Values and Ethical Dilemmas That Military Leaders Face Today After 10 Years of War Essay

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Ethical Challenges of the War in Afghanistan

Ten years after the start of the war in Afghanistan, military leaders still face ethical dilemmas engendered by the war. The overall discussion that develops from the literature reveals more questions than answers. The essay examines moral issues surrounding unconventional warfare or police actions. Such questions as whether it is acceptable to kill noncombatant civilians or torture detainees are explored, along with Just War theory and unconventional warfare tactics. How much risk should soldiers be exposed to in order to minimize harm to civilians? In the absence of answers to these and similar questions, military personnel are left to make split-second life and death decisions without the benefit of training. The use of military robots also results in moral dilemmas for war fighters. Not only is there currently debate over the role of robots and whether they should be used in autonomous mode, but as the technology matures, the complexity of ethical issues is expected to escalate. While robots are seen on one hand as a means to minimize risk to humans, it must also be acknowledged that the use of robots and drones may just as well precipitate additional violence. By exploring the range of ethical issues that the war in Afghanistan has raised, this essay highlights challenges that remain unresolved.

Ethical Challenges of the War in Afghanistan


After ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, military leaders still face significant ethical challenges. Because of the challenges associated with waging an unconventional war, military practices and preparations have not evolved to provide sufficient ethical training for personnel in Afghanistan. This essay explores ethical questions that remain unresolved even after a war that has been prosecuted for more than a decade.

Unresolved Ethical Issues

Many ethical issues related to warfare, conventional and otherwise, have never been resolved. For example, there is a widely held belief that all people have a basic, prima facie right not to be killed. Even so, and this belief is by no means universally held, that right to not be killed may be forfeited when someone willfully threatens the lives of innocent people. Or, put another way, soldiers and police are empowered to kill those who threaten the lives of innocent people. It logically follows then that when such killing can be justified, nations and societies may proactively train and equip these professional warriors who are prepared to defend them with force. These assumptions create the basis for the just war theory, (Perry, 2004), a doctrine of military ethics that has been used to analyze the war in Afghanistan.

However just a war may be judged, there are moral risks that are an essential part of training officers and soldiers "to be effective killers" (Perry, 2004) that create a moral dilemma. It is a given that discipline in obeying orders is required to develop soldiers to be effective in pursuit of military objectives; but what if soldiers are ordered to do something immoral, such as shoot prisoners? Also, commanders face a dilemma when it is necessary to evoke soldiers' rage to heighten their motivation to fight in circumstances that would normally evoke overwhelming fear. That same rage which keeps them alive in combat also makes them unlikely to show mercy to civilians or enemy soldiers who may surrender in combat. Perry argues that soldiers need not be encouraged to hate the enemy in order for them to be effective in combat situations. He further argues that soldiers must be "allowed and encouraged to disobey immoral orders" (Perry, 2004).

With respect to police actions, the question arises as to how serious must a government's abuse of its citizens' human rights be before other countries are justified in intervening militarily. Another ethical issue arises with respect to treatment of suspected Al Qaeda members who are known to kill noncombatants indiscriminately: should they be treated as criminal suspects, or as prisoners of war, or as something else? And, under what circumstances does rigorous interrogation of suspected terrorists equate to torture? Is torturing suspected terrorists morally justified to prevent mass murder? In theory the answer is yes, because a known terrorist has forfeited his right to not be tortured. In reality though, this practice risks the torture of innocent people given that the interrogator may lack sufficient evidence to know that the suspect is guilty. A closely related issue arises if the U.S. As a nation trains or authorizes soldiers to torture; then morally they cannot be distinguished from terrorists themselves. Likewise, if the U.S. instead sends prisoners to other countries that are known for their use of torture, there is no denying culpability for what happens to those prisoners. All these practices contribute to "undermining respect around the world for conventions against torture" (Perry, 2004).

Determining the number of civilian deaths that have occurred during the war in Afghanistan presents another moral dilemma. Too often U.S. leaders have been quick to blame insurgents or the Taliban, and thereby failed to establish an accurate count that might reflect badly on the war effort. A further ethical dilemma arises with the question of how much risk soldiers should expose themselves to in order to minimize harm to civilians living near combat zones, or being used as human shields. These are just a sampling of questions provoked by the war in Afghanistan for which there are no clear cut answers, even after ten years.

The Moral Challenges of Unconventional War

In June 2005, 4 SEAL team members on a reconnaissance mission were discovered by two Afghan men and a 14-year-old boy while herding goats. The SEAL team was reluctant to kill three civilians to protect their cover, so they released the civilians and changed positions. Nevertheless they were soon attacked by nearly 100 Taliban fighters. Three of the four SEALs were killed, along with 16 Special Forces volunteers, who died when their helicopter was shot down in a rescue attempt. The lone survivor blamed himself for all of the losses, as a result of his unit's decision to protect noncombatants. Whether they were correct to enforce the rule protecting noncombatants is still hotly debated (Lucas, 2008).

This incident highlights the moral dilemma that military personnel have faced without any real preparation for decisions required in fighting unconventional wars. Today's military are deployed by their governments to "undertake internationally sanctioned missions…fighting wholly unconventional wars to interdict terrorists, halt humanitarian atrocities, or restore stability, peace and the rule of law in failed states" (Lucas, 2009, p.337). According to George R. Lucas, such issues must be confronted and discussed in order to adequately prepare military personnel for the responsibilities they must face.

Lucas argues that in the decades of disillusionment following the Vietnam War, the topic of ethics has been sorely neglected by the military profession and by academics in civilian universities. This neglect results from the fact that unconventional wars do not employ the usual strategy and tactics. In fact, they are not wars at all, but rather police actions, marked by legal and moral ambiguity of the kind which cannot be informed by "the conventional rules of war or by the provisions of the classical Just War Tradition" (2009, p.340) or any of its arguments.

It is entirely likely that for the foreseeable future, the unconventional war will be the only kind of war to be conducted; present and future warriors must be prepared in advance to face moral dilemmas and ethical challenges associated with such wars. The U.S. must confront the moral responsibility of educating men and women who will be charged with keeping the peace, "protect[ing] the human rights of vulnerable peoples throughout the world, and defend[ing] the rule of law" (Lucas, 2008, p. 342).

Military Robots and Ethical Dilemmas

Robotics has revolutionized modern warfare and consequently introduced even more ethical issues. With the increasing use of robots comes ethical challenges that are only just beginning to be understood. After initially making their debut in New York City to help in rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero, robots were deployed in Afghanistan to hunt for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In addition to robots on the ground, Predator drones took out some 115 targets in Afghanistan on their own the first year they were used. (That figure is in addition to "the thousands of targets that were destroyed by other means after being laser-designated by Predators" (Singer, 2009, p. 39)).

Some analysts express the hope that the use of robot warriors may decrease the violence of war. In circumstances where wartime atrocities resulted from human error, not deliberate cruelty, then unmanned systems may indeed work to reduce mistakes. Moreover, robots can take risks that humans would not, again resulting in greater accuracy and fewer mistakes. When soldiers burst into a building, they have only milliseconds to determine enemies from civilians, and shoot at the ones who are a threat while avoiding shooting any civilians. Robots, by comparison, can enter a building or room and shoot only at someone who shoots at it first, all…[continue]

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