The Unbelievably Small War

National Review Online | Published on September 9, 2013

By Stephen P. White

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The defense of our nation is a great responsibility and comes with significant moral risks. It is no small matter to be asked to take the life of another, even when such action is morally justified. Yet that’s exactly what we ask of our military.

With the nation weighing the moral case for military action, it is right that significant attention be given to the risks that would be borne by those who fight on our behalf. In weighing the moral case for striking Syria, the physical safety of our troops is an important consideration. It is, no doubt, out of solicitude for the well-being of our military men and women that Secretary of State John Kerry wants the world to know that, when it comes to Syria, the U.S. is not contemplating war:

I believe that the aftermath of the Iraq experience and Afghanistan and Iraq experience leave a lot of people saying, you know, we don’t want to see our young people coming back in a body bag and so forth. But that’s not what we’re talking about! And what we have to do is make clear to people [that] we’re not talking about war. We’re not going to war. We will not have people at risk in that way.

There are some verbal gymnastics going on here, but in a basic sense Secretary Kerry is right about the meaning of the word “war.” What the administration is proposing is not what most Americans mean when they speak of “war.” Nevertheless, there remains a great peril in defining “war” by the size of our engaged forces or by the degree of danger posed to those forces.

We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.

Because the use of force will be so short-term and limited, Secretary Kerry argues, significant moral concerns (like the safety of our troops or entanglement in a broader conflict) are diminished. The secretary seems to think that this lowers the threshold for the moral justification of lethal force: We’re not justifying “war;” we’re justifying something else, something less, something “unbelievably small.”

This way of thinking inverts the traditional moral framework for thinking about the use of force, in particular, and justice, in general. That tradition understands that physical security must never be used to justify moral evil. And that tradition understands, to put it provocatively, that the most horrendous thing about war is not that people die; it’s that they’re killed.

In contemplating the moral justifications for the use of force, the fundamental moral question – what’s known in just war tradition as “just cause” – is this: Does the obligation of our military to defend the common good justify the secondary effect of using force, which is the death of other human beings? Only once this fundamental question is answered does it make sense to ask if the risk to the lives of our American military in carrying out this objective is justified. Considering the risks to be incurred by American troops in an action against Syria is only relevant if the action itself is justified. (Why would we ask our troops to incur any risk at all if the mission was unjustified?)

The Obama administration seems to get this backwards, as though the means justify the ends. The administration is promoting what they see as tolerable means – “a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war” – as, at least, partial justification for a dubious and ill-defined end. Moreover, by using the low-risk nature of the proposed operation as a justification for the operation itself they confuse the essence of what’s morally at stake in the use of lethal force.

The administration’s stated ends – alternately stated as punishment of Assad, deterrence of further use of WMD by Assad or others, and degrading his chemical-weapons capacity – may justify the use of force. While it is easy to imagine how even an “incredibly small” use of force would make the dreadful situation in Syria (and the rest of the region) measurably worse, it is increasingly difficult to see how an “incredibly small” use of force would accomplish any of the administration’s stated objectives.

In this age of drones, the American military has the ability to strike almost anywhere at any time. Often, we can do so with little or no physical risk to our own military personnel. This makes it all the easier to forget – and all the more important to remember – that the moral limits on our actions are there for reasons that greatly outweigh our physical safety. It would be a terrible thing to put our soldiers, sailors, and marines in harm’s way with no clear objective; it would be far worse to ask them to kill in an unjustified war, no matter how small.

—Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.