"Ethical" Reflections on Fallujah

Jeffrey Tiel

April 1, 2004

The “cease-fire” in Fallujah and the US military’s determination to avoid civilian casualties continues our determination to establish a military ethical doctrine that guarantees victory to our enemies. The situation in Fallujah is a classical siege, a situation in which the enemy is completely surrounded and cut off from outside support. Militarily, time is on the side of the attacker. Politically, time is on the side of the defender. But if one is determined to defeat an enemy, military, not political, considerations must take priority.

The classical method of siege is to regard all persons within the besieged city as enemies. Historically, this methodology has led not only to large numbers of casualties among the local population, but to vengeful atrocities perpetrated on the people once the city is captured. To avoid these potential difficulties, those besieging a city are supposed to permit the local population to leave the city. This is exactly what the American military authorities have done. Consider the implications of this offer: if a local person chooses to leave, then he is free. If he chooses not to leave, then he becomes de facto an enemy. If he tries to leave and is prevented from doing so by the besieged party, then he is a hostage and his death is the responsibility of his captor.

So far American doctrine seems perfectly reasonable. Yet the American military is seemingly unwilling to exercise its power. Once the offer to extract the local population is satisfied, full military power may be used against the defenders. Why, e.g., would ground troops engage in small arms fire with the defenders on the outskirts rather than employ heavy artillery and heavy bombers on the town? A town that engages in widespread rebellion should be threatened with total destruction unless unconditional surrender is accepted. Once that demand is rejected, the town should be obliterated with the aim of entirely consuming the enemy and anyone foolish enough to remain with him. This level of destruction makes it an “ill-bargain” for other potential insurgents to consider rebellion. Notice that following World War II, one did not find German and Japanese insurgencies even though weapons and training were far more readily available. The reason for this is that the threat of complete destruction was not idle, and the people were tired of war. Current American warfighting doctrine in the name of being ethical actually motivates the people to support continued hostility.

Consider the example of the use of mosques to house troops and supplies. It is generally a good idea for soldiers to avoid destroying museums, historical monuments, and religious sites, unless the cultural artifact is part of the enemy (as when Nazi monuments were deliberately destroyed in WWII or when Saddam’s statues and palaces were intentionally destroyed recently). But this is a general rule, not an ethical rule. For when the enemy discovers that we will not target mosques or tanks near hospitals, then his strategy becomes obvious: use mosques and hospitals for political camouflage. Hence, the military and ethical counter-strategy likewise becomes clear: if an enemy holes up in a mosque, that mosque should be totally destroyed with the enemy inside, for only a strategy of this kind will guarantee the security of other mosques, as the enemy realizes that mosque-hiding is ineffective. Long-term negotiations with the insurgents are senseless and politically dangerous, for the politics at home and in Europe are not the only consideration: what is the political impact on our enemy when he realizes he can halt our military operations by these kinds of strategies? It’s worth noting that since the noncombatant/combatant distinction became central to American military ethical thinking, the US has not unconditionally won a war, and our enemies have tended to employ insurgency tactics that rely on our so-called ethical doctrine. The reason this doctrine is at best “so-called” is that the US is perfectly willing to abandon the doctrine as soon as things get rough, as our massive nuclear and chemical arsenals make perfectly clear.

Ethics is important in warfare, but when ethical considerations are offered and rejected, completely overwhelming military power must be employed to defeat an enemy. One wonders how the Romans would have responded to a 9/11-style attack: what would they have done if some religiously-affiliated group had blown up the Colosseum? Roman imperium would have been maintained through massive retaliatory destruction, for only in this way could the empire maintain its authority. The United States is still not an empire, for we do not seek to rule foreign peoples. But we could learn a lesson on the nature of the employment of military/political power from the Romans whose use of force struck such fear into her enemies that they thought twice about continuing their struggle.

Jeffrey Tiel is an associate professor of philosophy and director of the academic honors program at Ashland University.