Syria and morality of gas warfare

Syria prompts reflection on morality of war

September 6, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry is right to claim that gas attacks in Syria should shock the conscience of the world. The problem is that much of modern warfare should also shock our consciences. Moral reflection cannot be one-sided; and it must be self-critical.

Reflection on the problem of chemical weapons points toward the general question of the morality of war. Why is it wrong to use weapons of mass destruction but not wrong to use other weapons?

The best place to begin thinking about this is the just war theory, a moral framework with deep roots in the Western philosophical tradition. Many of the ideas of the just war tradition are also found in contemporary international law, including ideas about war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The just war theory views some weapons as wrong in themselves. Rape and torture, for example, are rejected as inherently evil. Just warriors should not rape or torture — even if these things might help to achieve victory. Some will claim that, like rape and torture, weapons of mass destruction are intrinsically immoral.

But why are weapons of mass destruction more immoral than good old-fashioned explosives and projectiles? It doesn’t make much difference to those killed and maimed, whether the damage is caused by chemical agents or by shrapnel. It might be that the evil of WMD is that they cause slow, painful death. But this is not always true. Nuclear explosions instantly kill those at ground zero. Gas can be quick. And it is difficult to see why the slow, painful death caused by mustard gas is qualitatively worse than the slow, painful death caused by bullets, bombs and bayonets.

Another argument against weapons of mass destruction is grounded in the worry that these weapons are indiscriminate killers. They cause “mass destruction,” after all.

But the sheer number of casualties is not the primary concern. Rather, what matters is who is killed. Just warriors are allowed to kill enemy combatants — in large number if needed. But just warriors are not permitted to directly target noncombatants.

From this perspective, if poison gas or nuclear weapons could be used in a limited way on a battlefield — only killing enemy soldiers — then they may be permitted. But any weapon that targets noncombatants is wrong, whether chemical or conventional.

Some worry that it is not easy to control chemical weapons. Wind can blow gas into unintended areas. The primary moral concern here is accidental harm to noncombatants. However, the same criticisms apply to conventional weapons. Even precision weapons that aim to avoid collateral damage can end up killing noncombatants. Predator drones are more precise than other weapons. But drones have still killed the innocent.

Others worry about persistent aftereffects of nuclear or chemical weapons. But conventional weapons also leave behind lingering hazards. Unexploded ordnance is a problem, including land mines and bomblets left over from cluster bombing. And dangers may linger when depleted uranium shells are employed. It is not clear that chemical weapons are qualitatively worse than conventional weapons in terms of unintended consequences and persistent risks.

The good news is that the world is responding to some of these dangers. We have worked to destroy our own stockpiles of chemical weapons. That’s progress. But we haven’t signed on to a treaty banning landmines and cluster bombs. And we still possess thousands of nuclear weapons.

Consistency in the morality of war is difficult. It is tempting to make exceptions for “the good guys” and appeal to double standards. But the same principles that condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria can also be used to condemn American atomic attacks on Japan in 1945. Indeed, these principles can be employed to criticize incendiary weapons, napalm, white phosphorus, depleted uranium weapons, the use of torture and nuclear strategy.

One hundred years ago, the countries that are now condemning the use of poison gas in Syria employed it on the battlefields of Europe.

The nearly universal moral condemnation of the Syrian gas attacks is a hopeful sign that we have made progress in thinking about the morality of war. But we still have a long way to go. Further progress will result from a consistent and self-critical application of just war principles.

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