Ethics for Wars to Come

[This posting more properly belongs in my All In One Boat blog, where ”today’s news” is not a feature as it is here. However, since the origins are in a NY Times weekly column I’ll put it here as well.]

Samuel G Freedman in his always interesting once-a-week column On Region in the New York Times, features Robert H Latiff, known to his old friends as a Major General (that’s two stars), now co-teaching an ethics class at Notre Dame. And good for him.

But before appreciating what he is now doing I had to chew on and spit out unhappily his inability to act on his own ethical beliefs as Bush invaded Iraq in 2003.

Three years after Robert H. Latiff received his star as a brigadier general in the Air Force, the United States prepared to invade Iraq. A military man since 1974 … he harbored enough doubts about the wisdom and logic of assaulting Iraq that he considered retiring in protest. His mentor, a four-star general, told him not to bother. Nobody would notice the act of conscience of a mere brigadier.

So General Latiff stayed in the active military until 2006, earning the rank of major general and the Distinguished Service Medal. Meanwhile, he winced at the photographs of atrocities at Abu Ghraib and reluctantly signed stop-loss orders extending soldiers’ deployments. “I didn’t act on my deeply held disgust,” he recalled recently. “And that still claws at me.”

At least he recognizes in hind-sight that another course of action was open to him. I wish he had once read In Solitary Witness, Gordon Zahn‘s slim biography of Franz Jagerstatter who was guillotined by the German army for his refusal to be inducted in 1943. Priests, neighbors and even military men tried to convince Jaggerstatter that no one would notice his protest. It did not matter to him, as the only ones to whom he had to answer were himself and his God. The war went on, of course. But Jaggerstatter’s name, in Zahn’s telling, came to be a touchstone for many war resisters as the United States sent 500,000 to fight in Vietnam, giving them the sense that they were not alone, that other brave men had risked much more than several years in prison.

Latiff’s resignation in protest, by contrast, would have raised storms of attention and perhaps led others to act on their beliefs which, like him, they kept under cover until after retirement. A welcome addition to his course, or indeed a complete course on its own, would be to inquire why so many answer the call to war and so few answer their consciences warning them away.


Back to the course he is offering. It is not about the ethics of war in general, or even war in the 20th century. His main concern is what about the wars to come:

Contemporary warfare is often far removed from the clash of large, standing armies on the open battlefield. In the United States’ use of targeted killings via un-manned drone in Pakistan and Yemen (which are not, otherwise, theaters of war) to the deployment of the Stuxnet computer virus (most likely by Israeland the United States) designed to target the computers that operate industrialequipment in Iran’s nuclear weapons program, we already see examples of this new kind of warfare. The future promises that ever more remote possibilities will become reality  entirely autonomous robotic weapon systems are already under deployment in Iraq and Korea, non-lethal electromagnetic- and sound-based weapons are under development, and research continues actively on automated, armed vehicles and biologically or robotically enhanced soldiers.

Fair enough, I suppose. We have to start somewhere. Perhaps by getting planners, military leaders, weapons designers to think about weapons before they are designed or used some restraints can be put in place — instead of, for example, waiting to see what mustard gas does to the the human respiratory system before thinking, ‘not such a good idea.’ [Among other things, the gas the British released in WW I to impair the Germans often blew back from whence it had come, and vice-versa.]

I’m glad at least a few are thinking about such things. I hope many go on to policy positions of power — without forgetting what they believed as undergraduates. I do think, however, that the weapons and decisions about their use, are only the latest embedding of today’s war-doll into yesterday’s and that real progress is not likely to come until the making and stacking of war-dolls as a human project is understood and tapered off.

I’m glad to see that early in the reading list are writings of Gandhi and Dorothy Day as well as the expected readings of Aquinas and Kenneth Walzer. For the root question of war and human savagery I could suggest many others. The rest of the reading material is directly related to his concerns: technology and human distancing from the facts on the battlefield. I don’t know if he goes into it during the course, but several recent writers on war and warrior health post war, have wondered about the nature, if any, of PTSD on those who pilot drones, kill a dozen, and drive home to pick up the kids from nursery school. Human evolution has not even caught up to the great militarized charnel houses of WW I. I’m afraid we’ll be falling further behind as this century wears on.

Anyhow, here is Freeman’s overview of Latiff, the man, and his course and here a WSJ article he wrote. Here, some excerpts from the WSJ article.

Another writer offers this:

I would go farther than the authors of the [Latiff – McCloskey] op-ed do. I would contend that developing robotic weapons with “full lethal autonomy” is inherently a war crime.

There is a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which you can find here.

I’d like to know if you follow the course on-line, or have done something similar. Are not only the ethical questions sharpened , and answers come to, but is the will-to-act strengthened, and will it endure?