On Ethics – Part 4 – Violence of the Ivory Towers

October 27, 2006

This fourth issue of my Ethics series deals with institutional “Ivory Tower” Peaceful argumentviolence and its relation to Ethics. Generally, this means examining War as an Ethical, or not, instrument to spread one’s belief system to others that are not receptive to such intrusion.

I’ll discuss various ideas about War, its true nature and how some justify it. The next issue in this series will, among other topics, examine the Geneva Conventions as the major non-violent way to control at least some aspects of War.

The conclusion of this essay is simple and adds to my prior War essay: Ethics and Morals are totally incompatible with any aspect of War or other forms of violence on a nation to nation level. War means utter destruction in all possible ways.

Please read on.

The Ivory Tower View on Violence

It would be nice if there was a set of rules making up an accepted, standard set of Ethics, practiced throughout the World. There have been many attempts to accomplish this. Sometimes, this is done by imposing one’s own beliefs violently on others without asking permission or agreement. But there are also peaceful attempts to practice Ethics on an international level.

Imposing One’s Ethics on Others

Wars are fought to control others, their thoughts and assets. Terrorists aim at the same thing. Hitler saw a thousand year empire, dominated by the Aryan race, ideals and Ethics. The Catholic Church has used a variety of bloody means to spread their religion and Ethics over parts of 2,000 years. Various dictators enslave their citizens by attempting to control their thoughts. Iraqi insurgents want to impose their will by killing just about anyone at anytime. Israel try to control Palestinians, protecting their self defined right to exist. The US has controlled Native Americans in a similar manner for a couple of hundred years. There are thousands of examples of a similar Thoughful ladynature.

Many think George W. Bush seeks World dominance using the buzz words “Democracy (Bring’m on/Shoot to kill/With me or a Terrorist)”. He attempts famously to stabilize the Mid East, spread democracy and win the mythical, un-winnable and totally illogical “War against Terrorism”. Actually, he is losing his wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and against Terrorism. The price is thousands of lives as well as the catastrophic loss of the US standing in the World. Whatever happened to Compassionate Conservatism? Remember that empty phrase?

Rarely if ever have these violent schemes worked. They probably never will unless the ultimate psychological warfare agent is invented, turning us all into George Orwell type robot citizens. Barring that horrible idea, the simple fact is that most persons’ belief systems are quite resilient to the power of others. Just witness the recent Iraqi poll asking the US to get the hell out of their country. Of course, this opinion is shared by many millions of Americans. This is personal Ethics at work, clashing with lunatic Government morals.

Let’s examine War in more detail from an Ethical point of view. You may want to glance through my earlier essay on this subject (Link: here). That essay views War and its effect on those unlucky enough to get in its way. War has a terrible, inhuman effect on people that most North Americans, except veterans, cannot imagine. It is over 140 years since some limited parts of the domestic US saw the real impact of War. Most of the rest of the World has not been as lucky.

The Images

As always, here are a few comments on the images used in this essay. I’ve said before it is not easy to illustrate abstract themes. There are no pictures of Ethics or Morals. Apart from a few diagrams obtained from various places, I’ve chosen to add images of people. After all, this blog is really all about people, images, art and how we all really relate.

The images are all shot by me. There is no relation between the text and the individuals in the images. The individuals shown are just people who happened to pass before my camera. That’s all. No hidden agendas.

Ethical Justifications of Armed Conflict?

Here is one definition of a justifiable war: “A war is only just if it is fought for a reason that is justified, and that carries sufficient moral weight. The country that wishes to use military force must demonstrate that there is a just cause to do so.” Just causes include:

  • Defend against aggression such as invasion, attacks on a friendly nation and violations of human rights.
  • Defend against attack. Recapturing things taken. Punishing wrong doers.
  • Correct a grave, public evil such as aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations.
  • Punish a rouge country to the extent justifiable: the whole people, the leaders or specific individuals in the rouge country.
  • Stop, if justifiable, the triumph of evil or to put right actions that “shock the conscience of mankind”.

What a bunch of vague, useless BS. “If I think Billy is nasty, it’s OK to kill him”. That’s what the points above say. Let’s just hope George W. Bush doesn’t read these foolish points. He would like the lack of checks and balances implied above too much. Who determines whether “violations of right” have taken place? Who asserts the ownership of “things”? Who can justly establish that someone is a “wrong doer”? What is a “grave, public evil”? Who defines “massive violation”? Who will decide if a “punishment is justified”? What precisely is the “triumph of evil”? What is considered a “shock to mankind”? Enough said.

History of Ethics and War

Cold room worker
There are three major influences on Ethics in War, two going back a long time. Cicero was active in the centennial proceeding Jesus and St. Augustine lived about 400 years later. Carl von Clausewitz is more recent – active only about 200 years ago. The following are abbreviated quotes from BBC of the UK (Source: here) and other sources:

Cicero (about 75BC):

Cicero argued that there was no acceptable reason for war outside of just vengeance or self defense – in which he included the defense of honor. He also argued that a war could not be just unless it was publicly declared and unless compensation for the enemy’s offence had first been demanded. Cicero based his argument on the assumption that nature and human reason biased a society against war, and that there was a fundamental code of behavior for nations.

St Augustine of Hippo (About 400AD):

St Augustine was a 4th century Christian who lived in Algeria and Italy. He believed that the only just reason to go to war was the desire for peace.

We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.

A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.

True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.

Carl von Clausewitz (About 1800+):

Clausewitz was a Prussian general, theorist and philosopher who principally fought Napoleon. He said “war is the continuation of policy by other means”. His On Kriege treatise details his military theories. They remain influential to this day. Some claim he was influenced by another famous military theorist and philosopher – Sun Tzu who wrote The Art of War around 500BC. Here are some of Clausewitz ideas as seen by commentators:

“Clausewitz was a proponent of total war as used in the Third Reich propaganda in the 1940s. He did not coin the phrase as an ideological ideal. Indeed, Clausewitz does not use the term “total war” at all. Rather, he discussed “absolute war” or “ideal war” as the purely logical result of the forces underlying a “pure,” Platonic “ideal” of war. In what Clausewitz called a “logical fantasy,” war cannot be waged in a limited way: the rules of competition will force participants to use all means at their disposal to achieve victory.”Line of fishmongers

“Some argue that the essentials of Clausewitz’s theoretical approach remain valid, but that our thinking must adjust to changed realities. Knowing that “war is an expression of politics” does us no good unless we have a valid definition of “politics” and an understanding of how it is reflected in a specific situation. The latter may well turn on religious passions, private interests and armies, etc.

While many commentators are quick to dismiss Clausewitz’s political context as obsolete, it seems worthwhile to note that the states of the twentieth century were very different from Clausewitz’s Prussia, and yet the World Wars are generally seen as “Clausewitzian warfare”; similarly, North and South Vietnam, and the United States as well, were quite unlike 18th-century European states, yet it was the war in Indochina that brought the importance of Clausewitzian theory forcefully home to American thinkers.

Clausewitz himself was well aware of the politics that drove the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that bears a great deal of similarity to the current struggle in Iraq. The idea that states cannot suppress rebellions or terrorism in a nuclear-armed World does not bear up well in the light of experience:

Just as some rebellions and revolutions succeeded and some failed before 1945, some rebellions and revolutions have succeeded and some have failed in the years since. Insurgencies were successfully suppressed in the Philippines, Yemen, and Malaysia–just a few of many examples. Successful revolutions may destroy some states, but the revolutionaries simply establish new and stronger states – e.g., China, Vietnam and Iran – which seem to be quite capable of handling threats of renewed insurgency.”

“One criticism of Clausewitz has been his seeming failure to address the ethical considerations of war. He saw ethics as a political question; not an issue of concern for pure theory.” (Source: here)

This makes a little bit of sense although Cicero and St. Augustine say about the same thing as in the previous section. Clausewitz is more modern and influential while being more pragmatic than Ethical in his thinking. So, how does it really work? Read on about the Unethical War.

The Unethical War

Kid looking guilty
War is often started on unethical grounds as opposed to the vague “moral” justifications above. Here are examples of such unethical justification as told by the BBC of the UK (Source: here):

War is right if it is in the national interest: This doctrine, in the most extreme form, says that if a war is in a country’s national interest then it is morally right for that country to go to war. This looks as if it’s giving permission to powerful nations to invade any country that has resources they need, or that is harboring terrorists that they want to capture. But in fact, considerations of ethics and justice still have a significant effect. If a country is seen to behave unjustly it creates great political problems for itself. Invading another country, even if it has something you want, may well produce more trouble than benefit.

The Right of the Ruler: This says that the decision of the ruler of a state on whether to wage war is final, and there is no moral argument that can be used against it. This tradition is reflected in the phrase ‘the divine right of kings’, meaning that the ruler’s actions carry with them God’s support. While this seems repellent to modern thinking, it was supported by the Christian church during many periods of history, when the monarch was guided by the church in war decisions.

Holy wars: Religious leaders have sometimes declared that there was a religious duty on believers to go to war. This idea appears often in the Bible and has been used to justify suicide bombing in recent times. Centuries ago it was the main justification given for the Crusades.

Much closer to the truth, don’t you think? Perhaps with respect to War, Un-ethics win out. Surprised?

The US Army War College Quarterly:

“There is a popular disposition to regard ethics as absolute and enduring, yet they are neither. That which is considered ethical alters with time and varies between civilizations and even families. At some impalpable level, the impulse to ethics does appear to arise from within and may be a collective survival strategy conditioned by biological and cultural evolution. Yet the specific content of a civilization’s or a society’s ethics is generally determined by accumulative tradition, epochal convenience, and local habit. Theethics of war and conflict are especially fluid.

We live in a stage of Western civilization in which nameless casualties inflicted by bombing campaigns are acceptable, while the thought of summarily shooting a prisoner of war fills us with revulsion, even if the blood of war crimes drips from every finger of that prisoner. We are allowed to impose embargoes that strike the most powerless members of foreign populations, bringing deprivation, malnutrition, and deformity to the voiceless, while merely annoying antagonistic decision makers. Yet we must treat foreign entrepreneurs who torment our poor with narcotics as white-collar criminals entitled to the legal protections of our own Constitution. Where is the absolute ethical quality, or even the logic, of this unexamined behavior? Our military and foreign policy ethics have the nature of a great historical chain letter that warns but does not reward.

Ethics are enablers. Personal, social, or military, they allow us to interact without needless viciousness and without generalized violence to the soul, the body, or society. In the military sphere, ethics in war allow us to disguise psychologically the requirement to butcher other human beings, masking the blunt killing behind concepts such as just war, higher causes, and approved behaviors. Ethics in war on the part of a Western society do not so much protect the objects of our violence as they shield us from the verity of our actions. Military ethics are ceremonial in the religious sense: they rarify and codify the darkness, implying a comforting order in the chaos and void. So long as we believe we have behaved ethically, we can, statistically, bear the knowledge of our deeds.”

Cynical? True? Enabling? Self serving? You be the judge.

Where are we?

War is the principal way of attempting to force one nation’s beliefs and Ethics on others, without their consent, permission Man in yellow jacketor agreement. As it should, War attracts a lot of philosophical and Ethical thinking. I believe the Ivory Tower opinions, views, treaties, theories and statements hide the reality of War as experienced by real people.

War is death, extreme destruction, utterly immoral and unethical. As I write this, a research organization, employing what independent sources say are valid and unbiased methods, claims 650,000 Iraqi have been killed as a consequence of the US invasion. Previous semi-official estimates were in the 30,000-50,000 range. That is what death and extreme destruction means. That’s 650,000 lives. That’s 260 times the death toll of 9/11. How do you justify it takes two hundred and sixty Iraqi lives to revenge one American life? Perhaps George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld or Condoleezza Rice can enlighten me? Beyond simply stating that this Lancelot approved study “is not credible”.

The Ivory Tower people do not mention kids without legs, with horrible burns or permanently destroyed in some other way. Nor are civilian populations starving or freezing to death mentioned. Insanity, shell shock and other psychiatric illnesses are ignored. The transformation of ordinary kids into rapists, torturers and murderers or, for that matter, insurgents, terrorists or suicide bombers is not considered. Decennium old refugee camps with deplorable facilities are unmentioned. War crimes are mostly well hidden. Propaganda is passed off as truth. “Ethics” boil down to a mountain of pious lies.Girls talking

Ethics and War are incompatible concepts, both on a high level and on an individual level. War is utterly destructive in all manners possible. Ethics are destroyed along with everything else into a cold, devastated, dark and lifeless landscape.

What is the good news? Wars do end. At least one lasted a hundred years, another thirty years. The various Indochina/Vietnam wars persisted for perhaps thirty five years. Most last from one to five years. People do recover to the best of their abilities and circumstances. Ethics are gradually restored till the next war. But the wounds never go away totally. Vietnam veterans on all sides still suffer after some thirty odd years. So will the veterans of the Iraqi and Afghan wars. Meanwhile, their leaders retire. Some devote their time to building library monuments to their greatness. Others simply get richer, play golf and eventually die in peace. None visit their victims.

This concludes Part 4 on my Ethics series. The next issue will examine peaceful attempts to spread Ethics on a global level.

Thank you


2 Responses to “On Ethics – Part 4 – Violence of the Ivory Towers”

  1. neath said

    I have to say this is one of the most coherent critiques of western civilization (and the Bush admin) I have yet to come across!



  2. […] On Ethics 4: Violence of the Ivory Towers. Governments, here known as Ivory Towers, commit unspeakable acts of violence. The post looks at the justifications for different types of War from an ethical stand point. […]

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