Saturday, April 4, 2009

No Armies Are Moral

by Michael Schwalbe

People in every country want to see their soldiers as acting nobly. So perhaps it's no surprise that Israeli propagandists have tried to claim first place by calling the IDF the "most moral army in the world." The problem with this phrase is not just that it is risible in the case of the IDF, but that it implies the possibility of any army being moral. On the contrary, by virtue of how they are organized and what they inevitably do, all armies are moral failures.

Armies, like other social institutions, can be evaluated in terms of how well they embody and reinforce what is essential to responsible moral conduct. If we suppose that such conduct requires, at the very least, respect for individuals, restraint based on reasonable foresight, personal accountability, and commitment to dialogue, then armies fail on every count.

Respect for individuals includes respecting the basic human right not to be used as the mere instrument of another's will. Armies can function only by sacrificing this right. It is not the duty of a soldier, as it is the duty of a human being, to seek and evaluate the information needed to choose the best course of action when the well-being of others is at stake. Soldiers are expected and compelled to follow orders without question, especially in combat.

In the post-Nuremberg era there is of course an abstract injunction against following unlawful orders. But this injunction is nearly always overridden by conditioning and by situational pressures. Soldiers are trained to obey, expected to obey, and rewarded for doing so. Armies do not function by cultivating moral philosophers; they function by turning human beings into tools.

The principle of restraint based on reasonable foresight holds that it is wrong to act in a way that will, in all likelihood, create conditions conducive to inhumane and immoral action. There is no better example of violating this principle than the act of training and equipping soldiers to kill other human beings, and then sending them into battle.

When people are taught to see others as "the enemy" -- that is, as objects to be eliminated -- and sent into situations where their own lives are at stake, horrific acts are entirely predictable. It is also predictable that such acts eventually will be perpetrated against anyone defined as, or seen as supporting, "the enemy." To know that this will happen, to know that armies must dehumanize others, and yet still to organize for and engage in war, is to be guilty of its inevitable atrocities.

Responsible moral conduct also depends on accountability -- the likelihood of being made to answer for the consequences of one's deliberate actions. Within armies, there is indeed accountability, but it is subordinates who are held accountable for following orders, not the political elites or the highest-ranking officers who hand down those orders.

Because there is no effective system for holding accountable the elites who organize, fund, and deploy armies, there is no check on their behavior, short of popular uprising. This is a situation in which political elites have little fear of being brought to justice for acts of mass violence committed at their command. It is a situation in which George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld can start illegal wars of aggression, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, and still walk free.

What makes us human is the capacity for rational dialogue through which we can extend compassion to others and achieve mutual understanding. All morally responsible behavior depends on the exercise of this capacity. Armies not only have no use for rational dialogue, they represent its antithesis. An army is what you use when dialogue has been abandoned.

It has been said that truly democratic societies do not start wars. As a matter of historical fact, this claim is arguable, depending on exactly what is meant by "truly democratic." But if this is taken to mean a society whose members are committed to rational dialogue as a way of reaching consensus among themselves, it is understandable that it would be hard to lead such a society to war. When people can figure out how to live peacefully among themselves, they can usually figure out how to live peacefully with their neighbors.

There remains the question of legitimate self-defense. Are there not cases in which armies are necessary to resist aggression? If so, cannot these defensive armies be said to be "moral"?

Strict pacifists would say that all violence is wrong, and that massive non-cooperation -- in the event of, say, an attempted invasion -- would be morally preferable to killing, even in self-defense. In this view, the use of violence is what makes an army immoral. This is not the view I am taking here, which is that armies are moral failures before any shots are fired.

By training people to dehumanize others, by organizing and mobilizing people in ways that make atrocities and the killing of innocents inevitable, and by insulating political elites from accountability for the harm they do, armies are inherently immoral institutions.

Today, the young people who join the U.S. military are mainly those who see few other options. Most have no accurate idea of what they're getting into, or of what they're helping to perpetrate. They may even act on noble intentions. Armies exploit this desperation, ignorance, and nobility. What armies also do, and what most fully exposes their immorality, is to expend the lives of powerless youth to serve the interests of political and economic elites.

No matter how kind an individual slave owner might have been, slavery was an evil institution. Likewise armies and the military in general. When an institution impedes responsible moral action and makes us more likely to treat others horrifically, it is fair to call it evil. To call any army "moral" is thus to pretend that our failures are successes and that night is day.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. His latest book is Rigging the Game: How Inequality Is Reproduced in Everyday Life (Oxford, 2008). He can be reached at

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