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Moral Absolutism, Strategy, and the Challenge of the 21st Century

This essay is part of the #StrategyAndEthics series, which asked a group of academics and national security professionals to provide their thoughts on the confluence of ethical considerations, the development of strategy, and the conduct of war. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.[1]
—Carl von Clausewitz, On War

Western politicians, strategists, and tacticians have a shared problem. Interestingly, it is a problem that goes to the heart of the West’s conception of war, but is one we seem entirely uncomfortable discussing. It rarely makes its way explicitly onto the agendas of our principal decision-making bodies. It is not (and I stand to be corrected) being openly discussed in parliaments and defense headquarters. It is only briefly discussed in most Staff College courses.

The problem is one of ethics, or to be specific, to what extent ethics should influence political decisions about war, the development of strategies for war, or the tactics of how war is fought.


The dialogue (or lack of one) between ethics, policy, strategy, and tactics has the potential to be a defining factor of the 21st Century. Western liberalism may rise or decline depending on the answer. At the heart of this is a tension between three things: the unpredictable nature of war, the urgent need in the West to develop strategies that can actually succeed, and a growing commitment to moral absolutism in the use of force. This is a circle that must be squared.

Strategy itself cannot be ethical. I subscribe to the idea of a broadly positivist general theory of strategy. Colin Gray, Harry Yarger, Tami Davis Biddle, and others are persuasive in their argument that there are a series of rational, interdependent, and enduring linkages between ends, ways, and means that transcend the history of war. This general theory of strategy is, quite rightly, amoral. It can hardly be otherwise. An enduring theory cannot take sides in arguments over what is right and wrong at a given time. Such a theory cannot lean one way or another in great philosophical debates over deontology and consequentialism. If it did so it would lose its absolute nature, and become worthless. In this respect the general theory is more like gravity; always present, described by a broadly immutable set of “laws,” and emotionless. War itself shares this amoral nature. As an almost gestalt entity, war influences without consideration or compunction, soulless in its actions and emotionless to the outcomes. This is an intrinsic part of the “total phenomenon” of war’s nature Clausewitz describes in Book 1 of On War.[2]

As soon as we move from theory to practice, and as soon as we start to use strategic theory to developstrategies, ethics become absolutely fundamental. Strategies are about decisions. For those charged with making decisions about war, the simple drivers of “fear, honour, and interest” as outlined artfully by Thucydides are underpinned by a socio-cultural, ethical framework of right and wrong.[3] Strategies demand that nations make a conscious choice as to how they fight in war; how much violence are they willing to apply, and in what ways they are willing to apply it. In ethical theory, such a discussion revolves around the simple idea of “fighting well.”


General William Tecumseh Sherman: "You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it."

In the seminal work Just and Unjust Wars, the moral philosopher Michael Walzer outlines three options to fighting well. At one extreme is what he calls the General Sherman War is Hell doctrine. This argues that soldiers fighting a just war “can do anything at all that is useful in fighting...any blame their actions entails falls upon the leaders of the other side.”[4] Jus ad bellum and victory are all that matter. At the other end of the scale ismoral absolutism. This holds that “the rules of war are a series of categorical and unqualified prohibitions, and that they can never rightly be violated even in order to defeat aggression.”[5] This is the approach taken by the Duke of Sung in 638 BC, when he refused to attack the soldiers of Ch’u as they crossed the Hung River in Central China, simply because it would be wrong to do so (later referred to by Mao as “asinine ethics”).[6] Finally, and the approach he defends, is the utilitarianism of extremity. This final approach “concedes that in certain very special cases, though never as a matter of course even in just wars, the only restraints upon military action are those of usefulness and proportionality.”[7] This is the “supreme emergency” argument of Churchill, the survival of the British society, and the deliberate firebombing of Dresden. It is the argument that was broadly subscribed to by the West until the end of World War II.[8]

Here is the problem. Since the horrors of the World Wars, the West has increasingly discarded utilitarianism and has crept closer and closer towards an unassailable position of moral absolutism. This is fundamentally undermining the use of force as an instrument of strategy.

Wikimedia/Lybil Ber
International Court of Justice

Moral absolutism on this scale is a new phenomenon. While just war traditions are as old as formalized conflict itself, reaching as far back as Rome, Saint Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, the period since 1945 is unique in the way humanity at large has sought to set a bar for these traditions through International Humanitarian Law. The Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions, and the Geneva Protocols, policed by the United Nations (UN) and the International Court of Justice, now control when and how we go to war. The bar is rightly set high: no armed aggression in international relations unless in self-defense (or in defense of others); protection of non-combatants; no targeting of civilians; no abuse of prisoners of war and detainees; no extra-judicial actions; limitations on the use of indiscriminate weapons, deception, and perfidy.

All of this is admirable, a logical response to the millions of deaths in the Second World War. However the fact remains that, for those who fight within these standards, International Humanitarian Law limits tactical options. The deliberate targeting of civilians as a tactic was (all things being equal) fundamental to British survival in World War II. The possession of large-scale blast and chemical weapons was a key element of NATO’s ability to balance their inferior mass against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Internment and mass resettlement of civilians were central to the British approach in Northern Ireland and Malaya, respectively. None of these previously fruitful ways and means are now available to nations who adhere to International Humanitarian Law. As admirable as such constraints are, those who adhere to them must acknowledge they make it harder to overcome an enemy. Methods and paradigms must change. New ways must be found.

The danger is where nations don’t seek new ways and persuade themselves they can just ignore war’s nature and push on, where they believe they can unleash war in the old ways (even for humanitarian purposes), meet these standards of moral absolutism, and still succeed. I believe the West has done this endemically over the last fifteen years in Iraq and Afghanistan…sometimes even going so far as to take history, sanitize it of now-ethically-dubious tactics, and cite it as “best practice" in doctrine.

Take, for example, the development of new counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine (both British andAmerican) in the post 9/11 campaigns.[9,10] Both nations heavily cited British tactics from the Malayan Emergency as an exemplar. However, in reality, many of the tactics used by the British (tactics that were the bedrock of success) would now not meet the moral absolutist standards of the international community. Imagine if the British Army had faithfully applied the Briggs Plan from Malaya in Helmand Province in 2009. In this plan Task Force Helmand, seeking to isolate the insurgent, would have forcefully resettled and interned up to half of the civilian population (some 400,000 people) from the edges of the Helmand River into guarded camps called “New Villages.” They would have deliberately targeted the Pashtun ethnic group as the perceived lifeblood of the insurgency. Collective punishment, preventative detention, and summary deportation would have been common. Simultaneously, the British Army would have deposed the command structure of the Afghan Army, replacing all company and unit commanders with British officers and taking subtle control to leverage it to British ends. Back in our current paradigm, this exemplar of COIN tactics suddenly looks much more like an international war crime.

One of the Briggs Plan's New Villages in Petaling Jaya, Mayala, in 1957.

Is the West steadily persuading itself that war can be clean, clinical, and conducted without moral consequence? If we are, then perhaps we need to listen again to the opening quote from Clausewitz.


This problem is only on an upward trend. The West is increasingly likely to feel the need to use force, but within these morally-explicit constraints on strategy and tactical action. Threats are myriad. The resurgence of Russian nationalism represents a significant conventional flashpoint that may demand a response. Internal instability in Iraq and Syria threatens to destabilize the region, and may encourage deeper intervention. However, it is the UN’s developing Responsibility to Protect(R2P) concept that has the potential to place strategists in a fundamentally contradictory situation. The language of this international standard was originally framed around a right to intervene. The conceptual change from a “right” to a “responsibility” is critical. We have moved from a managed choice to apply force to a demand for action. Under this concept, if there is a perceived need and the UN directs it, the international community is morally obligated to use all means (including force) to act. And it must act in a morally absolute environment. War doesn’t work this way.


So, what to do? The extreme option would be to abandon the use of force altogether, realizing the West cannot allow war to exist without a breach of moral absolutism. Realist history suggests this is not an option. We could hold to the status quo, ignore the problem, and continue to intervene within this contradictory paradigm; but this has proved to be highly destructive in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another option would be to adhere to International Humanitarian Law only when it suits, acting otherwise when it doesn’t. Growing evidence suggests this is the approach being taken by a number of authoritarian regimes, including Russia in the Baltics (use of thermobarics and subversion) and China in the South China Seas. This is a tough option for Western liberal democracies, unless they are willing to compromise the ethical bedrock of their societies.

The final option is to return more explicitly to the utilitarianism of extremity and admit that, if the crisis were existential enough, the West would have to lower the moral bar and use ways and means currently considered unethical. In reality this is probably where most nations are; but they are certainly not admitting it, and nor are they overtly preparing for it. In my own role I have not attended any "ethical wargames" that have asked these questions, nor have I seen any papers discussing it. Instead there is a tendency to just drift ethically; as the US , the UK, and others did in Iraq and Afghanistan, punishing the so-called "bad apples" when war’s nature asserts itself and things go wrong. This ethical elephant in the room cannot be ignored, particularly if we seek to take R2P seriously. The nature of war means that, once unleashed, the use of force is likely to mutate violently in ways which cannot be predicted. It will come with a cost. A default decision to hold to moral absolutism, with no space for discussion, risks destroying the ability to make strategy and ultimately the ability to win. These are Mao’s “asinine ethics.” And, in the end, if it reduces the probability of success to such an extent that it perpetuates war and death, nations lose the jus ad bellum argument by default.

Sir John Chilicot, Chairman of the Iraq Inquiry

Politicians, strategists, and tacticians need to discuss this problem. They are not exactly lacking materiel. The 2.6 million words of the Chilcot Enquiry outlining the impact of the Blair Government’s moral fervor to use the military as a “force for good” would be a fine place to start. There are plenty of options; the model of Walzer’s that I discuss above is but one.[11] There is a group of experts who might help in this conversation, but they, sadly, are rarely invited to the sorts of parties that politicians, strategists, and tacticians attend. They are moral philosophers, and they could be our counsellors. If anything we might at least see the ethical elephant in the room, even if we can’t find him a new, more realistic, home.

Tom McDermott joined the British Army in 2001, and the Australian Army in 2015.  He has served in combat and staff roles in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  He is now studying strategy at the Australian National University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Australian Defence Force.


[1] Carl von Clausewitz, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 88.

[2] Ibid, p. 74-126.

[3] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (translated by Richard Crowley), p. 38.

[4] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust War (New York: Perseus Books Group, 1977), p. 230.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, p. 225–228.

[7] Ibid, p. 230–232.

[8] Ibid, p. 249–263.

[9] UK Ministry of Defence, Field Manual, Volume 1, Part 10: Countering Insurgency (Warminster: Warfare Development, 2009), pp. 205–209.

[10] US Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Washington: Department of the Army 2006), pp. 6-21–6-22.

[11] For an excellent expansion / development of Walzer’s argument, see Cook, Martin L.(2007) "Michael Walzer's Concept of 'Supreme Emergency," Journal of Military Ethics, 6: 2, p. 138-151 found at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15027570701381948 (accessed 10 Aug 16).

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