During these last days, or perhaps hours, of our preparation for war with whatever Iraqi forces elect to fight for Saddam Hussein, there is a vital battle of priorities still being waged within the American defense establishment. It is not a battle over the usual Pentagon concerns-bureaucratic turf and budgetary appropriations-but rather over something that most Americans may not even recognize as a consideration: military ethics.
The term refers to the study not only of the official codes of conduct that govern individual officers and men, but also to the larger philosophical issues and principles that determine how whole armies behave. Military ethics is the strategic counterpart of the tactical discussion of military methods. The fact that civilizations are defined and remembered largely by how they fight would be reason enough for us to follow the current ethical debate (which has been largely ignored by the media); because the debate will have direct impact on the Iraq campaign, the matter is urgent.
Consider the recent remarks of retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Buster Glosson, who was the director of campaign planning for air operations during the first Gulf War-which is to say, one of the principal architects of a scheme that, by virtually ignoring military ethics, did so much to alienate the Iraqi people in the first place. General Glosson has more than once spoken out to declare the Defense Department’s plans for the coming invasion “criminal”: “It is risking more lives than are necessary,” he says-meaning, of course, American lives. General Glosson especially dislikes the idea that the American air campaign may last only a few days. He belongs to the school that favors prolonged, intensive, long-range bombing. The idea here is that the more we hammer areas where enemy troops are concentrated, as well as enemy infrastructure-regardless of attendant civilian casualties-the more likely we are to guarantee low, even negligible casualties among our own troops and thus protect our national interests.
This issue lies at the very heart of the current debate over American military ethics. As we have observed in every conflict since (and including) the Second World War, more long-range (or “strategic”) bombing inevitably means more civilian casualties; less bombing may mean more American casualties. Against this brutally simple calculation stands a hard truth overlooked by generations of American military planners: Soldiers, especially in a volunteer army, accept risk as part of their job and are specially equipped to meet it; civilians, on the other hand, are offered neither such choice nor such special equipment. They are, for the most part, defenseless, and will generally show deep gratitude to whatever army or nation recognizes that-and equally deep hatred toward those who do not.
American military ethics have never been particularly refined or humane. As a nation, we tend to think of our security as something that should be maintained by the most expedient means. This attitude, which can be traced all the way back to colonial struggles against Native American tribes, came into its own after the defeat of Germany and Japan, when the American government and military decided it had no choice but to match the unethical behavior of its Communist enemies. One of the postwar era’s most influential exponents of such thinking was Brig. Gen. James H. Doolittle, who led the famous American bombing of military and civilian centers in Japan early in World War II. In a 1956 memo to President Dwight Eisenhower concerning global competition with the Soviets, Doolittle declared, “There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of behavior do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered.”
That it was James Doolittle-an Air Force general-who advocated regressive military ethics was neither surprising nor coincidental: It was the Air Force (both in the U.S. and Great Britain) that had lobbied for and carried out the often indiscriminate bombing of civilian centers in Germany and Japan. Many senior officers in both services believed that they could bomb civilians in both nations into withdrawing their support for their rulers, a concept that became known as “strategic bombing.” If this idea sounds uncomfortably familiar to us today, it should: Strategic bombing, in nearly every case, was and remains simply another term for that most unethical of belligerent tactics, terrorism.
But as Americans learned on Sept. 11, terrorism-whether perpetrated by national armies or extremist groups-does not break the will of a civilian population; in fact, it only steels that will. (This was something that should have been vividly apparent to the architects of the strategic bombing campaigns of the Second World War. They had seen that the London Blitz only stiffened England’s resolve; and later, in Germany, they were faced with another unexpected development: The more bombs dropped on German civilians, the higher the rate of German industrial production, and the wider the range of males enlisting in the German armed forces.)
Until the U.S. launched its campaign to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, strategic bombing remained the default strategy of American military planners. But at the moment when terrorism struck America with unprecedented force on Sept. 11, it was the good fortune of the nation to find the Defense Department under the leadership of someone willing to call received wisdom into question. Donald Rumsfeld did not and still does not seem to many a likely exponent of ethical change. But progress in the realm of military ethics has never been achieved by those righteous individuals-from St. Augustine to Jimmy Carter-who pontificate about the need for moral reform in society and government without addressing pragmatic questions such as national security. Real headway is made by reformers who can demonstrate that their progressive ethics will also augment a nation’s safety and well-being.
Immediately on taking control of the Pentagon in early 2001, the new Secretary of Defense put military officers and officials on notice that old modes of behavior, on the battlefield and off, would have to change. Establishing supra-national terrorism and rogue states as the primary threats of the new century, Mr. Rumsfeld also challenged strategic doctrines and weapons programs that had become established tenets and cash cows for many in the department. And, critically, he displayed an understanding that the United States, if it was indeed to continue as the global hegemon, could no longer indulge its worrisome tendency to ignore enemy civilian casualties in an effort to avoid American military casualties.
Yet it was by no means clear early on that Mr. Rumsfeld’s reforms would succeed. Indeed, as of Sept. 10, 2001, Washington was rife with rumors that he would be the first member of George W. Bush’s cabinet to resign or be fired. The secretary’s blunt if jocular style, his intimidating intellectual capacity and finally his command of the ins and outs of Pentagon bureaucracy (one career Special Forces officer who worked for many years in the Pentagon told me that Mr. Rumsfeld’s message was received as: “I already know all the ways you’re going to bullshit me, so don’t even try”) combined to create a swell of opposition, not only within the department but also on Capitol Hill and in the President’s cabinet.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s response to Sept. 11 changed the entire picture. His predictions concerning the kinds of threats that America would face in the new century had been vindicated, and his personal stock with the public skyrocketed when it was learned that he had personally supervised efforts amid the smoldering ruins of the Pentagon’s western wing, while the President and other members of the cabinet were scouring the nation for secure locations in which to hide.
Though his job at Defense was now secure, Mr. Rumsfeld encountered continued attempts to undercut his policies by members of the department at the beginning of the campaign to depose the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. He had taken the singularly progressive decision to send Special Forces operatives into the country in advance of the actual campaign so that they could coordinate with anti-Taliban groups, in large part to avoid civilian casualties. And yet for almost the entire first two weeks of the campaign, American military behavior and ethical priorities appeared to revert to the days of Serbia and even Vietnam: Hundreds of high-altitude bombing missions were conducted, and although they often dropped weapons that could be guided to targets marked by the Special Forces operatives, they sometimes did not-and rumors of civilian casualties began to mount.
Realizing where all this was likely heading, Mr. Rumsfeld demanded that the Air Force shift its emphasis to lower-altitude tactical air operations; and he demanded that the role of Special Forces troops be expanded. That he carried the day was due more to his powers of persuasion than to his commander in chief’s military acumen; but the important point is that for the first time in American history, the disciples of long-range, nondiscriminatory destruction were checked-and held in check. And for the first time since Korea, American troops were welcomed as a liberating, rather than an occupying, force.
All this grew out of an ethical willingness to weigh the value of the lives of Afghan civilians-on the same scale as the lives of American troops. Yet still, traditional military thinkers protested: One angry officer declared, after the early days of the Afghan undertaking, “It is shocking, the degree to which [concerns about] collateral damage hamstrung the campaign.” But in fact, no one involved in this ethical shift ever deliberately compromised the safety of American military personnel or the swift prosecution of the campaign; instead, they demonstrated that avoiding “enemy” civilian casualties actually contributes to the success of American arms in the field and to American national security overall.
One might have thought, with preparations for the invasion of Iraq so far advanced, that the debate over military ethics would have been settled long ago. But the disciples of brute air power, the proponents of “clean” (so far as American troops are concerned) war, are not so easily dispensed with, as General Glosson’s remarks about the Pentagon’s “criminal” plans indicate. The charge is absurd: The current planning (what we know of it) is intended to gain Iraqi assistance, not to risk American lives: to shorten the war and secure a genuine and lasting piece by eliminating that part of the campaign most likely to produce embittering civilian deaths. It is true that reports continue to surface that the initial air operations of the campaign will be severely curtailed, but the types of weapons used may more than make up for that. America has for some time had in its arsenal more than just bigger and better conventional bombs: We have laser-guided models, as well as JDAM’s, which are satellite-guided and more accurate than their laser-guided cousins. Even more importantly, the U.S. now has such ingenious devices as E-bombs. Capable of destroying the electronic circuitry in computers, radios and telephones-and missiles, too-with a massive microwave pulse, E-bombs can obviate the need to demolish entire electric-power plants. Because Saddam Hussein has been known to forcibly position civilians in such installations so that later, after the bombing, he can display the dead bodies, and because the preservation of infrastructure also preserves civilian life during and after the campaign, the development and use of E-bombs and other advanced weapons represents an important step forward in the refinement of American military ethics.
No bomb, however sophisticated, can be guaranteed to minimize civilian casualties on its own: The U.S. must remain willing-in the interests of its own security-to continue to use Special Forces troops to confirm the legitimacy of ground targets. There is every indication that Mr. Rumsfeld intends to do just that.
It is obviously terrible to try to judge the value of the lives of one’s own servicemen and -women relative to the lives of enemy civilians. When he declares that protecting enemy civilians must never mean endangering U.S. personnel (“I don’t believe there is ever a situation when that is acceptable”), General Glosson displays a typical Air Force hostility toward ethical calculations. The fact that Mr. Rumsfeld and his lieutenants have dared even to approach this horrific dilemma is commendable; and their success to date is most encouraging. But difficult questions remain: Have they tried hard enough? Is their commitment sufficiently strong, or-should the plan for the new Iraq campaign meet with trouble early on-will they join forces with the advocates of long-range destruction?
America is walking the narrowest of paths toward military success. The failure of enlightened ethics-that is, the reintroduction of indiscriminate force-will close down that path altogether, and perhaps bring on the Armageddon of which Saddam Hussein has so often and so delightedly warned. Should that nightmare come, many American officers and officials will doubtless find themselves, like certain of their departed predecessors, in that special hell reserved for those who believe that in order to save a people, one must devastate them first.
Caleb Carr is the author of The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians, an updated edition of which will be published next month by Random House.