Boyd declared that grand strategy needs to have "a moral design." The "name of the game" in warfare, he stated, is to "preserve or build-up our moral authority while compromising that of our adversaries in order to pump-up our resolve, drain-away adversaries’ resolve, and attract them as well as others to our cause and way of life."

What is new, however, is the exponentially-increasing importance of moral considerations.

In today’s wired world, the moral judgments of communities cohere with far greater consistency and power than they did historically. Within the community of nations, for example, the Law of Armed Conflict and the Just War Tradition in which this law is embedded are now widely accepted. For a nation to ignore this fact is for it to risk, not just pariah status, but also economic sanctions and the indictment of its leaders by international criminal courts.

But such moral flattening at the global level does not mean that the idiosyncratic values of smaller communities do not matter. Paradoxically, perhaps, they matter more than ever. Witness the rising strength of the "Arab Street"-of one ethnic community’s collective moral judgment-as put on display during the Arab Spring. Or, witness our own country’s long struggle against a media-empowered jihadist movement, al Qaeda, and two largely ethnic insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan: like Hercules in his battle against the multi-headed hydra, the more heads of the beast that America has physically severed, the larger and more dangerous the monster has grown.

This is not to say that the U.S. government and our military are not taking war’s moral dimension seriously. We are. The 2006 U.S. Army and Marine counterinsurgency manual was well-grounded in moral ideas-ideas that helped engineer a much more successful approach in Iraq. New recruits now receive extensive instruction on the Law of War. In 2008, the Army stood up the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic to "reinforce the Profession of Arms, Army Ethic, and culture." And "culture training," which is really just moral awareness training regarding the locals on a given battlefield, has received much more attention in both the Army and Marines.  

But unsupported by any substantial shift in resources or foreign policy, such measures are proving inadequate. Most shamefully, the moral "hits" our troops generate in Iraq and Afghanistan — as demonstrated by the 2010 "murder for fun" tragedy — just keep on coming.

The resistance of military procurement processes to moral ideas is one reason for the U.S.’s long string of moral defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. To effect better outcomes from today’s conflicts, the U.S. government must first spend less on "hard power" (missiles, fighters, submarines, and robots) and more on "soft power" (diplomacy, economics, and information). Also, when the U.S. government strays far from using the American military for its Constitutionally-ordained purpose of defending the republic (a purpose attracting the long-term approbation of nearly all Americans), it must attempt extraordinary, costly, and sometimes impossible measures to sustain at home a sense of moral legitimacy and the will to fight.

Truly, operating with moral awareness at all command levels — to include the national command level — requires a whole of government approach.

But there are certainly steps our military alone can take to display greater moral awareness and help America achieve better outcomes from its foreign conflicts. In general, our military needs to spend less on kinetic-focused intranet and more on ensuring we are communicating the right message via the internet and our actions to key communities — Americans at home, the international community, and influential ethnic, political, religious, and social communities on our battlegrounds.

Specifically, steps our military must take include the following:

(1) In the quixotic quest to give U.S. troops "information dominance" on the battlefield, the American GI has slowly assumed a sci-fi, cyborg-like appearance. One might as well expect a Star Wars village of Ewoks to embrace Imperial Storm troopers as expect the village elders of third-world countries to welcome hardware-encumbered American soldiers surrounded by small land robots and flying R2D2s. Our troops certainly need the best armor they can receive as they move about on today’s IED-strewn battlefields. But rather than spend billions on extensive communications systems and remote-controlled robots, we would be wiser to rely instead on more robust culture and ethics training, human intelligence collection, and intelligence analysis.

(2) U.S. military regulations and doctrine are a babble of discordant voices on the subject of the American profession of arms. DoD and joint regulations differ on the core values of service members, and each service has its own unique set of values and definitions. Worse, scriptures like the Army’s Soldier Creed and Warrior Ethos actually promote such amoral qualities as blind obedience to authority, devotion to technical competence and kinetic action, and a win-at-any-cost attitude. Also, even though our counterinsurgency manual declares boldly that if we lose "moral legitimacy," we "lose the war," this crucial idea is largely ignored in other DoD, joint, and service manuals. We do not need more doctrine about the American profession of arms-quite the contrary. What we need is doctrine that is clearer, more ethical, better taught and understood, and more consistent across all of the services.

(3) Ethics training in most line units has changed little in recent years. In the Army, it usually consists of an annual or pre-deployment PowerPoint lecture delivered by a lawyer or chaplain. This training needs to be command business. As one executive officer for a cavalry squadron put it: "I guess I’m a simple guy, but from my combat experience, having a battalion commander talk to every soldier about coming home with their honor intact worked." Furthermore, operations officers-not lawyers or chaplains-need to be this training’s primary staff proponent, and these officers need to be resourced so they can integrate moral considerations into training at all levels. For example, troops need to practice the principles of discrimination and restraint on all live-fire exercises, to include tank tables and weapons qualification ranges.

(4) We are by far the most classified military generation in U.S. history. Our default setting for keeping documents classified is decades rather than months or a couple years. Nearly all of the computers and networks supporting combat operations are classified systems, and almost everyone using these systems routinely classifies the traffic they generate-even when there is no reason for secrecy. This lack of transparency is a shame, for U.S. service members conduct themselves much better on the battlefield than many people realize. However, without sweeping and expensive changes to how the U.S. military manages information, we will continue to struggle to convince the world that the civilian deaths we cause are mistakes or that an atrocity committed by a service member is an aberration.

(5) Staff planning models should be updated to reflect the importance of maintaining a moral advantage over the enemy. Field Manual 3-0, Operations, does have a useful discussion on the importance of moral concerns to determining a side’s "center of gravity," but the importance of maintaining a moral advantage over the enemy is less clear and largely missed in this doctrine. Additionally, when staffs assess possible courses of action, evaluation criteria should focus on such moral questions as: Which course of action (COA) should best promote the legitimacy of the host nation government? Which COA should result in fewer U.S.-inflicted civilian deaths and injuries and less property destruction? Similarly, the "measures of effectiveness" for a strategy, campaign, or mission order should reflect the same moral questions: Has the legitimacy of the host nation government actually increased? Have U.S. forces inflicted fewer civilian deaths and injuries and less property destruction? And so on.

(6) Once a leader or soldier is commissioned or enlisted, his professional military education rarely touches upon the subject of ethics. The vast majority of military schools-even those lasting a year-do not require more than a few hours of ethics-related instruction. Even at West Point, where ethics education probably surpasses that of any other military institution, the curriculum is relegated to the second-year of college, and cadets largely overwrite those principles and forget about them in the final two years of study. Philosophy in general is remembered as an amusing afterthought for most cadets by the time they graduate. Considering the moral nature of our military defeats in recent years (Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Haditha, Mahmudiya, etc.) as well as the sometimes close relationship between PTSD and the unresolved ethical questions of PTSD’s sufferers, we must clearly do a far better job of providing ethical guidance and a mechanism for building inner spiritual armor to service members before sending them to combat.

Napoleon once observed that "morale is to the physical as three is to one." (High and low morale is inseparably intertwined with moral judgment. Indeed, there is very little difference between having a sense of moral purpose and possessing the will to fight.) Today, thanks to the Information Revolution, it is no overstatement to say that the moral is to the physical as ten is to one, and this relative importance promises only to grow. Whichever side maintains the moral advantage in a 21st-century conflict (that is, best declares and wages war in accordance with the ethical expectations of the communities upon which it depends for victory) has the best chance of ultimately "winning."

The 2006 counterinsurgency manual was the first of several strong steps our military has taken to ensure leaders and troops operate with moral awareness at all command levels. But these steps are not nearly strong enough. We must do much more if we are to earn better outcomes from our armed conflicts abroad-and at a much more acceptable cost in blood and American treasure.

Major Douglas A. Pryer is the winner of several military writing awards and the author of The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation during Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 – April 2004. This guest blog is Major Pryer’s work and does not reflect the opinions/policies of the U.S. Army or perhaps even those of Albert Pujols. Specifically, it derives from three essays: "Controlling the Beast Within: The Key to Success on 21st-Century Battlefields" and "Steering America’s Warship toward Real Communication (and Success) in the 21st Century," which won the 2010 and 2011 General William E. DePuy writing competitions respectively; and "War is a Moral Force: Designing a More Viable Strategy for the Information Age," which was co-written by Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Peter Fromm and Major Kevin Cutright and which will be presented by Fromm and Cutright at the 2011 U.S. Army Command and General Staff Ethics Symposium at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on Nov. 7-10.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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