A moral battle

Code: A philosophy professor says dishonorable acts needn't accompany asymmetric wars.

The Ethics Of War

April 06, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

For Naval Academy philosophy professor Shannon E. French, there is a battlefield fate even worse than death: dishonor.

The thin but critical line between warrior and cold-blooded killer is the subject of her new book, The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past And Present (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). It is a line that French says the world must preserve, even as recent episodes of terrorism and wartime brutality have blurred it into indistinctness.

According to French, the warrior code shares striking similarities across cultures, from the Samurai and the ancient Greeks to the Zulus. By hewing to a code of restraint, mercy, and proportionality, French argues, warriors not only retain their integrity (and often, their sanity) but reinforce the values of the societies they are defending.

A professor in the military college's Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law, French, 32, has a laboratory for her ideas that most philosophers would envy: classrooms of future warriors, young men and women who - she hopes - will deploy their philosophical insights in the real world of combat.

French was interviewed by The Sun last week. Here are her observations, edited for space.

So what exactly is the code of the warrior?

It's a code that restrains what the warrior does, and the aim is to allow the warrior's profession to be distinguished from other acts of violence - from murder, for example.

As a warrior, you are asked to do something your society would not condone if done in a back alley somewhere. The context of restraint and control is really what preserves you from crossing the line. The other elements of the code are proportionality, mercy, respect, and one that's very challenging but very important: humanity.

Is this code Western, or do you find it across cultures?

It is absolutely cross-cultural. As we look at the current world situation with terrorism and the Middle East, it should be noted that there's a very rich just war-and-conduct-of-war system in Islam. And the same things are there. During the Third Crusade, Richard the Lionheart of England committed unbelievable atrocities against the Muslims, whereas the Muslim Sultan Saladin was marked for his chivalry. So it isn't East vs. West. And if it is, it is not consistent who the good guys and bad guys are.

Why are these ideas important now?

They're more important than ever because as the sole remaining superpower at the moment, the United States is more and more involved in asymmetric conflicts. The trouble with asymmetric conflicts is they tend to put the superior force up against a very desperate, inferior force. And that desperate, inferior force is driven to use tactics that are not only what I would consider dishonorable, but that actually use the superior force's code against them.

How did you go about researching warrior codes across cultures and history?

A great resource is the society's literature. The literature in many ways glorifies and idealizes the warrior and tends to reveal what the warrior hopes to do in honorable behavior rather than what they actually do.

What does it tell us that societies so often fall short of their ideals?

That tells us we are asking a lot from people being shot at to show restraint. We are demanding more than most people can handle consistently.

What philosophical questions most intrigue your students?

The difference between collateral-damage deaths and directly targeting civilians. They want to understand how deaths that occur as a result of collateral damage do not involve the same intention as someone walking into a pizzeria and exploding a bomb.

Is dishonor really worse than death?

Psychologists who work in combat trauma are unanimous: The factor that is most damaging for those who have combat trauma is either participating in or witnessing something that was not just violent but actually dishonorable. That is most scarring - because they are starting to rejoin a society that has certain values and they've seen a betrayal of those values.

It's not always going to be the case that it's better to survive. There actually are things worse than death. To have betrayed your own values is worse than having died honorably in combat.

How has the war in Iraq affected the tone of classroom discussion?

There's a definite gravitas in these discussions. We find that it's something you can't make light of when you know your former classmates are actually facing life-and-death ethical decisions.

The war with Iraq is an obvious teachable moment. I have absolutely used cases such as false surrenders, suicide bombers, people fighting in civilian clothes not because they don't have more uniforms but because they are intentionally trying to blur the combatant/noncombatant distinction.

What about those for whom playing fair means certain demise? If the very survivial of one's nation is at stake, why not resort to all means necessary?

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