Not Fit for Dinner: Morally Unfit for War in Afghanistan

Each Friday in Not Fit for Dinner, C. Ryan Knight explores political issues and the preconceptions guiding our understanding of and responses to them.

Americans have even stronger reason to consider the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan after the Los Angeles Times released two photos of American soldiers posing with slain Afghan insurgents. The photographs are the latest of 2012’s revelations of military misconduct in Afghanistan this year—the others being the urinating on dead bodies by soldiers revealed in January, the burning of Korans reported in February, and the murder of civilians by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales last month.

This incriminating series of events should make people question whether or not the war in Afghanistan was and remains just. Whether the argument was legitimate or not, the war in Afghanistan was accepted under premises drawn from the just war doctrine. Neoconservatives were supported by Christian groups like the Society of Christian Ethics, which determined the reasons for war with Afghanistan aligned St. Augustine’s tenets of just war.

I have neither space nor the inclination to re-examine claims that starting the war was just here. Instead, it seems well to recall that just war theory has two central components: jus ad bellum, justice prior to war, and jus in bello, justice during war. Perhaps there was justice prior to the war in Afghanistan, but what we are seeing this year is nothing short of undeniable evidence of the deterioration of justice during war.

According to the New York Times, an 82nd Airborne Division soldier first contacted reporter David Zucchino with the information and pictures because he was “very, very concerned about what he said was a breakdown in security, discipline and professionalism.” In terms of the principles for justice during war, though, these recent infractions do not amount to the invalidation of the criteria for just war in progress, which are proportionality (what Americans call “collateral damage”) and deterrence.

People are nonetheless aware of the fact that these injustices are eroding the justice of the war in Afghanistan, even if recent events do not violate the traditional requirements for continuing war justly.

One of the groups best situated to address these recent events in Afghanistan is Christians, for the theory of just war has strong roots in the Christian church and in the writings of Christian thinkers. St. Thomas Aquinas returned to the notion of just war in the Thirteenth century, and Reinhold Niebuhr also examined it as the Twentieth century thundered.

I wish to propose that Christians should add a moral dimension to the criteria for justice during war. Proportionality and deterrence may be effective means of measuring justice during war in military terms, but what has happened lately in Afghanistan suggests a means of measuring the moral dimension of the war is also needed.

The two primary aspects of this moral dimension are the well-being of soldiers conducting the war and the well-being of those for whom soldiers are allegedly trying to help—in this case, the Afghan population. It seems quite evident that the diminished well-being of either, or both, coincides with the diminished justness of war.

The leaked photographs from this week give clear evidence that too many American soldiers are no longer fit and disciplined to conduct war justly. It’s also important to note that this deterioration of discipline is not suddenly happening this year. Though the Los Angeles Times released the controversial photographs this week, they were taken two years ago. Thus, it appears this deterioration has being happening for quite some time.

As to the diminished well-being of Afghans, Terry J. Allen has recently explored the “devastating toll on [Afghans’] mental health.” War hardly seems just if it keeps a population safe by driving it “past sanity by violence.”

Let military strategists say what they will about the timing of withdrawing troops. Christians should firmly assert that justice during war has been compromised, and the war should end as soon as possible. America cannot afford additional moral lapses such as those which have transpired this year.

About C. Ryan Knight

C. Ryan Knight teaches English at Randolph Community College in Asheboro, NC, and he lives with his wife outside Greensboro, NC.
Email: knight.cr@gmail.com

  • Daniel

    Sadly, these events are by no means “new” to war in general, the west specifically, or America. Even during the last “good war” such atrocities by American forces were not unknown. Collecting severed body parts (even sending home a “Jap” skull to a girlfriend to serve as an ashtray http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_mutilation_of_Japanese_war_dead ) and “trophy pictures” were not even in bad taste (gee, too bad “political correctness” made us feel bad about collecting body parts.)

    But what’s sadder than these things is not that they happened, but that the “supporters” of “our boys” decry the publishing the photos more than the crime itself.

  • http://lecoupdoeil.wordpress.com mkross

    War is hell.

  • C. Ryan Knight

    Good thoughts, Daniel. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s official explanation was that the photos might be “used by the enemy to incite violence,” which is probably true. But this, as you point out, is certainly not the only reason American officials try to block photos like these from being released. The LA Times also delayed publication of these photographs so US troops had time to prepare themselves for possible blowback, or retaliation, from insurgents.

  • Daniel

    @Ryan–I suppose the SecDef has to keep the safety of the troops as a primary concern, but he’s essentially arguing for censorship over embarrassing things. Since the pics are fairly dated and only with publicity surrounding them causing investigation and possible punishment for possible crimes, I think it’s safe to say that Panetta doesn’t give a damn about justice, but only about bad press. If this had been kept all quiet, absolutely NOTHING would have been done to punish those involved. (Even now, I’m sure the troops involved will get a wrist slap, as they have for many other crimes committed.)

    It’s nothing new to the Most Transparent Administration Ever (TM) which has been at war with whistleblowers virtually since day one. SecState Clinton’s recent speech in Brazil at the Open Government conference is the finest example of blatenet hypocrisy I’ve seen in years. I’m not sure if I could have said the same speech without bursting out laughing.

  • Ben

    I don’t think I have a lengthy position to add to this, as there are some really good points covering it already.

    Some stray thoughts that cross my mind while reading this though;

    How much of this is hype and marketing? Without even regarding the specifics or the reasoning behind any of it, what is the percentage? I liken it to Catholic priests. Yes, there have been some weirdos in the past, and yes there are some weirdos now. But because of 3 reports about child molestation by Catholic priests in the last 10 years (I am making those numbers up, but you get my point) the general public views priests as being corrupt and evil. But what is the reality of the situation? It has been a long time since we entered Afghanistan, so how many “problems” have there been?

    “Justice during war” is a hard one to argue in a foxhole. Not that it shouldn’t be discussed, but it should be remembered that talking about something while sitting here at Starbucks sipping my iced frappuccino makes it easy to not have an appropriate perspective. I recently had a coworker who is in the Army reserves deploy to Kabul. He says that the people there throw rocks and bottles at him daily. I can speak of Justice during war all I want, but if you throw bottles at me and I’m holding a gun, you better hope that I am not having a bad day. Even if one holds it together, if a justified confrontation happens where the enemy is killed, being in a daily situation like this does not help the wanting to gloat or treasure the victory. This is war, the only thing that would make me respect boundaries is my faith in Jesus Christ. That is the only perspective that makes any logical sense to not be the biggest and baddest soldier out there who will stop at nothing to win his war. I think all other “justice during war” reasoning is arbitrary and fallacious.

  • C. Ryan Knight

    Ben, you raise important concerns. It’s always dangerous to risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as you note with your reference to Catholic priests. In the case of these recent photographs, what concerns me is that they were taken two years ago but were just released. If problems were only happening this year, that might be one thing. But it seems that there is now a strong chance that things similar to what these pictures reveal have been occurring for some time now. There is a risk that these photos may be the tip of the iceberg.

    Soldiers are bound to rules of war and rules of engagement, which are intended to correspond to the principles of justice during war. As you show with the example of your coworker, this is very difficult to do, especially when the people you are supposed to be helping are antagonistic to your presence in their country.

  • Ben

    C. Ryan,
    Yes I agree with you on the tip of the iceburg concern.
    I guess my point is that the typical reaction is “here is some bad stuff that is 2 years old so this has been going on for at least 2 years and may be even worse than we think!” This can be true, but it is not necessarily true. We should look into it to find out.
    Like my example, they could be isolated events and possibly not a good representation of what is going on over there. I am not arguing they are isolated, just that it would be wrong to presume they are not. It also does not take into consideration the context of the situation. Looking at a snapshot at the end of the event is not necessarily the best thing.

  • C. Ryan Knight

    Ben, we’re agreed that “we” should certainly investigate whether similar abuses have been taking place for some time now. (I assume you mean military and governing authorities by “we.”) With the announcement that troops will defend Afghanistan until 2014, there is an unfortunate chance that these needed investigations might be slow or delayed to avoid additional stories about abuses emerging.

    Your second point is fair. These events could simply be coincidental and disjointed. It just seems to me, based on what’s happened in recent months, the time frame (whatever that might be) to conduct just war has lapsed. And when that lapses, future abuses are far more likely.


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