Ethics in the Fog of War

Author: Prof Mervyn Frost

Fog and Chaos (image via Unsplash)

The word “fog” in the phrase “the fog of war” might be taken to suggest a breakdown, chaos, disorder or anarchy. It may be taken to suggest a state of affairs that is chaotic. Where things are like this it might be thought that talk of ethics is a waste of time. For ethical questions usually arise for people who are participating in well known stable practices. For example, we might ask, when is it ethical for police to use force? Is the use of water-boarding justified against a person suspected of having planted a bomb on a passenger liner? Is a prime minister ethically justified in lying when it is done for the sake of the wellbeing of the polity as a whole? In these examples there are stable orders within which ethical questions arise.

Ethical questions about war are usually posed within the literature pertaining to the just war tradition. The ius ad bellum is offered as a guide for actors contemplating going to war. The guide is provided prior the fog of war descending. The ius in bello offers advice about constraints an actor might attempt to abide by in the fog of a war once started.

In both parts of the just war tradition we find a description of a state of affairs (that which precedes a war and that which pertains once war has commenced). The description is followed by a set of ethical injunctions about what it would be just to do, given the circumstances. The description of the facts is presented as distinct from the ethical advice given. If we apply this schema to the current war going on in the Ukraine, we would first seek to describe what has happened or is happening and then consider from an ethical point of view what ought to be done.

Here I wish to challenge this standard conception of the relationship between war fighting and ethics. My challenge is easily stated. Fighting is doing. It does not involve random irrational behaviour, but action. Soldiers, sailors, air men and women, spies, special forces, strategists, cyber-war experts, citizens who find themselves in a war zone, prisoners of war, refugees from wars, professionals in private military companies, those who make munitions and deliver them, the firefighters in cities that have been bombed, the presidents, prime ministers, and politicians in the warring states, and so on, (the full list would be a long one) are all actors whose actions taken together constitute the war. The complete set of actions that comprise a war is not some pre-ethical reality in the face of which ethical decisions have to be made. All the actions by all the actors involved are ethically laden from the outset. Even in the deepest fog those engaged in fighting wars are actors.

Actions and Ethics

All human action (including making war) can only be understood in the practice in which it is constituted as an action of one kind or another. Consider what I am doing now. I am writing a blog. This is what I am doing and you are reading it can only understand this action of mine insofar as you are a participant in this discursive practice of university life with its professors, lecturers, post doctoral students, doctoral students, postgraduate students, undergraduate students, degrees, examinations and so on. You can also only understand this if you understand the ethical values constituted in this practice: the value of knowledge, science, libraries, teaching (transfer of knowledge), graduation ceremonies and so on. A similar point could be made about the act of voting. You can only understand me putting this piece of paper in a box as the act of casting a vote, if you understand the practice of elections and the ethical values embedded in it. Think of any act you have carried out today and situate it in the practice which gives it meaning and consider what the ethics of that practice are. The point just made applies to all those actions involved in fighting wars. The young men who recently set out from the UK to join the foreign legion in the fighting in the Ukraine were not simply setting off to go and do some shooting. They were setting out to participate in a war that they considered just. Similarly, President Putin does not think he is merely sending out some men on a shooting spree. They are, he says, being sent to fight fascists in a just war.

The Ethical Constitution of Actors

In order to be an actor in a social practice one has to be constituted as such through an elaborate process of mutual recognition involving the other participants in the practice. I am only a professor insofar as you recognize me as such. Volodimir Volodymr Zelensky is only president of Ukraine because he is recognized as such by the citizens of the Ukraine and the citizens of the others states of the community of states world wide. This point about actors being constituted within social practices applies to all social practices including sports (netball, rugby, cricket), churches, trade unions, political parties, armies, and so called “terrorist groups” like Al Qaeda.

When a person (or a collective actor like a state) is constituted as such within a social practice, that actor, by virtue of being constituted in that way, is bound to the ethical values embedded in that practice. For you to be students in this practice of university life, you are bound to uphold the core values of this practice, a key one being a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. That you are bound to pursue this value is not a choice you make. It is a condition of you being a student in this practice. Flout it and you are out, rusticated from the university, expelled from the community of scholars. Similarly people who are constituted as citizens of sovereign states are bound to uphold the core values of that practice – the value of the sovereign freedom of their state and of the other states in the society of states. Similarly those of you who are constituted a rights holders in global civil society are bound by to uphold the freedoms associated with the participation in the global practice of rights.

The Primacy of Ethics

From the point of view of a participant in a practice, the worst thing that can happen is to be denied the status of participant. Terms like “rustication”, “expulsion”, “drumming out” and “excommunicated”  are words that give a sense of what is at stake here. Picture the humiliation of being rusticated from King’s College London for plagiarism, imagine the horror of your parents, friends and colleagues. This point is as applicable to participants in a war as it is to students in a university. The same applies to a solder drummed out of his/her regiment for some crime against the code of conduct. The same applies to states who fail to uphold the values embedded in the society of states. They come to hold the status of pariah. There was a time when South Africa came to have this status before apartheid was ended.

This analysis indicates that in everything an actor does in the social formations in which they are constituted as an actor of a certain kind that actor is vulnerable to ethical criticism. This is as applicable to actors engaged in war fighting as it is in other domains. A primary imperative of actors, war fighters included, must be to avoid ethical criticism that threatens to de-construct them as bona fide actors in the practice in which they are constituted. The implications here are profound.  In war an actor might be winning the physical battle (killing more people, destroying more fighting machines, downing more aircraft and drones, etc) but all this has no heft if the actor through such conduct flouts the constitutive ethics of the practice and becomes a pariah.  The South African case provides an  example. The National Party government that ruled apartheid South Africa had a fearsome military machine that won on the battlefield, but it lost the war because in the practice of states it was declared a pariah. We can see a similar ethical battle taking place in the Ukraine now. The war we all watch does of course involve violence and destruction. There is a lot of the fog of war around. But the arguments back and forth on the ethical front are equally as important as the pictures of battle.

The central point in all this is that in any fight/conflict/war, the most comprehensive victory is that achieved when a party secures the ethical destruction  of the opponents’ standing as participants in the practice within which the conflict occurred. In order to avoid this kind of defeat, participants in social practices (all of us, in all the different practices in which we participate) must have as a primary aim the maintenance of our standing as upholders of the ethical values embedded in the practices. Here is the punch line: Our security as participants depends on our behaving ethically. In order to do this, we have to be recognised by the other participants in the practice as doing this. For you to be students in good standing in the practice of university life you need to be recognized as holding the ethic that defines our practice, you must not be a copyright thief or a plagiarist. In like manner the participants in a war within the practice of sovereign states, must be recognised as upholding the core values of freedom and sovereignty established within it. We see just such a fight for ethical standing taking place in the war in the Ukraine at the moment.

Where disputes about ethical standing break out between participants in a social practice, an actor will always strive to portray the other party as behaving contrary to the embedded ethic. When that happens the target of the criticism will strive to oppose the interpretation that casts it in this light. At the heart of the matter is an argument about ethics. This is exactly what we have seen taking place on the public media of all kinds during the war in Ukraine. This is strategic communication (which is quite different from propaganda) all of which is always aimed at winning the ethical high ground.

About the author: Mervyn Frost is a Professor of International Relations in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He is the author of Practice Theory and International Relations (2018), Ethics and International Relations (1996), and more seminal work on ethics in international affairs, constitutive theory, and practice theory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s