Conduct Unbecoming

A tall, ramrod straight combat arms officer faced the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "I tell my men every day," he said, "there is nothing worth one of them dying for....Prohibiting casualties is the top-priority mission I have been given by my battalion commander." In other words, if the mission conflicts with force protection, the mission gets scrubbed. Gone is the moral tenet, as stated in Samuel Huntington’s military classic The Soldier and the State, "for the soldier to respond effectively when called upon to defend the defenseless, even to the point of death."

The officer corps of the U.S. Army is in an ethical muddle. In a provocative paper titled "Army Professionalism, the Military, and Officership in the 21st Century," three West Point teachers are challenging the U.S. military and, by inference, NATO’s policy of "radical force protection." They believe that this policy is the latest example of the erosion of the soldier’s ethos of self-sacrifice and "corroding the professional military ethic." They place the blame in part on changes in international politics since the end of the Cold War, the new nature of conflict, and undue political pressure for "force protection." Apparently the problem is so widespread that West Point has opened a Center for the Professional Military Ethic—an oversized camouflage couch on which the Army can work through its identity crisis.

This ethical confusion is affecting U.S.-lead NATO as well. Criticism of NATO’s conduct in Kosovo is coming from all sides. A recent issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review, a highly respected international journal on threat analysis, calls the Kosovo operation a "military adventure NATO seems destined to lose." By their accounting the economic cost of Operation Allied Force will push $50 billion, including the air strikes, humanitarian aid, peacekeeping forces, and reconstruction. The political costs of destabilized relations with Russian and China and having Milosevic still in power are inestimable.

WARS ARE FOUGHT for many reasons—as idealistic crusades, for political or economic gain, sometimes over national "honor." NATO’s newest type of warfare is the "ethical war" that employs "humanitarian intervention" for just and moral reasons. Concurrently, by its new policies NATO has completely abandoned the only guidelines that have attempted to impose ethics in war—those of the "just war theory" as adopted into the U.N.’s International Laws of War.

Abandoning those principles means NATO is guilty of war crimes. Amnesty International outlines a few of NATO’s violations in Kosovo. First, NATO required that its aircraft fly at altitudes higher than 15,000 feet to ensure maximum force protection. This made adherence to maximum protection of civilian lives and infrastructure impossible. No NATO forces were killed in hostile action, while civilian casualties were sky high.

Second, the U.N.’s Laws of War prohibit any direct attack on civilians or civilian objects. NATO intentionally blew up the Serb state radio and television station, killing 16 civilians.

Third, attacks that do not attempt to distinguish between military targets and civilian targets are prohibited. NATO failed to suspend attacks on bridges even after it was evident that civilians had been struck.

The British parliament’s foreign affairs committee stated the problem clearly. While they acknowledge that NATO air strikes in Kosovo and Serbia were "contrary to international law, the committee still feels that the military action was justified on moral grounds." When so many lives are at stake, however, one can not assume that a war is a "just" war solely because it feels just. The international community’s most rigorous moral standards must be applied concerning the waging of war. It requires self-sacrifice on the part of soldiers and the maintaining of the highest regard for the lives and property of civilians.

As Christians we can support ethical guidelines that lead to violence reduction and civilian protection. Just war theory in international law is better than no ethical standards at all.

Our support, however, can not become confused with an understanding that war is "just," "ethical," or "humanitarian." Christians know there is nothing justifiable about it—in fact, war is a failure of justice itself. For Christians the question is not whether to resist evil—but how. Protecting human rights and working to prevent their violation is a fundamental principle of justice. Yet Jesus calls us to fight injustice with militant nonviolence. Our struggle is how to uphold both the command to "love thy enemy" (Luke 6:28) and the command "neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor" (Leviticus 19:16).

ROSE MARIE BERGER is assistant editor of Sojourners. "Army Professionalism, the Military, and Officership in the 21st Century" is online at:

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