We all participate in some way in our nation’s wars. Here’s why we don’t let war interfere with our serenity—and why we should.
This afternoon, while my yoga teacher urged our class to free ourselves from mundane connections, my unruly mind thought about the previous day’s in-flight conversation with a bright, young fellow passenger. Learning that I was a military historian at West Point, she confided her dismay at hearing that a friend’s recent army basic training had included hand-to-hand combat, surely unnecessary in today’s wars. I explained that such training was intended primarily as a psychological indoctrination to kill.
The young women could comfortably envision her friend as a volunteer in the country’s defense—perhaps it was not too painful to imagine him firing a rifle at distant foes. But because bare-handed killing distressed her, I could not resist the temptation to ask how it differed from the long-range variety and whether we have a moral obligation to know what we expect our fellow citizens to do on our behalf. On behalf of the soldiers who fight for us, I wanted her to suffer a bit of moral anguish, to temporarily give up a bit of her serenity.
Are Gurus Good?
Serenity, the freedom from mental turmoil that many of us seek through yoga, prayer, or meditation, seems a good thing; good because the absence of suffering is good, and better, because it implies spiritual victory over suffering. Indeed, the achievement of a spiritual peace comes to seem a moral accomplishment.
The equation between psychic peace and virtue is natural when applied to the ascetic sage who sets himself or herself apart from the world’s pleasures, but most personal quests for peace focus less on renunciation of pleasure than on coping with a world in which bad things happen to good people like us. They seem to require shutting our minds to the more vexing problem of the bad things that people do on purpose. Does our own personal search for peace serve as license for moral blinders?
A good way to prevent the world’s evil from undermining the serenity required for our personal spiritual quests is to establish categories of things “not our problem.” War is a particularly good example. We all participate in some way in our nation’s wars. Most of us, were we fully informed, would find some aspects of that participation morally troubling. Moreover, fear of moral discomfort discourages many of us from seeking more information. The young woman on the airplane was refreshingly curious because she was too naïve to exploit the mental tools with which we normally protect ourselves from moral engagement with war.
Peering Through the Smokescreen
Standard definitions of war protect us from individual moral responsibility by emphasizing the state’s monopoly on the power to make war and war’s function as a tool of state policy. Moreover, it seems selfish to put individual conscience above the defense of the community, especially when other members of that community have put so much more at risk. Is it right to wound the families of our dead and maimed by questioning the legitimacy of their sacrifices? Is it not a moral luxury to be squeamish about tortures that more dedicated citizens inflict upon our enemies on our behalf? We value safety and protection and find plenty of excuses for not looking too hard at the means employed to secure them.
The principle of “non-combatant immunity,” which distinguishes soldiers and civilians in international law, is intended to provide a moral framework for war, but it also functions as a kind of moral smokescreen, hiding ethical questions one would as soon not ask. As long as we know that civilians are legally protected from acts of war, we do not ask whether practical mechanisms actually protect them. Reports that civilians have been harmed arouse sorrow that the war went wrong, rather than there being shamed acknowledgement that, in this respect, wars regularly go wrong.
“Civilian immunity” is such a useful tool for avoiding introspection that one is loath to investigate its moral logic. When we do, the reasons for civilians’ special legal status turn out to be largely utilitarian. Eighteenth-century rulers profited from the orderly acquisition of conquered territory and disliked the indiscipline sown in armies by the practice of indiscriminate violence. Professional officers thought themselves gentlemen and treated civilians civilly, unless civilians engaged in guerrilla warfare, in which case they were usually shot. Those who thought that war was either desirable or necessary could offer the good treatment of non-combatants as evidence of their good intentions. Economic warfare could be justified as aimed at convincing monarchs rather than starving populations.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries involved civilians in new ways. The industrialization of war increased the importance of the civilian workforce, which produced weapons like heavy artillery, submarines, airplanes, and nuclear weapons, capable of striking directly at civilian targets and, in many cases, could not be used without civilian casualties. Because participatory democracies required popular support to sustain a war, that support became a tempting target. The carnage on the battlefields of World War I — eight million men over four years — seemed so horrific that aerial bombing of civilian cities, even with incendiaries and poison gas, seemed to some a lifesaving shortcut. Moreover, the very notion of separating soldiers and civilians appeared problematic in an age of conscript armies and mobilized workforces. Why protect the life and property of the munitions worker supporting a war, while allowing the destruction of young men forced, perhaps reluctantly, to fight in it?
The concept of civilian immunity has been revitalized in the past two decades by the development of precision-guided munitions. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq saw unprecedented efforts to minimize civilian deaths. Even more remarkable (however totally unremarked then or since) was official silence about Iraqi military deaths. Apparently, even though Iraqi soldiers were legal targets, coalition forces had qualms about appearing to slaughter them.
It would be ironic to discover that American civilians are now more complacent than American military leaders about enemy deaths. Such a position would be possible only though the unthinking embrace of the concept of non-combatant immunity and its reciprocal, the legitimacy of attacks against uniformed enemies.
Back to Yoga?
War, poverty, unequal health care, discrimination, and domestic violence are a few examples of problems too big for the individual to solve. If serenity is the prescription for handling the things we cannot change, then maybe we should just retreat into that place where we can find it. But perhaps the quest for personal tranquility in a troubled world only legitimizes ducking moral questions and avoiding moral discomfort. World peace may be a goal worth striving for, even at the cost of considerable inner peace.