Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Argument for Moral Superiority in War

In two recent pieces in The New York Times, Haim Watzman's op-ed, "Hiding Behind the Enemy," and A.O. Scott's review of "The Road to Guantanamo," the authors lament the lapse of adherence to now accepted moral norms in times of war. A.O. Scott points to the abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo as a shameful practice that "squanders a crucial strategic advantage in the fight against terrorism, namely the moral superiority of liberal democracy to the nihilism and extremism that oppose it." Watzman, similarly, argues that rather than elide morality, commanders should enforce it because "It is an element of an army's strength. . . . An army that does not take risks will be easily beaten by an opponent that does." Both statements are underpinned by two assumptions—first, that democracies should behave morally in war, and second, that the moral high ground is a valuable vantage point in war, especially in an asymmetric one between state and non-state insurgent actors.

Is any of this true? Neither Scott nor Watzman marshal any historical evidence to prove this. In fact, if we examine A.O. Scott's argument, we see that what he laments as a strategic blunder is not the reality of Guantanamo, but rather the fact that this reality has been made so easy for all to see, that the quasi-documentary about it "may already have lost the power to shock." The point implicit here is that the appearance of morality is what is important, not the actual following of it. What people believe is going on is more important than what is actually going on. In war, as in politics, public opinion and appearances are the only reality that counts. In Guantanamo, then, the U.S. has lost a strategic asset in failing to be recognized as the morally superior country in the war against terrorism.

The truth here is one that Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince and The Art of War, knew very well. It is not only not necessary to follow what people generally hold to be morally good, but in many cases what is called good will lead to ruin in enterprises such as war. So a prudent army captain should always make it appear that his troops behave well, while in reality doing whatever is necessary to win. As Machiavelli wrote in one of his most famous lines, "For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good." In other words, pace Scott and Watzman, there is no strategic advantage in imposing on one's army "moral" rules that only put soldiers' lives in jeopardy. But this must be emphasized to avoid confusion: this is not to say that there is not an advantage in appearing to follow morality, and that armies should follow it whenever possible. It is to say that morality carries no intrinsic or absolute value in war. Indeed, the arguments on offer by both Scott and Watzman for adhering to it testify to this fact because they make it an instrument to achieve a strategic advantage. And just like any instrument, when it stops working, you pick up a new one. And in some cases, this, lamentably, will be torture and the like.


A Green Cowboy said...

Is one of the bases for an understanding of morality its universality - the fact that no matter who you are, prince or pauper, morality remains the same?

If that is true, doesn't that make it impossible to have morality in the Armed Forces, given the omnipresent and strict hierarchy of personnel?

Ilya said...

Yes and No. There can be morality in war because it is simply an historical fact that there are moral norms of warfare and that these norms can and do change. As for the universality requirement, I should think that a morality can be considered universal though it recognizes different responsibilities attached to different social positions, like the difference between a soldier and a commander.

But there is another argument that suggests that there are at least two different moralities, one public and one private, that although they cannot be reconciled, neither one can exist without the other.