The Moral Limits of Strategic Attack

By Carlino, Michael A. | Parameters, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Moral Limits of Strategic Attack


Carlino, Michael A., Parameters


American military operations in the post-Cold War era have been punctuated by a twofold desire for casualty avoidance. The first manifestation is a long-standing feature associated with the conduct of war: the preservation of friendly forces. The success of Operation Desert Storm proved that heavy casualties on one's own forces are not necessary for military victory, and, not surprisingly, that conflict indirectly promoted force protection as paramount in subsequent operations. The other manifestation of casualty avoidance is the reduction of noncombatant losses. Of course, the term encompasses noncombatants residing in or belonging to the enemy state as well as those in one's own country. Although the idea of noncombatant immunity has a lengthy history traceable to the earliest warrior codes, the reduction of noncombatant casualties, particularly those of the enemy, has consistently been overshadowed by claims of military necessity. Arguably, the rise of the modern media, virtually omnipresent, might be credited with helping to renew interest in the protection of noncombatants, since no aspect of conflict now escapes international scrutiny.

Complicating matters is the military's current focus on effects-based targeting and operations, perhaps epitomized in the Air Force's doctrine regarding strategic attack. Rather than focusing on engaging enemy forces directly, current doctrine holds that strategic attack is used to destroy the enemy's centers of gravity, "those characteristics, capabilities, or localities from which a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight." (1) The idea is usually attributed to the initial architect of the Gulf War's air campaign, Colonel John Warden, who proposed the existence of five rings or centers of gravity, the most important being leadership, followed by organic essentials, infrastructure, population, and finally the actual fighting mechanism, which is portrayed as the least important. (2) This center-of-gravity concept is certainly reminiscent of Sun Tzu's dictum purporting that the acme of skill is to subdue the enemy without fighting, since capturing forces is preferable to engaging in battle. Hence, attacking the enemy's strategy, not troops, is ultimately what ensures success. (3) However, the nature of the modern battlefield inherently blurs the distinction between combatants and noncombatants; soldiers and civilians are now inextricably woven together in an amorphous battle space, and so the age of segregated battlefields has all but vanished.

The obvious problem is which notion--force protection or noncombatant immunity--ought to have priority and to what extent. Intuition, as well as the current modus operandi of the military, might suggest that it is more important for the military leader to preserve the lives of his soldiers even at the cost of greatly increasing the risk to noncombatants, especially when the noncombatant lives in question are not US citizens or allies but rather belong to the enemy state. After all, the prevailing view is that American lives are somehow more important. That view, however, is misguided. A military commander is morally obligated to do as much as he can to preserve the lives of all noncombatants, even if significantly increasing the risk to his own soldiers. This does not necessitate fighting a war devoid of noncombatant casualties--that may well be virtually impossible--nor does it mean that winning is unachievable. Wars can still be fought and won; however, the moral import of noncombatant immunity demands a shift in the current conception of force protection.

Force Protection

That commanders have a legal duty to protect and ensure the health and welfare of their subordinates during peacetime as well as wartime is incontrovertible. Whether that duty is a moral one is a slightly more open question. Of interest here is not an evaluation of the many plausible arguments that might support such a claim, but the stringency of the moral requirement given that it does exist. …

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