Friday, August 7, 2009

Notes on Cook's The Moral Warrior

(Powerpoint presentation based on Ch 1 of the book can be found here.)

Martin L. Cook's The Moral Warrior: Ethics and service in the U. S. military is a somewhat connected set of chapters on a number of different issues in involving military ethics. Overall the book lacks a specific focus and coherence, and was written at an awkward moment in military ethics. It was published in 2004 based on articles from the previous few years. As such the book barely touched on the two current US military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The book should probably be thought of as the last book in military ethics written prior to the resurgent wave of concerns about military ethics. The Kosovo conflict, and to a lesser extent, the first Gulf war provided much of the food for thought in this book. And while these are important examples, today they are very much overshadowed by the conflicts that have been ongoing since the September 11 attacks and the Bush doctrine where the ethical questions seem more pressing, controversial, and nuanced. Though the fact that the bombing of Yugoslavia was not a hotbed of controversy is also pretty telling. Was it not controversial because the president was popular, because there were few US casualties, because there was a real consensus that it was morally acceptable, there was agreement on the fact that the attack was within US interests, or for some other reason? All of these options are still open. The book also seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about war from the perspective of the Air force, which is of course not a bad thing, it merely reflects Cook's position in the US Air Force Academy.

Cook's book opens with the story of the downfall of ancient Athens. One day Athens discovered it was an empire. It became haughty and took advantage of its power. Everyone stopped liking Athens. Athens lost its vision and moral compass. The other Peloponnesian states didn't want to put up with Athens any more because they didn't have to. So they went to war with Athens and won. Thus ended the greatness that was Athens. (I think some people might attribute this position to Plato.)

Cook's reading of the lessons of history then makes this an extended analogy with the US and NATO. The US has a lot of power. We are just like the Delian League (that Athens usurped), and we make the other countries in our sphere of influence pay tribute. The need for NATO is no longer justified by the Soviet threat. And there is an implied dire warning that the US will then end up like Athens.

But this analogy between NATO and the Delian League cannot withstand even the most superficial scrutiny. I do not know how the US will end up in the long run. Will we keep on rising? Will we collapse while another country takes over the role of global hegemon? Will the world stay the same? No one knows. I do know that such historical parallels are pretty loose.

Athens fell because they had really bad luck in the Peloponnesian war: about a quarter to a third of their people and fighters died in a plague. They also had Pericles who while enormously popular and able made some strategic mistakes getting them into the war and some rash decisions prosecuting it. Athens was put into some bad positions when Pericles let Athens get involved in Corcyra's war with Corinth. Then there was the Megarian decree which can be construed as amounting to economic imperialism that seemed to just make things worse. There was also the problem that Pericles tried using moderate strategies when genuine force was called for. . . But worst of all was Pericles' tactical blunder in calling for Athens to abandon the countryside and seek shelter in the walls of Athens. It was demoralizing and unhealthy. It was responsible for the plague and the loss of the war. The Sicilian Expedition too was poorly thought out and executed, ultimately decimating the Athenian military.

The war could have been avoided, and Athens saved, in a few ways, and most of them have nothing to do with Athenian imperialism. It is likely that imperialism did not really factor into the way the average Ancient Greek thought about conflict.

The parallels to the US and NATO are forced. We live in a world of intertwined economies. The US does not have enemies who both wish our complete annihilation and have the means to achieve it. For the parallels to be similar, the US would have to somehow be in a position to loose 100 million citizens including 750,000 soldiers and her ability to use her various non-convention weapons; the US would have to have her economy collapse; the US would have to have the same president or policy makers in office for 16 to 20 years without shifting strategies. And most importantly, this would have to happen while the rest of the world's economy stays stable, a disease that can kill 100 million Americans does not harm anyone else in the world and those who wanted to destroy us were immune to nuclear weapons. . .

It is trendy to say that the US is an empire like Athens, and it too will fall like Athens. But that is a case of a prediction based on buying your own propaganda. The US does not have colonies. The US is not an empire in any real use of the word except that it has far more power and influence that any other individual country. The US does not directly dictate the foreign policy of other countries (not counting Micronesia) nor does she build her own infrastructure by taxing other countries. Her debt is owned by the only country that really can be a threat, and thus has a strong disincentive to see her fail. . . So I was unconvinced by the parallels between the US and Athens in the introduction.

Chapter One is a good quick overview of the standard Just War Theory (JWT) that goes back to Augustine. This outlines the framework the author uses to drive some of the moral discussions throughout the book. There are the ad bellum considerations of just cause, legitimate authority, public declaration, just intent, proportionality, last resort, reasonable hope of success, and end of peace. Then there are the in bello considerations of discrimination and proportionality. More about those later.

Chapter Two is about the moral foundations of military officership. Cook claims that "morally serious and thoughtful military officers feel a deep tension in the moral basis of their profession." I am disinclined to accept this proposition on two levels. First as an empirical claim about military officers, I believe it to be false. I have met some pretty thoughtful military officers who do not feel such tension. Presumably if you teach an ethics course in a military academy and you tell people that there is a moral tension, they will nod their heads, but speaking officer to officer or enlisted to enlisted (and I've been both) I never sensed any such much moral unease. I have heard much debate about the morality of this war or that war, but never a genuine questioning of the extra-moral nature of the profession of arms itself.

Secondly, I believe that the reason for this lack of tension is that there is no genuine moral question inherent in being a military officer. I will grant that there are special moral questions that crop up in the military. I will also grant that on a superficial level it appears that the military has more opportunities for more serious moral breaches. But the fact that wars kill and members of the military do the killing is no more a reason for moral concern than the fact that our justice system kills, incarcerates and fines, often erroneously, and taxes pay the courts' bills and the executioner pulls the switch, is any reason for there to be a moral tension in being an executioner, taxpayer, or judge. At the very least, the proposition that there is a genuine moral tension needs to be argued for.

I am constantly reminded of the famous mistranslation of the Bible that people mention whenever act incredulous in the face of statements like "killing is evil". There is a commandment in the King James version that says "Thou shalt not kill". Ergo, people reason, any killing is a violation of this and hence immoral. But of course no one believes that, and the writers of the Hebrew Bible were not that oblivious. The Hebrew Bible has the commandment as "Lo tirtzach" which means "Do not murder" (Hebrew has separate words for killing (taharog) and murder (tirtzach). Like English sometimes "Killing" is used to mean murder (as in "cold-blooded killer" which means "murderer") but it never uses "murderer" for "killer". There are no plant murderers or people who are commanded to stone a sinner until he is murdered, and God never murders someone, for example). The Bible, and those who believe in it, would never entertain the idea that killing is inherently evil. The Old Testament (the testament with the commandments) heartily endorses the killing of animals, criminals, and enemies, among others. God's killing the Egyptian firstborns is seen as a great thing. Certainly God is not in violation of the commandment. It is the extra-judicial killing (to employ a nifty euphemism) that is morally repugnant to the Old Testament.

The same is true of the military profession. There is no serious consideration among military personnel, and I suspect among thoughtful people in general, that militaries are inherently evil to the extent that while they can see the necessity of an Army they acknowledge that it is a necessary evil. It is necessary. Period. If it were not necessary it would not exist. People who take self-defense classes to not acknowledge karate (or whatever) inherently evil, but necessary perhaps because of the fact that they live in a bad neighborhood. Karate is an art, a tool, that can be used for self-defense and it can be used for bad purposes say, if you decide to get violent with your wife, and it can be used to defend the helpless whom you see getting mugged on your street. But it is hard to imagine that being moral involves seriously reflecting on the morality on one's new-found power of the karate-chop, or the fact that you are taking self-defense classes.

I have heard thoughtful academics ask the following question that I find intriguing: Is there some inherent tension between what morality may demand and individuals who make war their whole lives? That is, is it morally healthy to spend one's whole life on a career that is solely geared toward cultivating warlike habits and instincts? Cook does not address this.

Chapter two reflects further on the nature of military service: Is the military merely, like Clausewitz claimed, just the way countries enforce their foreign policy? Why take the concept of the nation-state that seriously anyway? Aren't states just gangs of thugs like the Bible (I Samuel 8), Augustine (City of God 4:4) and Nozick (Anarchy, State, and Utopia) claim? And why risk your life and kill others for the sake of enforcing the foreign policy (and/or upholding the territorial integrity) of an artificially constructed nation-state? These are all excellent questions which do not really receive adequate answers in Cook's book. But the questions are far more important than any answer and the point is well-made that military officers need to reflect on those kinds of questions. However, in my opinion, it does not seem that these questions adequately justify the claim that there is an inherent moral tension about military service, especially when seen in the context of citizenship and civil service in general. Why support a nation state? Why take part in any voluntary organizations in a nation state? Why be employed by the nation state? (How many employees do the federal, state, and local governments have? Easily in the tens of millions. Is there a moral tension involved in paying taxes? Much of the money goes to support the infrastructure of the nation state, and (with the exception of the occasional Thoreau who refused to pay the poll tax to support the Mexican American War) good liberals tend to favor the expansion of the powers of the nation state without serious moral qualms. Civil service has never been seen as morally problematic, barring the occasional libertarian.) And, as Lackey once pointed out (Iyyun 55: 66-82) while the good soldier and the good cop are different entities, but they both have serious "in bello" considerations, and they are pretty much both equally removed from all the "ad bellum" considerations about going to war. And no one questions whether there is some moral repugnance or "tension" about being a police officer. Sure they need to use force and weapons from time to time, but whence tension? (Remember, law enforcement is just local politics by other means.)

Chapter two ends by pointing out the following dilemma: Critics have claimed that wars that are fought on behalf of some national economic interest are morally tainted (NO WAR FOR OIL!!!). On the other hand, when there is no national compelling interest and there are merely causes of human rights for foreigners (What are we doing in Haiti or Somalia!?!?) why are we involved?

(As an aside I fond both these criticisms odd. I am perplexed by the first and repulsed by the second. The first criticism must stem from some deeply held Marxist distrust of anything to do with money. I was once at a talk where a rather prominent philosopher argued, essentially, that surrogate parenting was immoral because money changed hands and thereby commoditized the child. I asked from the audience what the speaker thought of the following: Say I am poor and can't afford to have children. So my wife and I abstain from child producing activities. Then my father-in-law who wants grandchildren gave me a million dollars and suggests that now I can afford children. So I have a child. Does that make me evil? The speaker had no good answer. Why does the fact that money is involved make something evil? Has the child been thereby commoditized? Is charity evil? It is not as if money is the only (possible) justification for most of these wars. It is just one, and somehow that "taints" the morality of the war? I just don't get it. As far as the second part of the dilemma goes, I believe this is disingenuous. Critics of wars designed to help foreigners, unless they are truly right-wing isolationist critics, have little problem doling out foreign aid if it is in our nation's best interest. Why is aid in the form of military power suddenly bad - unless there is an inherent "tainting" of anything to do with military aid. Both of these are cases of creating an ethical issue where none obviously exists. It is like saying that because people drown in water sometimes, the fact that something involves water "taints" it and we need to consider the serious ethical ramifications of swimming in nearby lakes.)

Cook addresses the problem posed by the dilemma by suggesting that wars on behalf of others can be justified on the ground that we are moving toward a world where we are forging, in Michael Walzer's words "a common life". A common life, as it is practiced within a state, is worth defending. This "common life" is what is shared as a society of diverse individuals creates a cooperative contract based on their history and experiences. So if it worth defending within a state, given the way the world is heading, it may be that it is justified between states, and that may be worth risking the blood and treasure of one country for the sake of another. Interesting.

Chapter Three raises a host of what I think are important issues about the concept very much in vogue in applied ethics in general: professionalism. Since the end of the Vietnam war, when the US reverted to an all-volunteer force, the military has taken many steps toward striving to become a professional army. There was a renewed emphasis on the professional look and feel of the soldier, there was an emphasis on corporate structure, and evaluation reports. There were all the trappings of a corporate environment. (In logistics and intelligence, the element receiving supplies or information is known as "the customer", Lean Six Sigma is all the rage among Army brass, the emphasis on "professionalism" now more than ever reflects a mirroring of business culture . . .) (All this took place though without a real metric for measuring the quality of the product.) But what constitutes professionalism in the military?

Cook discusses a number of views of professionalism. He opens the chapter with the apparent tension between the subordination of the military to civilian control and the role of the officer corps providing unalloyed advice to the civilian controllers without political or cultural considerations. This tension becomes apparent when we look at the changing role of the military from a cold war force anticipating force-on-force conflicts (Powellesque?), to a more (Rumsfeldian?) unconventional fighting force; the missions that are now referred to as "social work with guns". The roles that the military knows, is trained for, is prepared for, wants to take on, may be different from what they are asked to do by the civilians who control them. The standards of professionalism are now unclear. Does the military take only those roles which it considers within its professional purview, or is it their job to accept the missions given to them regardless of what it is? (The Soldiers' Creed states that soldiers are proficient in their "warrior tasks and drills", but when was the last time a regular soldier needed to build a hasty foxhole or navigate through the woods using only a map and compass? That is what soldiers are trained to do, but that is hardly what they are needed for.)

Moreover (and I am sure this will resonate with many officers), the military as an organization is undergoing a shift wherein what is often taken for granted in professions such as apprenticeship, cross-generational mentoring, professional cohesion, professional motivation, shared identity, etc, may not exist in the US military. The professional mission that officers thought they were signing up for are no longer happening. (Also, I cannot speak for more than my class, but on the individual level, the overwhelming majority of officers in my BOLC III course did not pick the branch that they were in as their first or second choices. They did not sign up for what they were doing, and did not want to be there. A few did not even pick the component they ended up in. It is like if someone signed on to work for Microsoft and was fully intending to design software and was then put in charge of the dining room, and locked into the job for four years. So not only are officers not getting the accouterments of a profession, they are not even getting their chosen profession.) There is also deep distrust between the ranks (I would never trust a LTC or above; the assumption there is that the officer only made it as far as they did by being incredibly self-serving, as there is no way to measure how "profitable" an "employee" is, they have to find clever ways of being the only possible candidate for an LTC position, and by (ab)using their subordinates for their own purposes). So despite the fact that the US tries to maintain a "professional" army, and considers professionalism an important virtue, it is unclear what a professional is in the context of the military and it is unclear whether, by any reasonable definition of "professional" US military officers really see themselves as belonging to a profession.

Chapter Four elaborates the role of the military in insuring that civilian leadership has accurate information about the capability of the military. It also addresses what kind of advice the military should be giving.

Chapter Five begins section two and addresses the concept of Just Peacemaking (JP). Reading this was somewhat difficult. The chapter reads like a book review of an anthology on JP. It is almost as if the reader is jumping in in middle of a conversation and does not get any of the references. Cook gives us some views with little context. Moreover the chapter throws around references that involve the type of simplified gross generalization about cultures that philosophers ought to be a bit uncomfortable resting an argument on: e.g., "the clash of civilizations" and "Jihad vs McWorld". I tend to think the "international scene" is a bit more nuanced to be painted in such broad strokes, and I am hesitant to draw real philosophical conclusions from it.

Just peacemaking looks like it is supposed to start filling in some large gaps left by the intuition that Just War Theory is no longer (and may never have been) adequate to capture the ethics of modern war. It has lately struck me that using the old Augustinian war ethics is about as appropriate as thinking about the way computer ethics would have been developed for the abacus. So JP looks like it might be offering us a good update. But given what I have seen in the chapter it seems a bit Utopian for my taste; then again, so does JWT. JP expands what counts as "last resort" in Just War Theory. One view of JP advocates for states to cede control of much of their rights(?)/abilities(?) to use force to some higher organization like the UN. This view assumes that a group like the UN can, unlike the actual UN, take a genuine concern in the human rights of its member states given that there seems to be so little concern for human rights by many member states which support it. This is a pretty big assumption, and I would never be bold enough to assert it. Such an organization that has the power to do anything to improve human rights can only get this power from member states willing to give it. But a state willing to give it is usually not the state that needs to improve human rights, because if they would want to improve human rights they can do it without such an organization. On the other hand a state that does not want to improve human rights for its citizens has no incentive to give someone else the power to do so.

But JP does have value in that it definitely highlights the fact that the military is not structured as a peacekeeping and peacemaking organization. JP does suggest that there is an alternative to full war and conquest (as if people do that anymore in areas where people are literate enough to read JWT). The US, for example did not just defeat the Iraqi Army or the Afghanistan Army(?). We tried to keep the peace afterward. We attempted to rebuild (in accordance with the pottery barn rule). This inability to rebuild in our own image what we have dismantled is often seen to undermine the moral credibility of the US. After all, if we are attempting to overthrow a brutal dictator, and we do, but the ensuing aftermath is almost as bad, just as bad, or worse then life under the dictator, it seems we have accomplished little.

Chapter Six is a woefully inadequate (8 page) chapter on the applicability of JWT to the Global War on Terror (GWOT). As we mentioned, JWT cannot meet the ethical considerations inherent in modern conflict. JWT has no provision for humanitarian intervention, it is a stretch to apply JWT to non-nation actors, there is no accommodation for modern tactics, weapons, social conventions, ethnically diverse enemies, or the role of the modern civilian on today's complex urban battlefield. Also, and I tend to find this funny when philosophers criticize the Israel and the Arab countries when they fight each other, JWT is very Christian. Beside the fact that the standard criteria of JWT all seem to have genuine counterexamples (more on that some other time), state vs terrorist group is a morally and militarily asymmetric situation. It is not at all clear that the theory can handle this kind of asymmetry. The book would have benefited greatly from a genuine consideration of some of these problems.

Chapter Seven pits what is called the "force protection imperative" against humanitarian intervention. The force protection imperative (FPI) is the rule that the army should attempt to make its first priority to minimize US casualties, and any violation of that should be justified by US interests (nowadays, by the way, homeland security is top priority.) The FPI reflects the public's new-found need for casualty-free wars (think the first gulf war). (Think about Somalia to consider how casualty-adverse the US was to pull out after loosing a few people in the now famous "blackhawk down" incident.) But such wars will generally impede the military's ability to accomplish missions, especially humanitarian ones. Moreover, Cook claims, the public has little tolerance for for US casualties and will not support high-casualty operations that are not clearly and obviously in US interests.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the UN has no standing force that can really provide humanitarian aid. Therefore it is up to the member states to volunteer their help. But member states each have their own particular "social contracts" with their citizens (at least int he US case) and will generally have a tough time expending US blood and treasure to help foreigners.

Now I think that all of these are good and interesting points. I generally think I disagree with most of them, but they are important nonetheless. FPI is a luxury. No standing military can really take itself seriously when it says that their main goal is to protect themselves. Moreover, wars are rarely opposed on the grounds that there are casualties. Any war Clinton got us into was generally unopposed, i.e., Kosovo. George H. W. Bush got us into a virtually casualty-free war and it was strongly opposed. George W. Bush's war in Iraq was opposed months before the first shot, let alone the first casualty. The opposition to the Vietnam war seems to be tied to the fact that there was a draft and there were 500 casualties a day and one of them was likely to be involuntarily you. The (apparent) eventual popularity of WW II is accounted for because US soil was attacked by the Axis and we were helping the British, who were allies being bombed. The popularity of a war has a lot more to do with the president who started it, among other factors, than casualties. The American Left generally will oppose a war regardless of what it costs or what it is for. American isolationists will generally oppose any war. The political center fluctuates, though some of the fluctuation may have something to do with casualties and the political right will generally support most wars it is told to support. But casualties rarely seem to be the primary concern.

Chapter Eight attempts to apply some of the JWT framework to air power. Air power seems to pose a few special problems and some unique advantages to ethical war-fighting. In particular it allows one to look at a military technology once renowned for its low accuracy and indiscriminateness that is now known for its precision - we went from air bombardment with rockets to GPS and laser guided weaponry with relative pinpoint accuracy. Looking at this is a good lesson in the real world relation between real wars and their ethical components. That is, we can now look at how militaries which once did not have precision bombs treated air war as contrasted with now, when they do.

We are cautioned, justifiably so I believe, to keep in mind that just because we can precision bomb a target, and it is easy and tempting to do so does not mean we can ignore the fact that the military option should still not be the first resort. I do not think it should be the last, but we should certainly not do it just because it is easy.

The book concludes on a note of general caution about the new problems of humanitarian intervention and especially air warfare in humanitarian intervention. But I feel that as a whole the book is not sufficiently probing about the new nature of war. The current US involvement in Iraq was justified by the administration largely on humanitarian grounds. After the fact, so was the Afghanistan war. Moreover, while the war in Afghanistan was is less controversial, it is unclear why. (The current administration is expanding it will little reaction from the left.) There are no clear benchmarks, goals, or metrics for understanding how to measure success in the war in Afghanistan, nor was the reason for the entrance into the war clearly articulated. It was always assumed that you can say "9/11" as an answer to anyone challenging our presence there. The Iraq war has goals, benchmarks, standards for measuring success, and is at this point largely humanitarian (no oil benefits seem to be accruing), yet is still the more controversial war. Neither the attitudes nor their justifications, nor a means for assessing these attitudes or justifications can be gleaned from Cook's book.

All that being said, and I admit I do feel like I have been a bit too critical only nitpicking at what I take to be faults, the book was a very good read. It generated for me a lot of food for thought, much more than I wrote here. I suspect that I will be looking back to Cook's analyses frequently to assess my own views on ethics and modern war.


  1. Great articulation and dumbing down about what I thought was a dry read. Thanks for your obvious meticulous analysis. I happened across your blog when looking for an Idiots Guide to JWT and will be checking in on this blog more in the future. BTW--loved the analysis of professionalism. I am sure the cadre at CAPE would benefit from your thoughts.

    -EOD CPT

  2. Hey CPT,
    You comment prompted me to reread the review. I was pretty harsh. I probably should have been nicer; it is a good book. I was also not feeling to kind toward field grades when I wrote this. Hmmm.

  3. Agreed that it was a good book...for a pre 9/11 world. Military ethics has almost had to be rewritten since then. Yes the fundamentals of doing what is right and just is always looming over a US warfighter but I can name multiple instances since then that moral ambiguity has won the day. In addition US foreign policy cannot even agree with itself- think: arming the Libyan insurgency or the possibility of allying with the current Syrian insurgency-some of whom are known Al Qaeda supporters and moreover possibly those who were setting up EFPs and throwing RKG-3s at US patrols in the streets of Mosul and Baghdad. Your observation of mistrust for officers above the ranks of MAJ is not far from the truth either. In my experience your statement does not veer to far from reality. Might I suggest for a future blog/discussion that you focus on this lack of a better term ---observation?

    -EOD CPT

  4. About a year ago the Army Center for Leadership released a survey that claimed that there were a lot of "toxic leaders." If my experience is at all typical, the Army did nothing about it. I'll admit, I have a great commander now, and I have seen some pretty good ones in my career, but I have had a few leaders who were so bad that there is no doubt in my mind that their removal from the Army could have had an immediate positive impact on both morale and the war effort (including one whose deployment was cut short for "medical reasons").

    Military ethics takes rank and the chain of command for granted as a matter of military necessity. But the nature of the military hierarchy is not necessarily one that is conducive to producing the best leaders. Ethicists need to stop assuming that military necessity is the final word on the subject. Trust in the ranks is probably as important as obedience. No one trusts some leaders.

    I will be thinking about this more.