The Search for “Ethical War”

By John Dorschner

One of the most bizarre approaches to modern warfare — and perhaps the most revealing — comes in a recent New Yorker story Clean Hands, by Anand Gopal.

Raqqa after the bombing

The issue is the search for ethical war, as odd as that idea might sound to some of us.

Gopal’s lead example: The American-led bombing of Raqqa, Syria, in 2017, which killed thousands while “not a single American died.”

The usual question is how many of those thousands were civilians. The answer, of course: A lot. But many ISIS fighters were mingled in that population, often hiding in families’ homes as they hoped to evade American air strikes.

In fact, in modern warfare, the U.S. military often works alongside lawyers to determine if targets have enough military personnel to make the loss of some civilians justifiable. “In the first Gulf War,” Gopal writes, “hundreds of specialist attorneys sat alongside generals at CENTCOM headquarters in Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, to ensure that the U.S. followed legal rules of warfare. It was the largest per-capita wartime deployment of lawyers in American history.”

Those lawyers — and “smart bombs” or “precision bombs” — make American destruction as humane and ethical as possible, the United States Department of Defense maintains.

That “humaneness” has been questioned in Asymmetric Killing: Risk Avoidance, Just War, and the Warrior Ethos by Neil Renic. Renic maintains that remote warfare — drones, bombers — may be killing bad people (murderous Islamic militants, for example) but it shouldn’t be considered ethical because the killing is done without any risk to the remote combatants.

Renic and Gopal are looking with fondness, it seems, at the medieval concept of chivalry: Combatants play by decent rules, putting themselves at risk in a fair way if they want to put their opponents at risk.

The medieval ages are long gone, of course. The growing use of bombers and remote drone strikes will become ever-more prevalent in the decades ahead. Trump ordered the Raqqa bombing. He said he didn’t like foreign wars — but this was a no-cost solution, meaning no risk to American lives, and he was able to brag about destroying ISIS.

It’s not just Americans, of course. Russia and Syria ignored international law (no lawyers for them!) when they bombed the hell out of Aleppo. “They retook the city with savage efficiency,” Gopal writes, “laying waste to crowded markets and hospitals. Yet the end result looked no different from Raqqa: a large civilian death toll, honeycombed apartment buildings… entire neighborhoods flattened.”

So what’s it mean for the future? Stupid, endless combat. In Afghanistan, the cost in American lives has been relatively modest (2216 over 19 years, compared with 58,000 in Vietnam over 20 years). Meanwhile, Americans make a point of taking care to select only “legitimate” Afghan targets — although at least 40,000 civilians have been killed in that country since 9/11.

“If the Afghan war continued for another 20 years,” Gopal writes, “it’s doubtful whether it would arouse much domestic [U.S.] opposition, even though the overall suffering may be as great as a wanton slaughter that ended in a decisive victory. The U.S. cannot carry out such a slaughter without violating the law and provoking widespread opposition, and so the conflict remains at a perpetual low boil. The U.S. finds itself in a peculiar situation in which it can neither win nor lose the war.”

So where does that leave us? Forget about rules of war? That could lead to horrific abuses. Gopal also rejects pacifism, “which, for all its merits asks us to condemn both the tyrant and those violently resisting tyranny. That leaves us with the moral tradition of the ‘just war,’ which maintains that warfare is a fixture of human existence, so the best we can hope for is to regulate when and how it is waged.”

The defense of “just wars” of course often becomes highly problematic, at least in the minds of many of us.

Gopal suggests the answer is endorsing Kant’s idea that “we should act as if we could” abolish war “and design our institutions accordingly.”

He recommends two specific steps: Insulate the Pentagon’s actions from defense contractors “and other vested interests” — a goal that has been impossible to achieve for decades.

His other suggestion seems much more doable: The post-9/11 Congressional act called the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which has been used by presidents more than 30 times since to take war-like actions in at least 14 countries without declaring war or inviting public debate.

“Perhaps only when our foreign adventures are subject to democratic restraints will we view the starting and ending of wars — not just their conduct — as matter of life and death,” Gopal writes.

Getting rid of that blank check sure makes a lot of sense to me and many others — and should have considerable support among Republicans and Democrats.

The New Yorker story is available at

A Miami journalist for a half-century dedicated to peace, equality and environmental protection. Author of Verdict on Trial, available on Amazon.