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Posted March 8, 2003
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Ethical War? Do the Good Guys Finish First?

President Bill Clinton sent American troops into Haiti in 1994, declaring that his goals were "to stop the brutal atrocities" of a dictatorial regime and to bring democracy to the Haitian people. Capt. Lawrence P. Rockwood, an intelligence officer in the United States Army, took the president at his word.

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Associated Press

Bettman Archive

Capt. Lawrence P. Rockwood, who was court-martialed by the Army after trying to investigate human rights in Haiti. The Journal of Military Ethics often refers to ancient Greek philosophers like Plato, above, in a paintaing by Puvis de Chavannes.

After arriving in Haiti with his unit, he received reports of human rights abuses at the local jails. Political prisoners were being starved, tortured and — as Raoul Cedras's regime entered its desperate final days — murdered.

Captain Rockwood appealed to his superiors for permission to inspect the jails. His superiors turned him down. His job, they said, was to protect American troops, not local civilians. After nearly a week spent futilely trying to press his case, the captain filed a formal complaint with an army inspector general. He accused eight superiors of failing to pursue the president's directives and of indifference to human rights violations. Then he grabbed his flak jacket and rifle and set off to inspect the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince alone.

By the next day, the captain was on a plane headed back to the United States, where he was tried by court-martial, convicted of several charges (one, conduct unbecoming an officer, was later dismissed) and discharged from military service.

Pondering such morally complex incidents from the annals of modern combat and debating the lessons they provide for the current crop of military leaders and foot soldiers is the aim of a new scholarly publication, the Journal of Military Ethics.

"I think something like this could happen" in Iraq, said Stephen D. Wrage, a professor of political science at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, who presents Captain Rockwood's story as a case study in the journal's inaugural issue. "What we were concerned about in Haiti, we're concerned about now."

As Mr. Wrage tells it, the captain's tale is an open-ended thought problem about the moral dilemmas of war: do soldiers owe their commanders unquestioned obedience at all times? Do they have a moral duty to uphold human rights? And what happens when military orders and the demands of conscience come into conflict?

At his trial, Captain Rockwood quoted his father, a soldier who had helped liberate the Nazi concentration camps and who told him such places were the "result of cynicism and blind obedience to authority." The captain also said he admired Count von Stauffenberg, the German Army officer who was executed for trying to assassinate Hitler, and Hugh C. Thompson, the American helicopter pilot who, seeing the My Lai massacre in progress, ordered his door gunner to aim his weapon at United States troops.

Those facts don't excuse the captain's conduct, Mr. Wrage suggests, but they help make his case rich fodder for ethics classes at American military academies, where it is routinely taught.

Determined skeptics — like Groucho Marx, who joked that "military justice is to justice what military music is to music" — can roll their eyes. But serious talk about the proper moral conduct of combat has been around almost as long as war itself.

The immediate impetus for the journal, which made its debut last spring, was the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo. Observing the ethics controversy that the NATO bombing provoked, Bard Maeland, a chaplain in the Norwegian army, decided that a scholarly forum for such debate was urgently needed. "I found there was nothing like a journal of military ethics in English," said Dr. Maeland, who became the journal's co-editor after persuading an Oslo publisher to take on the project and the Norwegian Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs to provide financial support.

The first two issues — a third has just been published — are awash in references to ancient Greeks: Plato, Alcibiades, Thucydides, Laches, Nicias. And when it comes to the ground rules for military uses of deception, Hugo Grotius's 1625 treatise, "On the Law of War and Peace," remains a standard reference. (His view is essentially that spelled out by the Geneva Convention more than 300 years later: " `Ruses of war,' such as involve the use of camouflage, decoys, mock operations and misinformation are not prohibited because, while they may cause an adversary to act recklessly, they do not constitute acts that an adversary should not expect to occur as part and parcel of war.")

Occasionally, Greek terminology gives the journal an archaic air. "Did NATO's air strikes against Yugoslavia, undertaken without a mandate from the Security Council, constitute a valid instance of epieikeia?" asks Gregory Reichberg, a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, in one essay. (Epieikeia, Greek for equity, was used by Thomas Aquinas to designate a ruler's right to exercise moral authority in the absence of legal imperatives.)

"We are consciously committed to showing the moral tradition relating to war is very old and embedded in Western culture," explained James Turner Johnson, a professor of religion and political science at Rutgers University and the journal's co-editor. Among armies operating today, he said, the United States has led the way in making ethical concerns a priority, and not just in cadet classrooms.

"It's pretty clear if you look around at the various militaries," Mr. Johnson said. "People think war is mainly about the technology, but the point is that it's not the technology that determines whether a particular war is discriminate or indiscriminate. It's the strategy and tactics behind that, and the training aimed at discriminating between combatants and noncombatants. The U.S. military has always said we do not directly target noncombatants."

Consider, for example, the protocol surrounding target selection, a topic covered at length in the journal's second issue. American military policy requires legal advisers to approve combat targets in advance. As a consequence, soldiers can find themselves within range of enemy forces but without permission to strike. This situation occurred repeatedly during the war in Afghanistan, where, according to American Air Force officials, clearance delays and denials allowed important Taliban and Qaeda members to escape unscathed.

The problem, the officials complained at the time, was that the military's Central Command was overly concerned about killing civilians. "The whole issue of collateral damage pervaded every level of the operation," The Washington Post quoted one officer saying in November 2001. "It is shocking, the degree to which collateral damage hamstrung the campaign."

But in the journal, scholars defended the policy, arguing that its ethical advantages outweighed its tactical costs. As Michael N. Schmitt, director of the Executive Program in International and Security Affairs at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, put it: "Legal advisers are crucial clogs in any mature targeting system."                                                                                                                                                                                      Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Arts & Ideas, of March 8, 2003., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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