July 19, 2006

Warrior Code

By Callimachus:

I want to take another stab at convincing some of you there's an important -- essential -- distinction between a warrior and a terrorist, and it's not based on the cause they're fighting for. It's a theme I've brought up from time to time in the blogging I've done.

In Greek histories, Spartan mothers sent their sons to war with the commandment, "Come back with your shield, or on it."

Spartan mothers loved their babies, too -- they did not want to see dead bodies of their son brought back, as was the custom, sprawled on their shields. But if a warrior returned alive and unarmed it meant he had broken ranks and run. It meant he had thrown away the shield that protected -- not his own life, but, in the old method of fighting in phalanxes, the life of the man next to him. He had broken faith with his comrades; he had forgotten his warrior's code.

They wanted their sons back alive, but whole in spirit as well as body. They wanted them with honor intact. Everyone today who loves a soldier, sailor or Marine understand this. We want them alive, we want them victorious -- and we want them to have lives worth living when their battles are over.

Modern armies sweep into their ranks hundreds of thousands of people. Not all are fit to be soldiers. Those who are not, when discovered, should be weeded out and sent home, and if they have committed crimes in the meanwhile they should be punished for them.

But this is not a matter of good soldiers and bad apples. Certain kinds of combat, or duty, wear down the military codes of honor. The warrior's code frays, then the seams fall apart. Then horrible things begin to happen.

Warrior codes, whether in Sparta or in West Point, distinguish soldiers from murderers. Warriors have rules that govern when and how they kill. Learning them is part of the purpose of military training. We give soldiers the power to take lives, but only certain lives, in certain ways, at certain times, and for certain reasons.

The purpose of a code "is to restrain warriors, for their own good as much as for the good of others," writes Shannon E. French, an assistant professor of philosophy and author of "The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present." "The essential element of a warrior's code is that it must set definite limits on what warriors can and cannot do if they want to continue to be regarded as warriors, not murderers or cowards. For the warrior who has such a code, certain actions remain unthinkable, even in the most dire or extreme circumstances."

Yet the greatest danger of crossing that thin, sharp line that separates warriors from murderers is not in a war not among great powers, evenly matched. But it lurks when well-equipped armies are pitted against weak but merciless foes who hit and run and hide among civilians. It lurks in the places where people blow up public buildings to make a political point. There is no warrior code in that; a terrorist is a terrorist, however he justifies himself.

It is not the justness, or lack of it, in a war that makes this happen. Japanese soldiers, brutalized by experience in China, massacred and mutilated surrendering American soldiers in the Pacific in World War II, and Americans did it in turn to the Japanese when they found out about it. Tennessee soldiers who fought with honor and discipline at Shiloh in 1862 turned into murderous bushwhackers by 1864. Many soldiers in Hitler's army behaved to the end with utmost military discipline. Some of the Soviet troops who defeated the Nazis raped and pillaged their path halfway across Europe.

When warriors and murderers clash, the murderers risk nothing but death. The warriors risk more. "Their only protection is their code of honor," French writes. "The professional military ethics that restrain warriors -- that keep them from targeting those who cannot fight back, from taking pleasure in killing, from striking harder than is necessary, and that encourage them to offer mercy to their defeated enemies and even to help rebuild their countries and communities -- are also their own protection against becoming what they abhor."

[That's something written three years ago, thinking of the U.S. in Iraq. I could make the same point again in fresh words, with references to the current situation in the Mideast. But here it is with nothing tilted or spun for the sake of the case in view.]

Posted by Callimachus at July 19, 2006 05:13 PM

Very well argued point.

But on warrior code, let me add the observation by the founder of Tae-Kwondo, General Choi. In Tae-Kwondo, as in many other martial arts, a lot of emphasis is placed on the moral chararacter of the person doing the art. Perhaps due to the lethal nature of the art studied. Many times instructors will remind there students it is better to run than to fight.

But sometimes you have to fight. And one of General Choi's main themes was: one blow for victory. If you strike, strike once and strike such the enemy cannot strike back.

Perhaps this is not so easy to translate to modern warfare, but I believe many commentators in your first article made the point that you cannot become hostage to how your enemy fights or how they hide between civilians. The goal is victory. Nothing less will do.

And I think you should make clear your position Callimachus: has Israel crossed the line? Is this just an abstract discussion or are you actually leading to accussing Israel of overstepping bounds?

And we don't have to guess about how Israel is fighting. We can look straight into the souls of its figher pilots: The message is clear all the way from the Squadron commander to the last pilot. One mistake can jeopardize the whole war, like in Kfar-Kana, in one of the last operations in Lebanon, where artillery bombarded a refugee camp, killing over 100 people, which resulted in international pressure that halted the operation. Hitting the target is expected, no misses are acceptable. There aren't any congratulations for a well-performed mission. Only a hammer on the head if something goes wrong. Personally, I think it's a healthy attitude; it causes the whole system to be less rash and hot on the trigger.

But what is the point of having obeyed all moral codes drawn up by philosophers if you loose?

Posted by: Berend de Boer at July 19, 2006 05:37 PM

"For the warrior who has such a code, certain actions remain unthinkable, even in the most dire or extreme circumstances."

I appreciate that. It sounds so 'pleasant' and 'honourable'. We should all strive to be worthy of such a code. I admire it, and respect it fully.

But I am still puzzled. If I am the only and last wall between the defeat of a murderous fanatic enemy, and its ability to march my fellow citizens off to the death camps, it is more honourable to raise my little finger and conduct war 'appropriately', than to go completely medieval on their ass?

No matter how 'nice' you make this alternative sound, I still find it, ummm------- 'unappealing'. I think my duty is to win. Now in less 'existential' circumstances, I can easily see myself in full agreement. You don't lay waste to everyone in sight just because of a disagreement over a football game, but don't circumstances really do alter cases?

They do for me. Under no circumstances would it have been 'honourable' to have let the Nazis win. Sorry I just can't go there. Not yesterday and not today either.

Posted by: dougf at July 19, 2006 05:37 PM

Being a warrior has nothing to do with losing the will to win. It has everything to do with what you do while pursuing victory. And I've seen a further division between 'warriors' and 'soldiers' talked about in the literature. A combat Marine would fall in the warrior category with a strong commitment to the warrior ethos instilled.

Or a common soldier just doing his time and mainly dedicated to surviving the experience. A good portion of the US Army fell in that group during Viet Nam and probably most national armies fall into that group right now.

Posted by: Agesilaus at July 19, 2006 06:12 PM

I think it has more to do with leaders than soldiers.

Imagine a war, three countries vs. three countries.

Both sides are identical except:

Side A has countries led by Bushie, Tony Blair and Ehud Olmert.

Side B has countries led by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and David Ben-Gurion.

Which side wins?

Posted by: monkyboy at July 19, 2006 06:39 PM

"But what is the point of having obeyed all moral codes drawn up by philosophers if you lose?"

This is precisely the attitude that I took issue with a few posts ago. It just means that, The Ends Justify the Means. If the Ends don't justify the Means, then that will result in occasions on which we must choose defeat and suffering rather than Doing Whatever It Takes. We aren't allowed to do simply ANYTHING to avoid losing.

I have no essential problem with someone who argues that Israel is not directly attacking civilians. I have no essential problem with someone who argues that Israel is being relatively restrained. I have no argument with those who point out that civilian casualties will result when we attack military targets that are deliberately mixed in with civilians. I may be a bit skeptical of some of these claims, but I have no essential problem with them.

But I have a HUGE problem with people who say that asking questions about these things at all is ruled out of court because Israel Is Being Attacked. I have an ESSENTIAL problem with the argument that direct and massive attacks on civilians are just dandy if you need to do them.

And I think most people who THINK they think attacks on direct and purposeful civilians are fine if your cause is just know on some level that they are talking nonsense. That's why most of us complain about Palestinian terrorists who blow themselves up in pizza parlours. We don't just say, "Your cause is unjust." We don't just say, "You could more effectively fight your war if you limited your attacks to the military." We recognize that no matter how passionately we believe that the cause is unjust or the means unneeded, we may be wrong. Or at least our enemy may honestly be CONVINCED we are wrong.

So we say, "It doesn't matter if you are fighting for a just cause. It doesn't matter if there isn't any other way to achieve it. You don't blow yourself up in a pizza parlour in order to kill a bunch of partying teenagers. That's wicked."

(continued below)

Posted by: Jeff at July 19, 2006 07:48 PM
And I think you should make clear your position Callimachus: has Israel crossed the line?
I appreciate the desire to know that and I want to give you an honest answer. And the honest answer is, I don't yet know enough to say "no, it hasn't," and what I have been told so far inclines me to think it has reacted with proportion to the overall threat posed by Hezbollah's rockets.

But I don't know enough about what's going on to make an assured statement either way. Pretty wishy-washy, eh? Admitting I don't know enough to have an opinion worth printing. Not what you expect in a blogger. Probably why my site only gets a few hundred hits a day.

There's an uneasy parallel in this: Israel faces an enemy that has vowed to exterminate it as a nation. But the German people were told the Allies (directed by the Jews) had a blueprint to wipe out the German nation (and the Morgenthau plan and the oddball book "Germany Must Perish" were well-publicized by Goebbels).

Americans tend to forget what that's like. Many in the South sincerely believed Thad Stevens' hints that the North's victory would be followed by an erasure of the rebel population. But it's been a long time since 1865.

Posted by: Callimachus at July 19, 2006 08:05 PM

As far as the present conflict goes, I don't believe that Israel is DELIBERATELY inflicting massive civilian casualties in Lebanon. But it DOES seem that that an awful lot of civilians are dying. And that raises the question of proportionality and what we can reasonably expect innocent bystanders to tolerate.

No question that you will be killing some civilians when you are attacking fighters who routinely hide among them. If you attack an apartment block because you are pretty sure that Hezbollah has a command center it in, okay. But, if you attack a high rise because somebody said that a couple of guys with machine guns might have gone in there, then there's a problem with proportianlity. If you attack a port (run by Maronite Christians) and shut it down with bombs because somebody might conceivably use it to smuggle in a missile that might kill a few of your people, you have a problem with proportionality.

True, if you shut down the whole infrastructure of Lebanon, you might make a small dent in the enemy's capacity to import arms or move fighters. But a hell of a lot of perfectly innocent people are going to suffer for an incremental difference in your enemy's strength.

When you are attacked, as Israel was, and when you have a lot of firepower, as Israel does, there is an understandable temptation to "DO SOMETHING, for God's sake!" And though you may not be tempted to engage in saturation bombing of cities, you may be tempted to go after questionable targets with unacceptably high numbers of civilians casualties.

This is part of the reason why many Israelis are arguing that Israel should be carefully targetting clear Hezbollah targets and fighting Syria, rather than going after Lebanese infrastructure and questionable civilian-heavy targets. As well as engaging in questionably moral behavior, you simple alienate people who you want as allies. NOT all of the people of Lebanon love Hizbollah. NOT all of them hate Israel. You need to target your response so that you don't lose those people.

Of course, states aren't going to weight the lives of non-citizens as heavily as those of its own citizens. But it's not a case of my guys are 100% value and the other guy's civilians are 0%. It's not worthwhile to obliterate a city to save the life of one of your soldiers. If you DO take the attitude that Lebanese lives are of no value since you've been attacked, you can't be surprised if Lebanese disagree with you. You can't be surprised if people with Lebanese friends, like Michael Totten, disagree with you.

In 1982, Israel ended up doing what amounted to saturation bombing of whole areas of Beirut, killing thousands upon thousands of people because they just didn't have a good idea of where those fighters were. Ronald Reagan himself, watching on television, was deeply shocked and he was a lover of Israel. He told Menachem Begin, "I want this stopped and I want it stopped NOW!" And it was stopped, as it should have been.

Israel did not endear itself to the Lebanese when it behaved that way. And it didn't do much to stem terrorism from Lebanon either. Tough, complicated problems can't always be solved by Smash Harder. It would be nice if they could, but they can't.

Or, I should say, they CAN be solved if you are willing to pay the price in blood and if you have the strength. The Soviet Union solved the problem of rebellion in central Asia by killing millions of Kazakhs and reducing the population by more than a half. Sure enough, they quieted down! That did the trick!

But even if the Israelis were tempted to try and by their security at such a price, they don't have the strength, they don't have the stomach for it, and the world won't let them. Including the United States. Even George Bush wouldn't let them. And alienating Lebanon while smashing your way around for a few weeks won't work either. The Israelis don't have the manpower to occupy Lebanon and the Lebanese don't have the strength to control Hezbollah. Neither of these things will be solved by smashing the Hell out of things. And apparently they don't want to overthrow Assad because they know that however much they'd like to, whatever comes afterward will likely be worse for them.

So, rockets or no rockets, the Israeli strategy is filled with self-deception, questionably moral, and won't result in the ends they want. Any possible stabilization of a friendly Lebanon, will involve getting potential Lebanese allies to work with you. It ain't easy and it ain't quick, but there isn't anything else that will work.

Posted by: Jeff at July 19, 2006 08:21 PM

Jeff. I think one of the key points of the moral code of a warrior is that they leave their homes and families to do battle.

Hezbollah operate out of cities and villages, and have infrastructure in industrial areas. They receive logistical support and weapons via roads from Syria. They occupy Southern Lebanon and pretty much rule the whole area of South Beirut.

Unlike the Israelis, they don't operate out of army bases or wear uniforms. They blend in with all innocent non-combatants. They turn cities and villages into a war-zone.

What kind of ethics is that ?
Contrast Israel's response with other countries.

Take a look at what France, China or Russia does to insurgencies or militias. Its far more brutal, but receives far less media scrutiny.

Posted by: Jono at July 19, 2006 08:36 PM

Callimachus said: "But I don't know enough about what's going on to make an assured statement either way. Pretty wishy-washy, eh? Admitting I don't know enough to have an opinion worth printing."

You have just earned my utmost respect. Many would be well-served to think before they bloviate...

Posted by: Josh at July 19, 2006 09:10 PM

This is off the main point, but I'm surprised that no one has commented on the bizarre attempt at moral equivalency between the Japanese and the Americans during WWII. The Japanese weren't brutalized by China, they brutalized it, they were among the worst murdering bastards the world has ever known. It was part of THEIR warrior code to abuse helpless populations in the most repulsive ways. Further reading by Callimachus on this subject seems to be required.

I do wholeheartedly agree and applaud Callimachus' confession that he doesn't yet know whether Israel's response is proportional, because not enough facts are in yet. Indeed, this is the only honest response anyone can give, and it's a shame how much dishonesty there is out there in the blogosphere.

Posted by: MarkC at July 19, 2006 10:54 PM

Jeff/dougf, I wholeheartedly disagree with your confusing mix of private and national morality. The last soldier standing who doesn't do what it takes to win but rather looses and let his country be pillared and its women ravished so he can have a clean conscience isn't a hero in my book.

And you guys tend to confuse defense with attack.

You guys probably are against execution as well. Because it wouldn't make you any better than the murderer I suppose.

Posted by: Berend de Boer at July 20, 2006 01:09 AM

Jeff: "But it DOES seem that that an awful lot of civilians are dying. And that raises the question of proportionality and what we can reasonably expect innocent bystanders to tolerate.

As ususal you leave out some facts:

1. The enemy surrounds itself with civilians.

2. Perhaps the Israelis are just better in following orders and staying in bunkers than the Lebanese are.

That not so many civilians are dying on Israel's side might not be due to lack of effort on Hezbollah's side...

Posted by: Berend de Boer at July 20, 2006 01:12 AM

"Jeff/dougf, I wholeheartedly disagree with your confusing mix of private and national morality"----Berend

Ummm, did you actually 'read' my small effort here ?

I am not on the same page as Jeff or our host on this issue. In fact, I am more or less on your team big guy.

I now feel like a victim of disproportionate virtual force. ------ :-)

Posted by: dougf at July 20, 2006 03:52 AM


I would dearly love to know why you believe that the Japanese were brutalized by the Chinese in WWII, considering that it was the Japanese who massacred and raped their way through China.

Posted by: fuzz at July 20, 2006 11:22 AM

dougf, I'm very sorry, when scrolling through the posts again to see who also favored jeff's approach I misread your initial post, which initially actually was my inspiration for the comment I made.

Posted by: Berend de Boer at July 20, 2006 11:49 AM

I may be wrong here, but it seems to me that one reason there are more Lebanese casualties than Israeli is that Israel has bomb shelters and the Lebanese don't have many, if at all. The reason the Lebanese don't have shelters is they didn't need them in the past, and Israelis did.

And I agree that the warrior ethos doesn't do anyone any good if they loose. The warrior ethos is supposed to achieve victory in a certain way. This is an argument over means, not ends.

Posted by: Dale at July 20, 2006 03:25 PM

Should the rule of law extend to the battlefield?
Of course it should. Just as in a football game there should be referees to call fouls, time-outs, hundles, instant replays, and of course, a commissioner of war who can levy fines or even kick a soldier out of the war if he is naughty. Ultimately there should be real world courts where soldiers can sue. Absent a War League patterned on the NFL, laws for war make as much sense as pants on a pig.

War is mindless destruction; meaningless murder; the ultimate catastrophe. The winner gets the spoils and spoils it even more. Losers lose everything; rights, property, freedom, health, body parts, life.

But properly conducted, war settles every dispute and produces permanent peace by destroying the opposition.

War ended by diplomacy preserves the lives and power of both sides so that future wars are inevitable.

If there needs be war then do it right. Quite often, a third party shows up after a war, kills off whoever is left and takes over.

Posted by: sol vason at July 20, 2006 03:34 PM

There seems to be a common fallacy present in some of the post:
Get medieval (what a horrible and unfair expression, given the fact that modern warfare is much more destructive than anything medieval) on your enemy and you will win - ignore all rules of combat, through out all morality out of the window, and victory is yours! Not only is there no logical connection between brutality and victory, but it has been disproven time and again: just think Hitler!

(And yes, the Allies would have won the war without the more problematic elements of their warfare.)

"War is mindless destruction"? Only if those conducting it are mindless.

"Losers lose everything"? Not a very civilized thought. Yes, this used to be the principle a couple of thousand years ago but why should be not have progress.

Regarding the Japanese "warrior code": of course it matters quite a lot which warrior code you subscribe to. The Western/European code was certainly better than the Japanese one, but ... that's no argument for dispensing with a code complely.

"War ended by diplomacy" is bad because it "preserves the lives and power of both sides"? With such a logic you of course are forced win by any means necessary, since you don't want to be annihalted (but maybe the annihaltion of a thinker of such thougts is to be preferred). Only it is such a thinking that was the great tragedy of the First World War. The problem was not so much that it began, but that it didn't end when it proved futile, because everyone thought it to be the "ultimate struggle for survival against an enemy bent on ultimate destruction". A sensible agreement to stop the war (with the tacit understanding to go at it again later, as political conflicts remain) seems preferable to a "war to end all wars".

War is and must remain "politics by other means", which means: always keep in mind why you went to war in the first place. And consider the alternatives.

"If there needs to be a war, do it right" - yes, only what you deem to be right is not right at all.

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