Wars, weapons and ethical confusions

The culture of defense is one of those things that all our governments, whatever their color, claim to want to promote. The reality, however, is that the infantilism is still the dominant note when it comes to talk about war, something that we’ve seen these days in connection with arms export contracts with Arabia Saudi.

Over and over the same who claim to promote the culture of defense try to convince us that they have sent our soldiers to a mission “with all the security guarantees”; that nothing is wrong for giving away military equipment while it is only defensive; that one thing is to build ultramodern corvettes and another to sell dangerous bombs, unless these were so smart that they only serve to kill people who are perversely evil. Over and over, in short, they try to dissociate the military from the unapproachable problem of suffer and death, as if the defense policy were unsustainable in the presence of one or the other. And that is precisely where the question lies.

The great problem of the sweeteners efforts of our rulers is not the inconsistency of claiming that the sale of a bomb is ethically reprehensible but the sale to the same country of five corvettes loaded with bombs is not at all. Without a doubt, the most serious aspect is the systematic concealment of the nature of war as an indispensable presupposition of any defense policy: instead of recognizing the risks of a military action and explain why we need to take them, they choose to minimize them to excuse a pedagogical work and essential justification.

This practice, imposed by the political coexistence in societies where suffering and sacrifice are not usually good electoral partners, has been so extended that even our ethical judgment about the war has been altered. Episodes like the one we have lived these days reveal a worrying tendency to accept, only those wars that guarantee low collateral damages, reduced own losses and limited destruction; the ius ad bellum has been subordinated to a simplification of the ius in bello .

On the one hand, this error can make us think that, as long as we limit ourselves to sell defensive equipment or weapons that reduce the percentage of failures to the minimum, neither our policy nor our businesses can be ethically criticized. On the other hand, and this is the most serious, this confusion can lead us to abdicate our duty to give certain battles, however we may lose in them.

A truly concerned government to promote among its citizens the culture of defense must make an effort to clarify these points before anything else. It is not to transfer to the public opinion that our troops can scarcely suffer or cause harm, but to show that when they do so it is for just cause. And it is not about selling weapons that do not kill or that are only defensive, but to explain that if we sell weapons to another country it is because we think that they will use them as legitimately as we would give them to us. Does the military policy of Saudi Arabia seem legitimate to us? Yes or not? If the answer is affirmative, we don´t need to say idiocies like that the laser-guided bombs do not cause collateral damage; it is worth declaring that we sell them because Saudi Arabia needs them to achieve an objective that we consider ethically and politically defensible. If the answer is negative, any explanation is superfluous, because the only thing that guarantees a laser-guided bomb is a high probability of reaching the chosen target and not the correct choice of target or the absence of innocent people in the vicinity.

In summary, a good defense policy begins by explaining what war is, his nature and the reasons that can justify it; to accept that there are not wars without risks and to make the citizens understand that there are no good or bad weapons, but trusted users and people who can not be sold even a screwdriver.

Author: Prof. Alvaro Silva, security and defense analyst

_ _ _

Responsibility for the information and views set out in this publication lies entirely with the author.