Resolving the Ethical Challenges of Irregular War
Pfaff, Charles A.
After more than ten years of war, the United States military is still trying to come to grips with the practical and ethical demands of combating irregular adversaries. This discussion will examine and attempt to resolve those ethical challenges, especially as they relate to confrontation with non-state actors. These ethical difficulties often arise because of a systemic misapplication of traditional military ethics to non-traditional ethical problems.From a practical perspective, military ethical decision-making entails balancing risk between missions, Soldiers, and civilians. In the traditional view, Soldiers are obligated to accept risk when undertaking legitimate missions. They may displace as much risk as possible on enemy combatants; however, what they cannot displace belongs to them. In the course of conducting operations, they may further place noncombatants at risk of foreseen, but unintentional harms as long as they conform to the principles of discrimination and proportionality.The differences between irregular and regular war disrupt this balance. Where regular adversaries fight apart from civilians, irregular adversaries are integrated into and indistinguishable from them. Where regular wars are fought to impose a political will, irregular wars are fought to establish and strengthen political order.As the ends of war shift from imposing will to preserving order, the ethics of war shift as well. Obligations to accomplish mission become permissions, permissions to protect the force become obligations, and prohibitions against targeting noncombatants become permissions as the presence of a political order provides space to seek alternatives to placing risk on the mission, Soldiers, or noncombatants. Failure to understand this shift has resulted in absurd situations where Soldiers are sometimes prohibited from attacking adversary combatants but permitted to kill innocent noncombatants who are citizens of countries with whom the US is not at war.Avoiding such situations involves understanding that preserving order entails a relationship between combatants and the communities in which they operate that not only includes allied members of those communities but adversaries as well. Understanding the complexity of those relationships will be critical to understanding the norms associated with balancing risk and applying the principles of proportionality and discrimination when combating irregular adversaries.
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