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McMaster on the Ethics of War

On Monday, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster agreed to serve as National Security Advisor to the President. McMaster has written and spoken extensively on a range of topics, from grand strategy to ground force maneuver. McMaster also appears to have strong views about military ethics that may influence the advice that he provides on matters of war and peace. While I have not found a systematic presentation of his moral worldview, there are a number of striking and potentially revealing statements that readers may find of great interest. Indeed, McMaster’s statements over the years suggest a moral outlook that may positively influence national security policy, or lead to conflict with others in the Administration who do not share his values.

First, I should note that, while commanding the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, McMaster reportedly

fobade his soldiers from using dehumanizing and derogatory language when referring to Iraqis: both because such behavior is inconsistent with the shared values that define a soldier’s moral identity, and because such behavior is potentially a verbal ‘foot in the door’ leading to more serious forms of abuse.

As commander of the regiment, McMaster also reportedly “ordered detainees be treated humanely, and even polled detainees on how well the regiment followed through.” Such reports suggest that McMaster may be a practitioner of military ethics, not simply a theorist.

Speaking at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in 2014, McMaster offered the following remarks:

If you see, for example, what ISIL is doing today, … you would think, “Okay, how do you deal with an enemy like this, an enemy that operates in this way, and then is intermingled with civilian populations?” Maybe to defeat this kind of enemy you have to be equally brutal. Maybe you have to lower your standards, but I would say that exactly the opposite is the case.
. . . We have to defeat them in a way that’s consistent with our values that reflect our society and what’s expected of our military, for our Army forces, and of course what’s been expected since at least the time of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, taking it back even further.
So what does that mean? It means that we have to fight them applying the principles of just war theory, which means distinction. We distinguish between our enemies and civilian populations.
Every day in Afghanistan today, every day across the wars in Iraq, our soldiers and Marines place themselves at a higher level of risk to protect innocents. I think that’s something that’s very important to understand about these kind of conflicts. Our soldiers are warriors, but our soldiers are also humanitarians.

Needless to say, distinguishing between civilians and combatants and accepting higher risk to avoid harming civilians seem quite incompatible with targeting the families of our enemies or simply “bomb[ing] the shit out of them,” in the words of President Trump.

McMaster sounded the same theme years earlier, in a 2010 speech, “Moral, Ethical, and Psychological Preparation of Soldiers and Units for Combat”:

Because our enemy is unscrupulous, some argue for a relaxation of ethical and moral standards and the use of force with less discrimination because the ends—the defeat of the enemy—justifies the means employed. To think this way would be a grave mistake. The war in which we are engaged demands that we retain the moral high ground despite the depravity of our enemies.

McMaster then made the following observation:

Ensuring ethical conduct goes beyond the law of war and must include a consideration of our values—our ethos. … The Law of War codifies the principal tenets of just war theory, especially jus in bello principles of discrimination and proportionality. … [H]owever, individual and institutional values are more important than legal constraints on immoral behavior; legal contracts are often observed only as long as others honor them or as long as they are enforced.

In this passage, McMaster suggests that principles that protect civilians during the conduct of hostilities—discrimination and proportionality—are, fundamentally, moral principles codified into law. Accordingly, they bind soldiers categorically, irrespective of any expectation of reciprocity or fear of punishment.

The relationship between the law of war and the morality of war may be particularly relevant today, as a recent Presidential Memorandum directs the Secretary of Defense to recommend “changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law.” If the morality of war prohibits what the law of war—as understood by the U.S. government—does not, then it may prove quite fortuitous that the incoming National Security Advisor seems committed to the former as well as to the latter.

In a 2014 Veterans’ Day speech at Georgetown University entitled, “The Warrior Ethos at Risk,” McMaster offered the following thoughts:

I thought that we might consider two ways of honoring our veterans …. First, to study war as the best means of preventing it; and second, to help the American military preserve our warrior ethos while remaining connected to those in whose name we fight.

It was Aristotle who first said that it is only worth discussing what is in our power. So we might discuss how to prevent particular conflicts rather than eliminate all conflict, and when conflict is necessary, how to win. And in the pursuit of victory, how to preserve our values and make war less inhumane.

Similarly, in a 2016 speech at Norwich University, McMaster warned against “the tendency in our country to confuse military studies with militarism,” arguing instead that “the study of war is important to the preservation of peace.”

These statements suggest that we should aim, above all, to prevent and avoid war. When we fail, we should fight the wars we cannot avoid as effectively and ethically as possible. This view seems consistent with the just war tradition, which seeks a middle path between realism and pacifism.

In a 2013 interview with McKinsey, McMaster volunteered the following (I’ll let these passages speak for themselves):

The human dimension of war is immensely important for the Army as well; we need leaders who are morally, ethically, and psychologically prepared for combat and who understand why breakdowns in morals and ethics occur. … I think there are usually four causes of breakdowns in moral character—ignorance, uncertainty, fear, or combat trauma. It is important to understand the effects of those four factors on an organization and then educate soldiers about what we expect of them. We need leaders who have physical and mental courage on the battlefield, of course, but also the courage to speak their minds and offer respectful and candid feedback to their superiors. Our leaders can’t feel compelled to tell their bosses what they want to hear.

In addition to the fundamentals of combat, our soldiers really have to live the Army’s professional ethics and values. They must be committed to selfless service, to their fellow soldiers, to their mission, and to our nation. That also involves, obviously, respect for and protection of our Constitution and understanding their role in that context.

Finally, McMaster seems to view the wars we are currently waging through a moral lens that differs quite dramatically from that of his immediate predecessor and of some of his new colleagues in the administration. In his speech at Norwich University, McMaster called for soldiers and civilians alike “to understand and develop empathy, empathy for the cultures and historical experience of the peoples among whom wars are fought” and to “promote moral conduct by generating empathy for others … in an effort to prevent war or at least make war less inhumane.”

In his Carnegie Council remarks, McMaster repeatedly describes ISIL, the Taliban, and similar groups as irreligious groups seeking to impose a political order on local populations who are their primary victims:

This is an irreligious ideology in which you have these so-called imans who have third and fourth grade educations. They’re thugs and criminals. They’re misogynistic. They are wanting to impose on a huge population and territory an order that is medieval and rejects humanity, I think.
They’re criminals. We ought to make sure we criminalize their behavior. What religious standard justifies this? No religious standard. These are irreligious people.
What we must do is we must defeat these enemies, who are enemies of all civilized people, along with our partners and allies in the region, the people who are suffering the most, who are in these regions in Afghanistan and Iraq and so forth.

Similarly, at Georgetown, McMaster said:

we will defeat these enemies who cynically use a perverted interpretation of religion to incite hatred and violence. . . .
Enemy organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIL seek to perpetuate ignorance, foment hatred, and use that hatred as justification for the murder of innocents. They entice masses of undereducated, disaffected young men with a sophisticated campaign of propaganda, disinformation, and brainwashing.

McMaster made similar remarks last May at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

McMaster seems to understand that groups like ISIL and the Taliban do not represent Islam or the world’s Muslims. They seek to rule by violence and terror precisely because they cannot rule by consent. Accordingly, the United States should fight alongside Muslim communities against a common enemy rather than treat all Muslims as the enemy. Will McMaster’s views prevail in the National Security Council, and shape the administration’s foreign policy? Time will tell.

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About the Author

is Professor of Law and Judge Jon O. Newman Scholar at Rutgers Law School.  His first book, Law and Morality at War, was recently published by Oxford University Press in January. You can follow him on Twitter (@AdHaque110).