Resolving Ethical Challenges in an Era of Persistent Conflict

  • April 01, 2011
  • COL Tony Pfaff

The character of irregular warfare has challenged the American “way of war” in a number of ways. Not only does it challenge how U.S. forces fight, it also brings into question the ethical norms that they employ to govern the fighting. The resulting confusion is especially evident in the public debate over the use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, traditional just war thinking has permitted collateral damage that has undermined the civil order that those military operations are intended to impose, while at the same time has prohibited Soldiers from killing or detaining the enemy who threatens that order in the first place. These counterintuitive outcomes suggest that the traditional view needs to be revised in light of the demands of combating irregular threats. Revising this view will have to take into account the emphasis that combating irregular threats places on populations rather than on military capability. In doing so, it expands the ends and means of war requiring Soldiers to not only defend the state, but to impose civil-order outside the state as well. These complications fundamentally change the character of warfare and require Soldiers to rethink where they may accept and place risk when balancing the ethical demands of their profession. This point has important implications for the way the United States should fight irregular wars and the norms they should employ to govern them.