Questioning war: Ethics, the Military and Civilians

In the past two years, I’ve heard several soldiers say that they dislike civilians questioning the course of the war, since if the soldiers aren’t allowed to do so, why should someone who isn’t even involved?

This is part of a broader question: Can civilians legitimately question the war? Or is it just armchair generalling, and somewhat hypocritical?

This is a very important question, and it’s worth answering. My short answer is, that’s the civilians’ job.

The long answer is:

In our military, we have a rather unusual division between the officers and the enlisted. (Most other militaries – those that didn’t derive from England – do this differently) The officers’ responsibility is to keep the “big picture” in mind, and among other things to question orders and refuse them if they’re not legitimate or moral. The enlisted soldiers’ responsibility is to follow these orders to the best of their ability. However, we are living in an age of small-group operations rather than giant infantry movements across the countryside. In most cases in the field, an E6 may be far and away the most senior person present – since we insist on commissioning people right out of college. An NCO in a position like this can’t rely solely on the judgement of a junior officer; he or she needs training in how to interpret orders and decide when to refuse them at least as thorough as an O1 or an O2.

So my answer to the original question is, the soldiers do and should question the course of the war, especially on the scales for which they are responsible. An officer or an NCO is responsible for the moral conduct of himself (or herself – I’m just going to use one pronoun, bear with me. You know what I mean.) and everyone under his command. And what is a civilian’s job? Well, a civilian needs to keep well-informed about the course of the war as a whole, and offer counsel to the President when something is wrong. And yes, sometimes this can mean saying that something is a bad idea and we should stop doing it – not as an allegation of incompetence (although those are fair game too! Someone has got to watch for it.) but as a simple question of policy.

That’s a basic point in our system of government: A citizen’s responsibility isn’t just to vote for someone and then not pay attention to what they do, but rather to stay part of the process, to keep informed of the progress of everything – especially a war! – and apply pressure to make sure that the people they elected stay on track, and know what the public wants.

So if the public shows serious opposition to a war, it’s the President’s responsibility (and every other elected official’s) to take a good, hard look at why the public is so opposed. If the President really believes that, despite opposition, the war is still a good idea, it’s his responsibility to communicate to the public why he thinks so and convince them that he’s right. If the President can’t convince the public, then something is seriously wrong. At this point, it’s the people’s responsibility to make sure the President pays attention – and that’s not necessarily something that can wait until the next election.

(And if all this isn’t enough, consider that the average president has less experience doing his job than the average junior officer – at least the JO’s went through officers’ training. Would you like a random midshipman to run the country for a while without supervision? Or maybe a 2nd lieutenant, all bright-eyed and excited about Making a Difference?)

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Published in: on January 2, 2005 at 23:37  Comments (8)  
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8 Comments

  1. (I’ll respond more fully after some sleep, but aaugh!)
    Your last point really scares me when you put it that way . . . a lot. And even worse; you know what you’re talking about too, since you got to see me struggle through ROTC. *runs and hides*

  2. (I’ll respond more fully after some sleep, but aaugh!)
    Your last point really scares me when you put it that way . . . a lot. And even worse; you know what you’re talking about too, since you got to see me struggle through ROTC. *runs and hides*

  3. As usual, you make some excellent, points.
    I’d like to also point out the counter-point. The more experienced often end up in ruts based on their previous experiences. They only think in terms of what was previously learned, and don’t move on and can’t handle new situations that are different.
    There, it takes a less experienced person (or a more flexible person) to break the mold of behaviors, and do the right thing.
    For instance, the change from massive infrantry movements to small, highly mobile forces. Guerilla warfare vs. plinking away at each other across a field. Surgical airstrikes vs. carpet bombing, etc.

  4. As usual, you make some excellent, points.
    I’d like to also point out the counter-point. The more experienced often end up in ruts based on their previous experiences. They only think in terms of what was previously learned, and don’t move on and can’t handle new situations that are different.
    There, it takes a less experienced person (or a more flexible person) to break the mold of behaviors, and do the right thing.
    For instance, the change from massive infrantry movements to small, highly mobile forces. Guerilla warfare vs. plinking away at each other across a field. Surgical airstrikes vs. carpet bombing, etc.

  5. Oh, absolutely. We need a good mix of experienced hands and new people with fresh ideas. But we’d better have both.

  6. Oh, absolutely. We need a good mix of experienced hands and new people with fresh ideas. But we’d better have both.

  7. very well put….and couldn’t agree more.

  8. very well put….and couldn’t agree more.


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