December 19, 2013  

Moral principles for taking a volunteer force to war

Maj. Damon T. Armeni

There is no shortage of ideas on how the United States should shape and use its military, or what the proper civil-military relationship should be. Relatively few, however, are examined within a framework of morality and ethics.

This absence is largely due to the reduced “stake” the population of the United States has in its military, an All-Volunteer Force so removed from the greater body politic that there is a real question as to whether this country has fostered a separate warrior class that, true or not, believes it alone bears the burden of war for their nation.

Yet morality must be considered if the United States desires to retain an AVF loyal to those they are charged to defend and obey.

This essay will articulate three principles to guide policymakers and elected leaders who build, shape and ultimately use their armed forces. These principles are rooted in the mutual moral and ethical obligations of a nation and its military.

It is irrelevant, in this context, to dismiss such principles by saying that interests are political, that a draft can correct the problem, or that soldiers do not think beyond the small-unit formation. Such counterarguments oversimplify, and furthermore, fail to address the morality and ethical constraints that bind a nation and its military, constraints that preserve the capability of a military to endure tremendous hardship and a nation to retain the moral high ground.

Principle 1

There must be a clearly defined and legitimate interest at risk. Before waging war, a nation has typically determined that some interest, significant enough to warrant military action, is at risk, and that the domestic or global political costs are lower than those imposed by not acting. A nation must further determine if the act will have domestic and global legitimacy and in the absence of either, that the costs of acting are acceptable when compared to the costs of not acting.

In a representative democracy, this is critical. The population can vote out of office leaders who fail to make this calculation or those who incorrectly analyze the risks. This necessitates both a careful review of any action and the inclusion of the national population in any ensuing debate. An elected leader cannot expect his or her constituents to support a conflict that has not obtained at the very least domestic legitimacy.

This is an important distinction. Waging war can be done in the short term if the population has a certain amount of trust in their leaders, enough to allow a rapid response to sudden crisis. However, as the cost in lives and treasure begins to rise, the population will expect to understand the necessity of the conflict; that is, the interest and why it must be defended. When such legitimacy is absent, the military will begin to separate from the population and government, questioning the merits of the conflict and the extent to which their nation supports them.

A potential counter to this position, that all wars are political or that all interests are political in nature, is invalid in this context. While it is certainly true, as Clausewitz argued, that wars are merely foreign policy (read: politics) by other means, it does not change the moral obligation of leaders to avoid wasting human life and the treasure of the nation they are elected to lead.

A leader must determine the difference between a national interest, almost always driven by politics; and a vital national interest, something that directly influences the economic or physical well-being of the state. If the leader chooses to make war over a simple interest, then he or she must be certain that the interest is worth the expenditure of human lives.

An example might be the American intervention in Bosnia, where no vital interest was immediately at stake. The president of the United States decided that the health and longevity of NATO, in which the U.S. has a vital interest, would be put at long-term risk by a failure to act. Similarly, NATO allies had little if any vital interest at stake in Afghanistan or Iraq, yet many provided support to the United States because of concerns over the long-term implications for vital alliances. In this case, a simple interest was created as a derivation of a true vital interest and thus could be morally justified.

Principle 2

The citizens must believe the war is worth blood and treasure. Even if the nation understands and accepts the interests that are at risk, they must also believe that war is worth the costs imposed on the nation to protect those interests.

The population in general must believe firmly enough that the sacrifice of American lives is acceptable that they allow their young to join the military during a time of war. This is critical to prevent the formation of a separate warrior class.

They must also believe the treasure is worth spending. To paraphrase President Eisenhower: Every bullet, every bomb, every tank consumes resources that can never be reclaimed for any other purpose. The population must believe this is acceptable, especially if the war begins to exact high economic costs. If this fails, the population will begin to question the war, which will eventually have the effect of violating Principle Three: Soldiers will begin to question whether their lives are being needlessly spent.

To some degree, this can be mitigated in the short term by military leaders who articulate the military necessity of conflict, but even this is only a short-term fix. Eventually, even the military leaders will begin to question the merits of the action and may seek to minimize casualties to a point that threatens mission success.

Principle 3

The soldier must believe his nation will grant him moral absolution. While all soldiers should be held accountable for their actions, they must nevertheless believe that when the innocent are killed on the battlefield through no fault of the soldier that they will be forgiven. It is difficult for a soldier who has killed anyone to face his nation if he believes they will not forgive him for the blood on his hands. And if the nation cannot grant its soldiers absolution, it must not send them to fight.

Of course, the soldier must fight justly and in accordance with the moral and ethical values he represents. Only if the soldier is just in his actions on the battlefield can he expect forgiveness and under these conditions the nation must give it. Failure to do so can easily result in gross dehumanization of the enemy, needless killing, and will exact a very high psychological toll as soldiers struggle to cope with what they have done. There can be no forgiveness of self without forgiveness from his people and there can be no forgiveness from the people if the war was not fought morally.

Finally, when a soldier stands in front of a pair of empty boots at a memorial ceremony, he or she must know beyond doubt that the life those boots represent was not wasted, that the fallen did not die needlessly, and that his nation is better, safer and stronger because of it.

It is true, in a micro sense, that soldiers do not think beyond the squad or platoon in the heat of battle. It is categorically untrue to argue that this is so in all aspects of the soldier’s life. When the war is over, or when the soldier has returned home, he or she will begin to seek meaning in the loss and in the actions they took on the battlefield to survive and, ideally, to win. That search will inevitably lead to the justification for violence which in the absence of absolution will lead to guilt and anger; guilt for having killed for a cause not deemed worthy by their nation and anger at the lack of meaning behind the loss of his or her friends and teammates.


Moral justifications for sending men and women to war are necessary for every governmental system. Examined through the lens of Clausewitz’s Trinity, the people grant authority and legitimacy to the government, the government extends legitimacy and authority through the use of the military, the military represents and defends the population and government, and the population in turn gives the military legitimacy and moral absolution.

However, in a democracy it is critical that the moral high ground be held before both domestic audiences and upon the world stage. The welfare of the soldier and the nation hinges upon this; he or she must not be forced to fight if any of the principles are violated. To do so would deprive the soldier of justice in purpose and the welcoming and forgiving embrace of the people upon whose behalf they have fought, killed, suffered and died.

Further, it would deprive the government of legitimacy in its use of the armed forces and so deprive the armed forces of legitimacy in the eyes of the population. The result would be a military that at best holds the civilian population in contempt and at worst is angry and resentful — a condition in which democracy cannot long be expected to survive.


  1. […] Moral Principles for Taking A Volunteer Force to War […]

  2. […] I used this article (http://armedforcesjournal.com/moral-principles-taking-a-volunteer-force-to-war/) as a springboard into conversation, because his argument reveals the very flaws in theory of […]