Memorial Day reminds us of moral questions about force

Posted Saturday, May. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women throughout our history who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died.

Many people visit cemeteries to honor those who gave their lives for the country, adorning graves with flowers and small flags.

It is proper to pay respect to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us. It should also be a time of reflection on when it is moral for the United States to wage war and, if allowed, how this country should conduct war.

War is awful. In these days of shallow, sanitized news coverage, the real horror of war rarely confronts us with the terrible death it levies against fellow humans, soldiers and civilians alike, and the maiming injuries, physical and psychological, it leaves behind in its wake.

My father and his twin brother fought in World War II. My uncle had part of his head blown off in the Pacific, and the right side of his body paralyzed for the rest of his life. My grandfather served in World War I. Although no one in my family died in military service, my sister will be decorating their graves on Memorial Day — and other nearby unattended graves of veterans.

But, as we honor those whom the nation has sent to war, we should pause to reflect on the country’s propensity to wage war and the wars it has undertaken that may not have been just.

Over the centuries, religious leaders and moral philosophers have clarified moral principles for commencing a “just war.” Choices about war and peace involve not only military and political options, but also moral questions.

A war is just only if waged for self-defense against imminent aggression or a massive violation of a population’s basic human rights (e.g. genocide), with the sole purpose of protecting life — not for capturing things, material gain, maintaining economies or punishing people who have done wrong.

A just war must be a last resort after exhausting peaceful and viable alternatives, if not clearly impractical; and it cannot be waged where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success.

Likewise, its anticipated benefits must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.

Acts of war must be directed toward enemy combatants, not noncombatants caught in circumstances they did not create. A country cannot bomb civilian areas that include no military targets or commit acts of terrorism or reprisal against civilians.

The principle of minimum force governs just war conduct to limit excessive and unnecessary death and destruction. Countries may not use methods of warfare that are considered evil, such as mass rape or weapons whose effects cannot be controlled (e.g. nuclear/biological weapons).

There are plenty of unjustified and unjustifiable wars in our history. The Iraq war is only the most recent, and the war in Afghanistan was probably excessive and disproportionate. There are serious questions about World War I, and the Spanish-American War was clearly trumped up.

This discussion is critical for Americans so we don’t have to remember veterans on future Memorial Days whose government sent them to war and death without the proper moral basis.

James C. Harrington is a human rights lawyer in Austin.

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