Peace Vet
The Memories, Flashbacks, Nightmares, and Cynical Rantings of a Vietnam Survivor

Posted December 26,2011

Opposing a War and/or Supporting the Warrior: The Moral
Obligations of Citizens in an Immoral War

Most would concur that criticism and dissent are an appropriate response, if not a moral and civic duty, during the prelude to a war perceived as immoral. Once the hostilities begin, however, and our soldiers placed in harm’s way, patriotic fervor and concern for the troops raises serious pragmatic and moral questions regarding the appropriateness and wisdom of opposing even an immoral war in which we are engaged. Debate increases and antagonism intensifies between those who oppose and publicly protest immoral war and those who see criticism and dissent as unpatriotic, even treasonous, and unsupportive of the troops. In this essay, I will argue from the principle of respect for persons that moral agents are proscriptively obligated neither to participate in an immoral war (the duty of non-participation), nor to assist those who prosecute it to accomplish their goals, what I will term “supporting the troops qua warrior” (the duty of non-complicity).

Further, I will argue that moral agents are also prescriptively obligated to oppose, speak out against, and to condemn immoral war (the duty to dissent); and that this obligation is compatible with and requires that the troops be supported in another more meaningful sense, what I will term “supporting the troops qua human being” (the duty to assist). Finally, these obligations continue beyond the prelude to the war and become even more stringent once the fighting has begun. My purpose in this essay is not to argue for the morality or immorality of any particular war, nor is it to provide specific guidelines for making such determinations. However, I will accept without argument that, with varying degrees of difficulty, such determinations can and must be made.

Moral Foundations and Assumptions

In this essay, I will accept that war, as a human enterprise, is rule-governed,1 that war in violation of these rules is immoral and illegal––now codified in International Law as aggression,2 murder, genocide,3 and crimes against humanity.4 Further, I will accept that we are moral beings and, as such, obligated and motivated (in varying degrees) to act morally. Basic to any conception of morality, in my view, is a recognition of the intrinsic worth of all human beings as embodied in the principle of respect for persons. This moral principle entails that human beings (at least) possess inalienable rights and morally requires that we treat all human beings as ends in themselves and not only as a means to achieving our own ends (as having instrumental value only). This broadly interpreted Kantian principle Robert Holmes calls “Moral Personalism,” by which he means,

. . . the conviction that any plausible moral theory must have at its center a concern for the lives and well being of persons. If we do not value persons, including ourselves, there can be no point to valuing other things––not property, possessions, national boundaries, the flag or anything else. I shall take this to mean at the least, so far as conduct is concerned, that we should minimize avoidable harm to ourselves and others.5

To truly respect persons, certainly to minimize avoidable harm to ourselves and others, implies moral obligations that are both proscriptive and prescriptive. That is, we have both negative and positive duties. We are obligated not to act immorally (the proscriptive, negative duty), and to be at least “minimally decent Samaritans,”6 that is, to do what is reasonable, without placing ourselves in great jeopardy, to prevent an immoral act from occurring and to stop an immoral act should it occur (the prescriptive, positive duties).7 Finally, I will accept that obligations, duties, and rights are prima facie rather than absolute, such that in the event of conflict, the more stringent obligation/duty/right overrides the lesser and becomes actual.8 As a consequence of this moral point of view, we can conclude a proscriptive duty not to participate in an immoral war, that is, not to commit aggression and murder, and the prescriptive duties to act, within reason, both to prevent others from being aggressed and murdered, and to stop aggression and murder should it occur, that is, to oppose, speak out against, and condemn immoral war.

One may object that the Deontological approach I have offered above is much too theoretical. It ignores the real-world negative impact opposing a war and fostering divisiveness in the nation may have upon those who risk life and limb doing the nation’s bidding. Much has been made of the alleged detrimental effects protesting the Vietnam War had, not only upon our achieving victory, but also upon the soldiers’ morale and their ability to psychologically, socially, emotionally, and ethically readjust from their experiences in combat. These observations and concerns have not gone unnoticed. Sensitive to this possibility of adversely affecting the troops, those opposing the Iraq war, for example, are careful to direct their dissent and criticism only at the political leaders and their warist policies. Further, they maintain that ending an immoral and unnecessary war is truly in the interest of those who must fight. Consequently, the moral obligation to oppose, condemn, and speak out against immoral war is, in their view, compatible with supporting the troops.


Not everyone accepts this claim, however. Those I will term “Warists”9 argue that the move to distinguish the war from the warrior is both a logical and moral mistake. That is, one cannot consistently oppose the war and support the troops and anyone claiming to do so is either misguided or dishonest. Radio talk show host and best-selling author Dennis Prager argues for such a Warist position:

Liberals, Democrats and others on the Left frequently state that they “support the troops.” For most of them, whether they realize it or not, this is not true. They feel they must say this because the majority of Americans would find any other position unacceptable. Indeed, for most liberals, the thought that they really do not support the troops is unacceptable even to them. . . . Honest people on the Left need to understand that the two positions (supportingthe troops and opposing the war) are not reconcilable. A German citizen duringWorldWar II could not have argued: “The Nazi regime’s army is engaged in an evil war of aggression and is slaughtering millions of innocent people, and I therefore completely oppose this war, but I sure do support the Nazi troops.”10

Both sides of this controversy, I am sure, believe that the troops should be supported and that such support entails avoiding behavior that causes them unnecessary harm. The Warist is quick to point out, however, that the Vietnam experience made clear that protest and dissent against the war demoralized and alienated the troops, thereby exacerbating the psychological, emotional, and ethical readjustment difficulties inevitable in war. Laura Palmer describes the impact of non-support and dissent upon the troops returning from Vietnam.

. . . the controversy over the VietnamWar stifled a lot of grief. The shame society felt over Vietnam delayed for years any national recognition for the men (and women) who served there. America’s shame, confusion, and humiliation . . . did lessen the likelihood of their talking about it (their experiences). . . . They were ignored if they were lucky, scorned if they were not.11

Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist specializing in the readjustment difficulties of war veterans, explains the negative impact not talking about their experiences had upon the returning veterans.

“Thwarted, uncommunalized grief is a major reason why there are so many severe, long-term psychological injuries from the Vietnam War.”12

Findings reported in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study indicate that more than 35.8 percent of the men suffered readjustment difficulties consequent to their experiences fighting the Vietnam War.13

Further, the Warists argue that the move to distinguish the war from the warrior is a moral mistake as well. Once the fighting has begun and individuals to whom we have a special relationship––our sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, friends, and fellow citizens––have been placed in harm’s way, we have incurred, besides an obligation to the victims of the aggression, a conflicting moral obligation to our troops as well. To resolve this conflict of moral duties, Warists point to the work of Virginia Held, and argue that morality may be “role-specific,” that is, moral norms may vary according to special relations resulting from the specific roles we fill. Professor Held writes,

. . . a person in roles should be guided by appropriate segments of morality rather than by the whole of morality, and that the moral norms for various roles are not all the same.14

In fulfilling one’s specific role responsibilities, morality may allow behavior that is significantly different from the behavior that is appropriate––both morally and legally––for those filling different roles. Further, the Warist continues, in cases of conflict, our moral duties to those with whom we have a special relation are more stringent and, therefore, override any duties we may have to those with whom such relation is lacking. For example, if a woman’s moral duty to a stranger’s child conflicts with her duty to her own, since all moral duties are prima facie and not absolute, the more stringent duty to her own child trumps the lesser duty to the stranger’s, and becomes actual. By parity of reasoning, then, the duty to support our troops, by virtue of special relation, overrides any prima facie duty we may have to the “enemy.”

Finally, the Warist may argue that at least in some instances of immoral war, to aggress against an “innocent” nation may actually increase the general good. Aggression that alleges to remove a tyrannical monarch, liberate an oppressed people, foster democratic ideals, and increase stability in the world may be cases in point. Protest and opposition––not supporting the troops qua warrior–– undermines the war effort by demoralizing the troops (affecting their performance on the battlefield) and by providing hope and encouragement to the enemy (motivating them to persevere and to fight with greater ferocity and determination). A protracted struggle by demoralized troops against a fierce, motivated, and determined enemy jeopardizes the accomplishment of the mission and results in greater devastation and increased casualties on both sides. Consequently, at least in an immoral war that satisfies the principle of utility, to truly respect persons, we must support our troops qua warrior, end all dissent, opposition, and protest, and publicly express our gratitude and appreciation to the troops for their sacrifices and efforts.

Who is correct, the dissenters who speak out against and oppose immoral war or the Warists? What are our moral obligations once an immoral war has begun? What duties, if any, do we have to and/or regarding our troops in an immoral war? Is opposing a war compatible with supporting the troops? These are very difficult, confusing, and emotionally wrenching moral questions that are especially important and relevant in the times in which we live. In what follows, I will attempt to provide answers to these questions by first analyzing a fictional account of an immoral war to determine the scope and nature of our moral duty to dissent as required by the principle of respect for persons. Second, I will apply these findings to an analysis of the tragic and heinous attacks of 9/11 to determine our duties to and/or regarding those who prosecute immoral war.

Determining Liability in an Immoral War

In the case analysis that follows, I will use the concepts of liability/nonliability to indicate whether a combatant’s actions warrant a forfeiture of immunity and being justifiably targeted and killed, all things being equal, in war. The concept of culpability/non-culpability will indicate fault or responsibility, whether the combatant may be morally and legally condemned for his actions. The concept of innocence will be used to indicate both non-liability and non-culpability. With these crucial distinctions in mind, please consider the following illustration:

Preemptive War. The President of Montagnia and his political allies have set the stage for the immoral/illegal invasion of the sovereign nation of Polania by wrongfully/mistakenly alleging that operatives from, or at the very least supported by, the Polanian government were responsible for the recent devastating attacks upon Montagnian cities and citizens. Because of fabricated/flawed intelligence linking Polania to the attack, inflammatory rhetoric regarding the tyrannical Polanian Monarch, and the exacerbation and exploitation of Montagnian fears and vulnerabilities following the attack, many Montagnian citizens, perhaps even a majority, despite reasonable efforts to determine the truth, have been convinced that preemptive war against Polania is justified and necessary to avoid future, even more devastating, attacks. Other Montagnian citizens, however, skeptical of their political leader’s motives, correctly see the alleged “evidence” for preemptive war as faulty and/or contrived. Undaunted in his resolve, however, and unswayed by the pleas of those Montagnians advising restraint, the President orders the Montagnian military to invade Polania in what he portrays, and many embrace, as a war to preserve  freedom and end terrorism. During the subsequent war, the Montagnian military is extremely careful to target only Polanian combatants, though many instances of collateral damage are reported. Once under attack, the Polanians, aided by citizens from neighboring nations who sympathize with their plight, ruthlessly and fiercely defend themselves and their nation against the Montagnian aggression. As a result, many well-intentioned, self-sacrificing, young men and women on both sides are injured and killed.

In Preemptive War, the Polanians are clearly neither aggressors nor terrorists. Nor do they support aggression or terrorism. Nor are they linked in any way to the aggression or to the terrorist attacks. They are innocent, non-culpable, and nonliable, having done nothing to warrant forfeiture of their inherent immunity as human beings––their rights to life and to live in a nation that enjoys territorial integrity and political sovereignty.15 Consequently, to preemptively attack the sovereign nation of Polania and kill its citizens constitutes an act of aggression and murder. But who is morally responsible?

Clearly, the political leaders of Montagnia, those who plan and initiate the invasion of Polania and misrepresent it as a just war against terrorism and to preserve Montagnian freedom, are both liable and culpable for the aggression. Further, the invading Montagnian troops are agents of unwarranted violence and violate the rights of the Polanians. They are unjustifiable combatants. Consequently, the Montagnian troops suffer the sanction of forfeiture of their immunity
and become liable to be justifiably killed by the Polanians in self and national defense. The fact that the Montagnian troops adhere to the jus in bello criterion of discrimination, that is, they target only Polanian combatants and discriminate and afford immunity to noncombatants, is irrelevant to judgments of liability.

On the other hand, the Polanian combatants and their allies, by waging a just war of self and national defense, do not forfeit the very rights they are justifiably and morally struggling to assert. They are justifiable combatants. Consequently, they maintain their claim and their immunity and—this is crucial—remain both non-culpable and non-liable. It is a violation of their rights to kill them. It is not the case, as a result of a fierce Polanian resistance, that the Montagnian aggressors can now claim their actions morally justified by reasons of self-defense.16 All combatants are not moral equals.17

Supporting the Troops Qua Warrior

Consider next the effect recognizing the invasion of Polania as aggression and the Montagnian troops as aggressors have upon the duties of the Montagnian citizens. To do so, I will refer the reader to the brutal and heinous attacks of 9/11.

It is clear that those who carried out these attacks were acting immorally. This is so, despite that they and others of their ilk, may have been influenced, programmed, or deceived into truly believing their cause to be just, and their attacks to be legitimate acts of war––Jihad––against a nation and people that have, and continue, in their view, to exploit, oppress, and kill their fellow Muslims. Further, these terrorists were willing to endure great personal sacrifice in behalf of others and possessed the state of mind and spirit that enabled them to face danger, fear, and death with confidence, steadfastness, perseverance, and resolve. Under very different conditions, perhaps a situation of a just war, we would regard such qualities as virtuous and worthy of admiration. However, theirs was  an act ofterrorism18 and, as such, unjust, immoral, unwarranted, and a violation of the rights of those they attacked. Consequently, we do not characterize their behavior as courageous, noble, and heroic.19 Nor do we find admirable their willingness to sacrifice themselves for others and for a cause they believed just. Certainly, we do not feel their acts must be supported for fear that the terrorists will experience readjustment difficulties should they survive their attacks.

Although I cannot pursue the argument here in any detail, since aggression is unjustifiably targeting and killing non-liable and non-culpable human beings (murder),20 I see no morally relevant difference between national aggression and terrorism prosecuted by sub-national groups such as Al Qaeda. Consequently, the acts of the terrorists and those of the aggressors in Preemptive War are similar enough morally to warrant comparison.21 Both the terrorists and the Montagnian aggressors believed, erroneously, in the justice of their cause and in the culpability and liability of those they were targeting and killing. Both were well intentioned––neither acting from greed or self-interest––and motivated by a sense of duty to members of their community. Most importantly, both the terrorists and the Montagnian invaders violated the rights/immunity of innocent human beings. By parity of reasoning, then, despite their intended altruism, and their willingness to face danger, fear, and death with confidence, steadfastness, perseverance, and resolve, the efforts of the Montagnian troops, like those of the terrorists, are neither noble nor glorious. Nor should Muslims and the Montagnian citizenry feel gratitude and appreciation for their misguided benefactors’ willingness to endure great personal sacrifice “in their behalf.” Finally, immoral acts are not heroic, and the terrorists and the invading Montagnian troops are not heroes.

Based upon these observations, we can draw conclusions regarding the duties of the Montagnian citizens to/regarding their troops. Given the nature and moral value of the invasion, the Montagnian citizenry is, first and foremost, morally obligated not to participate in the aggression, that is, to avoid conscription or enlisting into the military. Further, they are morally obligated not to support the troops in their aggression. Neither should they praise their aggressive actions, nor appreciate their efforts, nor celebrate their accomplishments. That is, they must not support the troops qua warrior. If anything, they are morally obligated to sympathize with, support, and admire the efforts of the victims, the Polanians, in their struggle against aggression, since morality demands that we respect the rights and dignity of all innocent human beings.22

Supporting the Troops Qua Human Being

As in any war, even a just war, there may be individual soldiers whose questionable motives and intentions affect the morality of their actions or the degree of their responsibility. For the most part, however, few if any join the military or fight in war (or, perhaps, even adopt terrorist tactics23) intending to commit murder. Further, I think it is fair to say that a goodly number of those who serve in the military––especially during a war––are either the conscripted and the coerced or the underprivileged and the destitute. Their motivation in serving is to avoid serious, even life-threatening, sanctions, improve their standard of living, and receive job training or financial support for college. Even of those who willingly enlist and consider themselves professional soldiers, the vast majority sincerely believes they are doing moral things for a moral nation.24 What is clear, I think, is the intuition that soldiers such as these, despite their being unjustifiable combatants, are not brigands and murderers.

Given the gravity of the endeavor in which they are to engage, however, we do expect a civilian, before accepting conscription or enlisting in the military, and a soldier, before participating in the fighting, to morally evaluate a war for jus ad bellum justification. Finding the truth about a war, however, as Michael Walzer points out, is difficult and seldom certain.

Today, of course, most princes (political leaders), work hard to satisfy their subjects of the justice of their wars; they “render reasons,” though not always honest ones. It takes courage to doubt these reasons, or to doubt them in public; and so long as they are only doubted, most men will be persuaded . . . to fight. Their routine habits of law-abidingness, their fear, their patriotism, their moral investment in the state, all favor that course. Or, alternatively, they are so terribly young when the disciplinary system of the state catches them up and sends them into war that they can hardly be said to make a moral decision at all. . . . And then how can we blame them for (what we perceive to be) the wrongful character of their war.25

To appreciate the ability of governments to deceive, convince, and coerce citizens into supporting an immoral war, one need only consider recent events and the plethora of sincere and astute intellectuals, clergymen and women, scholars, and politicians who were convinced that war was warranted because Iraq under Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, was complicit in the attacks of 9/11, and posed a real and immediate threat to the survival of our nation and all we hold dear.26

It is not only a lack of information or deception, however, which makes the decision so problematic and tragic. The magnitude of the legal sanctions and social pressures (real or perceived) brought to bear upon young adults is such that a decision to refuse conscription or not to fight may require even more courage and determination than facing injury and death on the battlefield. After making the difficult decision of conscience that the Iraq war is morally and legally wrong, Army First Lieutenant EhrenWatada refused deployment to Iraq.27 As a result, at this writing, he is facing serious charges including missing troop movement, conduct unbecoming an officer, and contempt toward government officials. If convicted, Watada could be dishonorably discharged from the Army, fined, and sentenced to significant time in prison.

Tim O’Brien’s perceptive and poignant account of a young man’s torturous ordeal of soul searching regarding the Vietnam War illustrates quite nicely the magnitude of the social pressures at work on vulnerable, young adults facing conscription.28 Sitting in a boat on a remote Minnesota river, young Tim O’Brien faces the moral decision of his life, whether to report for induction and fight what he believes to be at best a morally ambiguous war or leave behind everything he knows and everyone he loves and escape to Canada.

Twenty yards. I could’ve done it. I could’ve jumped and started swimming for my life. . . . You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared, and there’s a hard squeezing pressure in your chest. What would you do? . . . Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you’re leaving behind?. . . . I tried to will myself overboard. I gripped the edge of the boat and leaned forward and thought, Now. I did try. It just wasn’t possible. All those eyes on me––the town, the whole universe––and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! They yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore twenty yards away, I couldn’t make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was. And right there I submitted. I would go to war––I would kill and maybe die––because I was embarrassed not to.29

One could argue, I am sure, that it is expected, perhaps even morally required, depending upon the severity of the sanctions, for young adults/soldiers in such situations, to have the moral courage and fortitude to refuse conscription/participation in wars that are immoral, perhaps even morally ambiguous. However, for a young person facing imprisonment or banishment, this is truly an overwhelming emotional and traumatic decision, more so of the heart, than of the intellect. Facing such pressures, the stakes so high, being so young, O’Brien’s question becomes trenchant. “What would you do?” I think it is safe to say that not many of us would have Lt. Watada’s insight to see through the deception or his strength of character and moral fortitude to accept the persecution, imprisonment, alienation, and scorn that inevitably accompany refusing service.30

In Preemptive War, members of the Montagnian military have been influenced, manipulated, and coerced by their President into believing the threat from Polania to be real and their cause to be just and necessary. Further, given the sophistication of the deception and the non-availability of information, they were not derelict in their responsibility as soldiers to morally evaluate jus ad bellum justification––to seek adequate information. Further, refusing service would have entailed severe legal and social sanctions. There is a real sense, then, in which they are themselves victims, deceived and coerced into risking injury and death to forward their unscrupulous leaders’ illegal and immoral agenda. Commonsense morality, I think, recognizes such morally relevant circumstances as warranting extenuation, a mitigation of censure. Consequently, the Montagnian troops are not fully responsible for their aggressive actions. They are what I will term “Diminished Culpability Combatants” or DCCs. Let’s be clear, diminished culpability does not mean their aggression is justified, or that they are innocent (non-culpable and non-liable). Nor does it mean that they are morally blameless or absolved of all responsibility for their aggression.31 Blame and latent responsibility of the Montagnian troops––DCCs––for their aggression is indicated by their liability (they can be targeted and killed, all things being equal, in self/national defense).32 Further, though their culpability is mitigated for all the reasons noted above, they will, nevertheless, suffer the moral sanctions consequent to their awareness, post bellum, that the war they fought in was illegal/immoral, even morally/legally ambiguous, that those they killed, injured, and displaced, were non-culpable and non-liable, and that their participation was not noble or heroic but rather an act of aggression and a violation of the rights of innocent human beings. These moral sanctions of shame, guilt, loss of self-esteem, a perceived breakdown of ethical cohesion––their integrity––and an alienation from the moral community are the inevitable consequences of the awareness of having transgressed deeply held moral convictions and seriously impacts upon the warriors’ ability to put the war behind her and resume a “normal” life.33

What recognition of diminished culpability does suggest is an understanding and appreciation of the persuasive and coercive power of governments, of the socialization pressures in a political community, and of the troops’ victimization.34 Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, it recognizes the moral relevance first of the adolescent/young adult conscripts/volunteers not being in a position to make an informed judgment about the war and second that the level of coercion they experience makes it difficult, perhaps supererogatory, for them to decide otherwise than to serve. Consequently, while the Montagnian citizenry is morally obligated not to support their troops qua warrior, the principle of respect for persons does require a moral concern, perhaps even a moral obligation, to act in the interest of all those victimized by war––whether they be innocent Polanians or Montagnian diminished culpability combatants.35

This duty to assist, or what I term “supporting the troops qua human being,” entails doing what is truly in their physical, psychological, emotional, and moral interest.36 Most importantly, the Montagnian citizenry must strive through protest, dissent, and condemnation of the immoral war to influence policy and bring pressure to bear upon their leaders to end the aggression against Polania and the exploitation and victimization of its own troops. Second, they must strive to create an environment in which adolescents/young adults feel empowered to act upon their moral convictions and refuse conscription and/or to fight.37 That is, moral refusers and deserters must be supported and provided protection either through selective conscientious objector laws, legal defense funds, or, more drastically, by providing sanctuaries from military apprehension and prosecution. Third, the troops should be encourage not to participate in an immoral war by demonstrating its immorality and illegality and by reminding them that, at least since Nuremberg,38 their moral and legal obligations as soldiers require neither blind obedience nor unquestioning trust in the decisions of their leaders. Finally, the principle of respect for persons––supporting the troops qua human being––requires that the Montagnian citizenry strive to ensure that the troops be adequately treated for the physical, psychological, and emotional injuries that are inevitable in war. Certainly, the brunt of moral responsibility for ensuring that the troops be adequately cared for rests with the government,39 but respect for persons, in my view, requires, or at least encourages, compassion and concern from all citizens in whose names the war was prosecuted.

Responsibility and Culpability in an Immoral War

It needs to be noted that whether appropriate sanctions are forthcoming for unjustifiable combatants will be contingent upon a society’s recognition and willingness to accept its nation’s culpability for crimes of aggression.40 Often, whether for reasons of arrogance, political expedience, or because citizens, especially in a democracy––government by and for the people––must share responsibility and, hence, culpability, for allowing an illegal and immoral war to occur, such an admission is not forthcoming. Rather, though I will not argue the point here, it has been commonplace for citizens and governments either to change history––alter the true nature and moral value of the conflict––or to maintain a moral aloofness and separateness from the blood and gore of a war prosecuted in their names. Interestingly, in the latter case, those who would require adolescents/young adults to suffer serious moral and societal sanctions for participating in an immoral war, rather easily absolve themselves of responsibility and culpability for having paid taxes (which supported the war), for benefiting financially by working for corporate war profiteers (Halliburton, Exxon, Bechtel, Aegis, Lockheed Martin, Qualcomm, and so on) or for being generally apathetic and indifferent to staying the course––continuing the war. Others argue that their responsibility––their prescriptive duty––in an immoral war is satisfied by voting or carrying a sign at a peace rally. Rather, to placate the national conscience, they self-righteously, though with appropriate regret, offer the warriors as sacrificial lambs. That is, it is the warriors, not the citizens in whose names the war was fought, who are responsible and culpable. Consequently, it is the warriors, not the citizens, who must suffer the sanctions for our nation’s transgressions––the immoral war.

Much has been written in the philosophical literature debating the extent of the responsibility and culpability of combatants in an immoral war. Significantly less research, however, discusses the responsibility and culpability of citizens. Many Vietnam War veterans’ lives have been devastated by their experiences. Few, if any, citizens have suffered sanctions for paying taxes and benefiting from the war. Even those who were instrumental in planning and initiating the war (Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, and so on) went on to lead respected, productive, and affluent lives. Is it not the case that an immoral war is a crime of nations? Why then is it only the late adolescents/young adults, coerced and deceived into fighting the war, who must bear total responsibility and culpability? To those citizens who would demand stringent moral sanctions for the soldiers beyond those noted above, I would ask what are the moral sanctions fitting to their crime?41 To those who would offer the old sixties adage, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” to suggest that wars cannot be fought without soldiers, I would offer another, “What if they gave a war and nobody paid taxes?” to suggest that wars also cannot be fought without money. Further, this moral cowardice and scapegoating prevents appropriate moral praise and approval for those like Lieutenant Watada42 who realized the deception and through uncommon strength of character and moral fortitude, chose persecution, imprisonment, alienation, and scorn rather than participate in an immoral war.

Rejecting Warism

TheWarist argues that to support the troops, we must support the war. That is, we must ignore morality and international law and support aggression and murder. We must support the coercion, deception, and/or exploitation of our troops into fighting an unjust and immoral war––into becoming aggressors and murderers. Supporting the war entails as well that we support the troops’ being unnecessarily killed and severely injured physically, psychologically, emotionally, and ethically. These observations provide a rather convincing reductio ad absurdum argument for the practical and moral untenability of the Warist position.

The Warist’s consequentialist argument also proves morally unacceptable for two reasons. First, the primary premise that immoral war could increase the general good and lessen pain and suffering in the world,43 though logically possible, is specious and highly improbable in practice. It is folly to believe that the evil of aggression and murder, prosecuted by rogue states––those nations refusing to abide by international law and accepted moral standards and behaviors––convinced of their manifest destiny to create a world according to their political ideology, could ever satisfy the principle of utility.44 Further, aggression, murder, and a disregard for international law and accepted moral standards are tools, not for furthering democracy and stability in the world, but of tyranny and turmoil. Second, theWarist is concerned not with the general or overall good, but primarily, even exclusively, with national interest interpreted as preserving the lives of his nation’s soldiers and with accomplishing their goals––achieving victory. I feel rather confident in the intuition that the Warist would permit the killing of ten, even a hundred, enemy combatants (non-combatants as well?) to prevent the death of even a single “friendly” soldier. Nor would he advocate the injury and death of his nation’s soldiers should such consequences entail a greater proportion of good or lesser evil to be brought into the world. Consequently, the foundation of theWarist’s argument is clearly not the principle of utility.45 Further, since I have argued that unjustifiable combatants have no right to self-defense against a justifiable combatant asserting her rights, it is not the case that the aggressor troops’ self-preservation and the accomplishment of their political and military goals even qualifies as a good to figure into the determination of proportionate weight.

Although this may be a controversial claim that I lack the space to defend here, I would argue that in the vast majority of cases, the consequentialist and the deontologist would probably agree that the principle of proportionality and of respect for persons would advocate support neither for an immoral war nor for the troops qua warrior. Rather, they would agree that what is morally required is an end to the aggression, an immediate withdrawal from the occupied territory, and that retribution be made to all those victimized by the war––a respect for international law and accepted moral standards and behavior.

To feel an attachment and concern for fellow citizens serving in the military is understandable. Further, once the fighting has begun and their troops placed at risk, it is also understandable that citizens may be motivated to ignore, overlook, and/or rationalize the immorality of the war and of their soldiers’ actions. Further, they may hope for their troops’ speedy victory and triumphant return even at the expense of the deaths of their innocent victims. However, while understandable, their “support” for the war and for the troops qua warrior is morally  unjustifiable. Since actually causing harm––acting immorally––is more morally abhorent, a greater moral transgression, than merely contemplating its possibility, the principle of respect for persons includes, but does not end with, the attempt to prevent a contemplated immoral act from occurring. Consequently, the moral obligation of the citizens to dissent, oppose, speak out against, and condemn the aggression applies beyond the prewar planning stage––the period when war is a possibility–– and becomes even more stringent once the war has begun––when the aggression becomes actual.

The Warist’s moral argument from special relations fares no better as it is not true that our obligation to those to whom we have a special relation requires that we support them in accomplishing immoral endeavors. For example, we do not have a moral duty to support and help our child when, for example, he kidnaps and threatens to kill an innocent person for ransom. Our duty to end the threat and prevent the murder of the kidnapped victim is actual and not overridden by any
prima facie role-specific duty we may have to our criminal child. Likewise, should there arise a conflict between moral principles and perceived individual or national interest in prosecuting an immoral war, it may well be the former––the dictates of morality––rather than the latter that must prevail.

A Final Argument forWar

Though it may be somewhat beyond the scope of this essay, I would like to comment briefly upon an argument heard so often during the Vietnam and Iraq debacles. A war, once begun, must continue and be supported, despite its moral value, until victory is achieved. We must persevere, “stay the course,” for only cowards “cut and run.” To accept anything less or to admit a mistake or a crime of aggression would negatively affect our nation’s prestige and standing in the world and devalue the sacrifices of those who have already suffered and died.

This argument fails both morally and pragmatically because to continue to wage an immoral war despite recognition of its unjustness indicates a wanton disregard for the dictates of morality and international law. Such criminal behavior, arrogance, and hypocrisy bring a nation no prestige or standing, only disdain and hatred. Nor does it bring glory or vindication to those already killed or wounded in battle. The principle of respect for persons requires that an immoral war be ended immediately, that the aggressors possess the moral courage to acknowledge their crime, that they make retribution to the victims of their aggression, and apologize to the citizens of the aggressed nation and the rest of the world community for their transgression. Rogue nations garner no respect or standing—only fear, hatred, animosity, and righteous indignation.

Morality is not a means of gaining strategic or tactical advantage to be abandoned or manipulated should its tenets prove inconvenient to the accomplishment of some goal or purpose. If morality is to have any meaning and if individuals and nations are to avoid hypocrisy, morality must be applied universally and fairly without prejudice, bias, or consideration of national identity. Morality and justice demand that we look at our own actions with at least as much moral and legal scrutiny as we do the actions of others.


I have argued in this essay that the principle of respect for persons requires moral agents to oppose, speak out against, and condemn immoral war, an obligation that persists and becomes even more stringent once the aggression becomes actual. Further, I concluded that although aggressor troops may be well intentioned and willing to make great personal sacrifices in behalf of a cause they truly believe to be just, their aggression warrants or deserves no support, gratitude, and appreciation. While morality forbids supporting the troops qua warrior, I have argued that the principle of respect for persons does require understanding, compassion, and concern. That is, because of their diminished culpability for their actions, moral agents ought to support the troops qua human being and do all that is reasonably possible to end their exploitation and victimization by exerting pressure upon the political leaders to end the immoral war of aggression. Shallow gestures of patriotism, like flying the flag and displaying a yellow ribbon on the back of one’s automobile while supporting an immoral war, denigrate and trivialize the lives and well-being of those young men and women placed in harm’s way unnecessarily.


1. There are a myriad of excellent works discussing morality and war. See for example, James Turner Johnson, Just War and the Restraint of War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981); James Turner Johnson, Can Modern War Be Just? (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 1984); Paul Ramsey, The Just War (New York: University Press of America, 1983); Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic
Books, 1977).
2. Aggression is defined in the United Nation Consensus Definition of Aggression (1974) as “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.”Michael Reisman and Chris Antoniou, The Laws of War (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 10.
3. S. D. Stein, “Genocide,” in Dictionary of Race and Ethnic Relations, ed. E. Cashmore, 4th ed. (London: Routledge, 1996), from
4. A definition of crimes against humanity according to international law can be found at the following:
5. Robert Holmes, On War and Morality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 24.
6. The concept of a minimally decent Samaritan is developed in Judith Jarvis Thomson, The Realm of Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).
7. A convincing argument for prescriptive moral duties is offered in William Frankena, Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1963), 43–52.
8. For an in-depth discussion of prima facie and absolute duties, seeW. D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930).
9. A term I adapted from Duane Cady, From Warism to Pacifism (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989).
10. Dennis Prager, The Left Doesn’t Support the Troops and Should Admit It,, July 12, 2005,
11. Laura Palmer, Shrapnel in the Heart (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), xiv.
12. Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam, Combat Trauma in the Undoing of Character (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1994), 68.
13. B. K. Jordan,W. E. Schlenger, R. L. Hough, R. A. Kulka, D. S.Weiss, J. A. Fairbank, et al., “Lifetime and Current Prevalence of Specific Psychiatric Disorders among Vietnam Veterans and Controls,” Archives of General Psychiatry 48 (1991): 207–15. Although aberrant voices may still challenge the validity of post-traumatic stress disorder, the scholarship documenting the psychological and emotional impact of war (trauma) on the warriors is overwhelming. See as well, The Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IVR, (4th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2000); Robert Jay Lifton, Home from theWar (NewYork: Basic Books, 1973); Charles Figley, Stress Disorders among Vietnam Veterans (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1978); Arthur Egendorf, Healing from the War (Boston, MA: Shambala, 1986); C. B. Scrignar, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (New Orleans, LA: Bruno Press, 1988). Regarding the resultant confusion stemming from the lack of support and what may be termed “war taint,” Derek Summerfield writes, “Lack of coherence is bad for people: if there is such a thing as a core fact about human response to disasters and violent upheavals, it is that survivors do well (or not) in relation to their capacity to re-establish social networks and a viable way of life.” D. Summerfield, “What Exactly Is Emergency or ‘Disaster Mental Health’?” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 83, no. 1 (2005): 76–77.
14. Virginia Held, Rights and Goods (NewYork: Macmillan, 1984), 24. See as well, N. Bowie, “Role as a Moral Concept in Health Care,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 7, no. 1 (1982): 57–64; D. Emmet, Rules, Roles, and Relations (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1975).
15. The right to self-determination is made explicit in numerous UN instruments. See for example, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, The Declaration on the Right to Development, from Accessed August 10, 2006. See as well, Michael Freeman, “National Self-Determination, Peace and Human Right,” Peace Review 10, no. 2 (1998), available at
16. For an insightful and comprehensive discussion of the moral asymmetry between the defender and the aggressor, see David Rodin, War and Self-Defense (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 49–70.
17. Here I disagree with Walzer who argues that all combatants, regardless of the moral value of the war they wage, are moral equals. See Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 127–37.
18. While there is no universally recognized definition of terrorism, according to the FBI, terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “ . . . the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian  population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).
19. This was certainly indicated by the uproar and controversy that followed television personality Bill Maher’s comment that the terrorists were courageous to fly their planes into American buildings.
His remark about the “less courageous” members of the U.S. military who launched their Cruise missiles from miles away certainly fueled the controversy still further.
20. In my illustration previously, for example, the Montagnians have done nothing to warrant forfeiture of their rights and immunity. They are non-liable.
21. Jonathan Glover argues, in fact, that state-sponsored terrorism is morally worse in quantity and cruelty than the individual variety. See Jonathan Glover, “State Terrorism,” in Violence, Terrorism, and Justice, ed. R. G. Frey and Christopher Morris (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 256–75.
22. As was the case following 9/11, most nations of the world, even those who may have been somewhat skeptical of our motives and intent in our foreign policy, abhorred and condemned the attacks and sympathized with our victimization.
23. We do not consider those who terrorized and targeted civilians during the saturation bombing of cities during World War II murderers.
24. Here I speak from personal experience as I volunteered to become an Officer of Marines and fight in the Vietnam War because, at least initially, I believed it was the morally correct thing to do.
25. Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 39–40.
26. Richard John Neuhaus, Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins University, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School, James Q. Wilson of UCLA, Robert P. George of Princeton University, Thomas Kohler of the Boston College of Law, Clair Gaudiani of theYale Law School, and Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University to mention just a few. Even the consummate man of peace, the Dalai Lama, speculated about the war’s justness and necessity.
27. Lieutenant Watada explains his decision to refuse deployment: “It is my conclusion as an officer of the armed forces that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law. . . . As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well, I must as an officer of honor and integrity refuse that order.” See Lieutenant Watada, “War Against War,” The Nation Magazine, June 26, 2006.
28. This incident, though fictionalized, accurately reflects what O’Brien terms “story truth,” the mental anguish he experienced about his impending conscription.
29. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (New York: Broadway Books, 1990), 56–59.
30. For a comprehensive and insightful discussion of the forces at work on late adolescents/young adults to ensure compliance to conscriptions and orders to fight, see Theodore Nadelson, Trained to Kill, Soldiers at War (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2005); and Gwynne Dyer, War (New York: Crown Publishers, 1985).
31. Much has been written on the issue of combatant responsibility in war. See for example, Walzer, Just and Unjust War, 34–47; Jeff McMahan, “The Ethics of Killing inWar,” in Ethics 114 ( July 2004): 707; Rodin, War and Self-Defense, 77–99; David Maple, “Coerced Moral Agents? Individual Responsibility for Military Service,” Journal of Political Philosophy 6, no. 2 (1998): 171–89.
32. Here I differ with Jeff McMahan, and feel no distinction need to be made regarding levels of liability based upon culpability. All unjustifiable combatants are equally liable and all acts of war require the equal restraints of minimum force and proportionality. McMahan, “The Ethics of Killing in War,” 722–25.
33. The argument that such sanctions are inadequate moral punishment for a soldier’s “crime” of having participated in an immoral war betrays a lack of understanding of and appreciation for the extent and seriousness of the life-altering impact such experiences inevitably have upon the warrior.
34. Though I cannot pursue the issue of determining degrees of diminished culpability here, all that is necessary for my argument is that the degree of diminished culpability be sufficient to warrant reasonable cause for concern.
35. It probably makes little difference to my argument whether one accepts my view of diminished culpability or believes that soldiers, though fully culpable, may be excused for their decision to fight, volunteer for military service, or accept conscription. In either case, we must recognize an obligation to care for their injuries and assist them in the difficult task of recovery––the duty of care.
36. Some have argued that condemning and abandoning the Montagnian troops would be morally preferable to caring for their needs. Such harsh treatment of the aggressors would bring about the perceived greater good of ending an immoral war. Though I cannot pursue the issue here, suffice it to say that my position seeks the same end by condemning the war and prohibiting support for the troops qua warrior. It does so, however, compassionately and in accordance with the principle of respect for persons––recognizing that human beings must be treated as having intrinsic moral value and not instrumental value only.
37. What was termed the “G. I. Movement” during the Vietnam War was an example of what could happen when thousands of soldiers realize the true nature of a war and refuse to fight. This “moral mutiny of combatants” is nicely documented in David Zeiger’s film, Sir, No Sir, a Displaced Film Production, 2006.
38. “. . . the Nuremberg, Tokyo, and other post-World War II war crimes trials brought to the development of the international penal law of war an international jurisdiction, a strong affirmation of the individual’s obligation to comply with internationally recognized  standards of conduct, a first enforcement within narrow limits of the concept of ‘crimes against peace,’ and a considerable expansion of the area of criminal liability for violations of the laws of war.” See Telford Taylor, Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy (Chicago, IL: Quadrangle Books, 1970), 92.
39. While nations certainly give lip service to caring for the needs of their veterans, few go beyond the patriotic rhetoric. America’s record of caring for those “who have borne the battle” is deplorable and a national disgrace. See, for example, Linda Everett, “VA Losing Ability to Care for Him Who Has Borne the Battle,” Executive Intelligence Review, May 7, 2004.
40. War is such an overwhelming experience, however, that even in wars perceived as just, warriors may suffer moral pain as a consequence of their violent actions.
41. It may certainly be the case, due to the sophistication of the deception and the non-availability of information regarding the war, that extenuation, mitigation of censure is warranted––Diminished Culpability Citizens.
42. And Darrell Anderson, Camilo Meija, Dan Felushko, David Sanders, and so on. The Pentagon estimates that 6,000–8,000 military desertions have occurred since the beginning of the IraqWar.
43. Traditionally, a consequentialist argument determines moral value and/or permissibility based upon the proportionate weight of the sum total of the general, overall good, that is brought into the world or prevented consequent to a particular act.
44. In classical (hedonistic) utilitarian theory the principle of utility is that “. . . which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.” See Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Kila, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2005), 2.
45. Warism could probably best be described as some form of Ethical Egoism.

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