On the Inseparability of War and Morality

On the Inseparability of War and Morality
Bjorndahl at English Wikipedia
On the Inseparability of War and Morality
Bjorndahl at English Wikipedia
Story Stream
recent articles

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.

For those who are involved in war—whether fighting it at the tactical level, waging it at the strategic level, or living it somewhere in between—understanding war’s moral dimension is vital. Morality and war cannot be separated, for at its very essence, war is about using, risking, damaging, taking, or protecting life itself. At times the life taken or protected is that of another soldier. Other times the life is of an innocent trapped in the battle zone. And sometimes, it’s the life of the political community itself. Those who have seen war know this as they know the face they see in the mirror. Some who have not seen war may know it intellectually, but for others the link between war and morality is as foreign as a new language. Still others do not accept the link at all.

At the tactical level, knowledge of war’s moral dimension is inescapable, for it is experienced. What binds citizens-who-become-soldiers together? Trust, extreme trust. Loyalty. Love. Willingness to sacrifice, even to kill, on behalf of another. These are moral values, not because they are tied to some lofty cause, but because they are deeply human. Fighting requires placing one’s life in the hands of another, trusting that the other will do his or her part “covering your six” in the slang of the day—even if it requires killing another human being. No unit can long exist in the cauldron of battle without such bonds. A buddy killed in war is not a casualty, but a life evaporated, a life-relationship ripped away. A father or a mother, a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, an aunt or an uncle—gone, and gone forever, except in one’s memory and heart.

A grief stricken American infantryman whose friend has been killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags.

Both soldiers and leaders feel the weight of their responsibility to one another, a responsibility that goes far beyond the cold category of professional, positional responsibility. Rather, it’s a deep moral bond with others and one’s community (or “unit” as a military community is often called). A soldier or a leader in a unit does not feel responsible, he or she is responsible. Such responsibility is existential in very real ways—others’ lives depend upon it. How a soldier or leader fulfills that responsibility among those counting on him or her is equally existential, and it lasts the rest of that person’s life.

Whether on or distant from the battlefield, the moral dimension of war remains the same. Distance from the battlefield lessens the immediacy of war’s moral dimension, but it does not diminish the reality. War is—even at the strategic level—about using, risking, damaging, taking, or protecting life itself. Nor does distance change the nature of responsibility for those who wage war—that is, the senior political and military leaders who send soldiers to war.

Waging a war is as essentially connected to the sacredness of life, individual or communal, as is fighting a war. At its core, waging war involves (1) setting the aims of war, then make military and non-military strategy, policy, and campaign decisions that increase the probability of achieving the aims set; (2) generating the organizational capacity to translate aims and initial decisions into coherent action, then adapt those decisions and actions as the vagaries of war unfold; and (3) maintaining legitimacy throughout by following the laws of war, sustaining public support, and ensuring proper subordination of the military to civil leadership. These responsibilities have a moral dimension.


Waging war well increases the probability that the lives used and risked are done so for purposes worthy of the sacrifices involved and the damage inflicted. Waging war poorly increases the probability of wasting lives and risking them unnecessarily. Depending upon the effectiveness of these three war-waging responsibilities, a war can be shortened or prolonged.

When war is waged poorly, the cost is paid in lives by combatants and innocent alike. The cost of ineffective war-waging is paid a third way: by the political community. Not only does the community pay more in resources, lives and treasure, it also pays in risk to its existence. Some wars end a political community’s life; other wars change the nature of the political community—and not always for the better. Distance from the battlefield masks the immediacy of war’s moral dimension, but does not erase it.

Of course all this suggests one of the many paradoxes of war: that to preserve or protect the life of a political community, it is necessary to use—and sometimes end—the lives of some members of that community and risk the lives of the innocent. This paradox, never resolved, lies at the intersection of political philosophy, moral theory, and strategy. The use and risk of life always requires justification. Two of the many questions that arise are these: Is the quality of the political community worth preserving and protecting? And, how is this war linked to the community’s preservation and protection? Using and risking lives, asking citizens to suffer the extreme sacrifices that war demands, and inflicting the physical and emotional damages that are unavoidable in war—all are actions political leaders, in dialogue with their senior military subordinates, should embark upon only if the cause is just and worthy of the demand. The responsibilities of senior leaders does not end with the decision to go to war, however. They continue during the war:  a just war can be fought unjustly at the tactical level and it can be waged unjustly at the strategic level.


One could argue that morality is embedded in the elements of “creative spirit” and “reason” in Clausewitz’s “paradoxical trinity.” One could also argue that it is embedded in his understanding of real war as opposed to war in theory. Moral issues can be, and often are, among the factors that limit war and therefore change what may be called for by war-in–the-abstract to what will actually be done in practice. One might even argue that Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity does not describe war as a total phenomenon because On War does not talk of the moral dimension of war in the way we use the term today.

Students of war’s theory and practices may wish morality away, but as soon as the first person is killed or the first threat to the political community arises, the essential link between war and morality becomes clear. Those who may fight or wage war would do well to understand this essential link.

Human beings cannot fight wars as if they were amoral instruments. What a person does or does not do in war stays with that person forever. Such has always been the case and is described in fiction from The Iliad and The Odyssey, to The Red Badge of Courage and The Thin Red Line, to the novels of our on-going post 9/11 wars. It is also described in nonfiction from J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriorsand Larry Dewey’s War and Redemption to Nancy Sherman’s Afterwar. Those who wage war face the same fate. One need only read, for example, the memoirs of former Secretaries of Defense such as Robert Gates’s Duty or Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect.

Some senior political leaders or senior flag officers and generals may attempt to separate war from morality. They soon find out, however, that way they execute their shared responsibilities affects not only individual lives but that of the political community and, potentially, the lives of other political communities. The American Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War—each changed the United States domestically in profound ways, and each affected America’s role in the world as well. The same has been true of our post 9/11 wars already, and neither these wars nor their effects are finished.

Artist's rendering of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address and stating an ethical foundation for the American Civil War.

Fighting or waging war with an incomplete understanding of all of war’s dimensions rarely ends well. Some might think it easier to act as if war and morality can be separated, but that ease is quickly is erased when one must face the consequences of his or her actions—whether they were taken on the battlefield or in the capital. Best to take things straight up: war and morality cannot be separated, for at its very essence war is a human endeavor—yet so is morality.

Dr. James M. Dubik is a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General, Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and Author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.

Show comments Hide Comments