War Is a Moral Force: Designing a More Viable Strategy for the Information Age

By Fromm, Peter D.; Pryer, Douglas A. et al. | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2012 | Go to article overview

War Is a Moral Force: Designing a More Viable Strategy for the Information Age


Fromm, Peter D., Pryer, Douglas A., Cutright, Kevin R., Joint Force Quarterly


A thought is a thing as real as a cannonball.

--Joseph Joubert

Since World War II, the United States has spent far more on national defense than any other country. In fact, America currently spends nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined.1 However, such spending has not meant that the Nation has fared well in war.

The Vietnam War, for instance, was the first great harbinger of change. In this deeply tragic conflict, America lost its sense of moral purpose and will to fight, effectively abandoning an ally to a brutal, determined enemy that it could not defeat.

After Vietnam, there was Beirut in 1983 and then Mogadishu in 1993-brief, bloody incidents followed by moral routs. America's interventions in Lebanon and Somalia were "moral routs" not because Servicemembers were involved in war crimes, but because leaders made morally unaware decisions at all levels of command. At the national command level, congressional debates and resolutions did not support these ventures. In the country itself, substantial portions of the population perceived U.S. military actions as blatantly partisan, unfair, and culturally ignorant.

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The Gulf War seemed to signal a return to America's winning ways, but this victory rang hollow when the war proved to be only the first campaign of a much longer conflict that America would wage in Iraq today. In Afghanistan, despite America's exorbitant expenditure of blood and treasure, its Taliban enemies have actually grown stronger in recent years. America's worst setbacks in the "Long War" against terrorism have not been defeats on the physical battlefield; they have been revelations of "extraordinary renditions," specious interpretations of international laws, detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib and other facilities, and murders in Haditha, Mahmudiya, and elsewhere.

Sadly, the decisions of U.S. strategic leadership set the conditions for many of these moral failures. The key to understanding why these decisions led to failure is realizing that there is actually very little difference between having a sense of moral purpose and possessing the will to fight. When decisions lead one side to lose the former, this side inevitably loses the latter as well.

For strategy to work in our age, it must possess solid moral and political legitimacy. This essay seeks to explore ways to improve moral awareness and psychological understanding of war as an aspect of American strategy. It argues that the best way to win constructive peace in any future conflict is for American forces to display a focused consistency of justifiable action at all levels.

War Is a Moral Force

According to Carl von Clausewitz, the "effects [in war] of the physical forces and the moral are completely fused, and are not to be decomposed like a metal alloy by a chemical process." (2) The term moral here and elsewhere in this article refers to both its ethical and psychological denotations, which experience and language inextricably connect.3 The reason for these two meanings is that perceived right action and consistency in word and deed are the psychological glue holding together a community, even the community of states. Shared perceptions of right action bind individuals to groups and groups to communities. The moral approbation (or psychological approval) at the root of stable communities is the natural result of acting rightly. Approbation, it bears repeating, leads to peace.

There are two ways of thinking about such approbation as it feeds moral and political legitimacy. There is the pursuit of right action in accordance with accepted norms, which incidentally and typically results in approbation. Then there is the practical pursuit of approbation, which incidentally and typically results in right conduct. Rightness and practicality merge in philosophical pragmatism, and together they form a grammar of approbation for specific actions. …

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