Using Military Force
BRING PHILOSOPHY TO LIFE
#8: Using Military Force
During the evening of the Wednesday before Christmas, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared before a joint session of the U.S. Congress to thank the U.S. for the military support it has provided to help repel the recent Russian invasion and to ask for more. Already during a session at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, President Biden had said: “Today, I’m announcing the next tranche of our security assistance to Ukraine: $1.85 billion package of security assistance that includes both direct transfers of equipment that Ukraine needs, as well as contracts to supply ammunition Ukraine will need in the months ahead for its artillery, its tanks and its rocket launchers. Critically, in addition to these new capabilities, like precision aerial munitions, the package will include a Patriot missile battery, which will — and on which we’ll train Ukrainian forces to operate as part of the ongoing effort to help bolster Ukraine’s air defense. (DemocracyNow.org, 12/23/22).
Not all members of congress applauded his address. Mat Gaetz of Florida, for example, said that to applaud would have been “a North Korea-style act” (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/matt-gaetz-lauren-boebert-zelensky-speech-b2249997.html). Representative Lauren Boebert joined Gaetz, making the rift between U.S. political positions even wider, and they were quickly rewarded with media coverage:
“Mr. Gaetz appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show on Thursday and was hailed for refusing to “stand up and applaud like a seal as a foreign leader in a sweatshirt lectured our country.” Mr. Carlson, whose show has been used as pro-Russian propaganda by the Kremlin, facetiously asked Mr. Gaetz, “How much do you love Putin that you didn’t applaud last night?” He replied: “I feel no compunction [sic] to go out and applaud some foreign leader from a historically corrupt country who is begging for more than the hundred billion dollars that the Congress has already set to send them,” (The Independent, 12/24/22).
This blatant difference in media coverage is typical these days, a rift that feeds the divide that seems to get worse as time passes. In this podcast, I plan first to review the distinction between dialogue and debate to which I referred in the introduction to this series and then try to promote dialogue on this topic. How does debate differ from dialogue?
Dialogue is not debate. Debate differs from discussion in that the verbal exchange usually has a limited number of positions stipulated at the outset (such as affirmative vs. negative, liberal vs. conservative, or plaintiff vs. defendant), each competing with the others with the clear goal of winning the contest. Debate is a zero-sum game. If one side wins, the other side must lose. The goal in a debate is to win the verbal contest by persuading others, often without concern for the truth of the matter. It differs from discussion in its single-minded purpose of proving a pre-established position in order to win; to change positions in a debate is to lose the contest. The adversarial method frequently employed by lawyers is one familiar form of debate. Although it is not necessary for the legal process to employ this method, when money and power are at stake it is not surprising that a win/lose strategy takes over.
Dialogue employs a dialectical method dedicated to examining and questioning assumptions, especially the ones we usually take for granted. Sometimes dialectic is confused with eristic, a form of verbal dispute that does not seek a common or mutual goal. Debate favors eristic over dialectic. Confusion between eristic and dialectic arises from the rigor of the reasoning common to both, but the difference lies in their purpose. The purpose of dialectic is to reason through an issue, refusing to rest until the participants in the dialogue freely reach common ground. Those who practice eristic do not shy away from manipulation and deception if they are effective in achieving victory. On the other hand, dialogue is impossible if the autonomy and dignity of the participants are violated (https://www.agorapodcasts.com/why-dialogue.html).
One major reason there is currently such a rift in the U.S. political process is that the media tend to feed the separation by labeling the sides (usually there are only two) and then by dramatizing their differences. Listeners and views are left with a single question: “Which side are you on”? Sometimes this places participants, even activists, in an awkward position. On December 23, 2022, Amy Goodman on DemocracyNow.org interviewed Medea Benjamin, founder of Code Pink; The Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, an advisor to the Fellowship of Reconciliation; and Professor Cornel West, who teaches philosophy at Union Theological Seminary. These three, speaking on behalf a thousand other “faith leaders” called for a Christmas Truce in Ukraine, and thus seemed to oppose Biden and his administration, which is supporting Ukraine with funds and weapons, placing them on the side of Gaetz, Boebart, and Carlson in this debate. Medea Benjamin was clearly concerned about that perceived affinity. She said: “We don’t want the moral center questioning this war to be coming from people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Donald Trump, or Tucker Carlson, who are people now questioning this war. We want it to come from the moral center of this country.”
This is a clear example of what happens in a debate with two diametrically opposed sides. The result is that the gulf between the sides grows wider, and those who observe the debate leave the exchange more hopeless than ever about achieving the kind of consensus that promotes genuine democracy. Fortunately, even inside partisan exchanges alternative perspectives emerge that open the possibility for dialogue. The media have reported disagreements among members of the Biden administration. For example, already on November 10, 2022, The New York Times reported that General Mark Milley split with others on the question of declaring a truce in Ukraine:
“A disagreement has emerged at the highest levels of the United States government over whether to press Ukraine to seek a diplomatic end to its war with Russia, with America’s top general urging negotiations while other advisers to President Biden argue that it is too soon. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made the case in internal meetings that the Ukrainians have achieved about as much as they could reasonably expect on the battlefield before winter sets in and so they should try to cement their gains at the bargaining table, according to officials informed about the discussions.”
This is not merely a strategic matter to be decided on military grounds. An important philosophical question lies just below the surface: What, exactly, is the moral role of military force?
Professor Cornell West,” condemns the silence of current politicians about the moral aspect of foreign policy:
“Most of our political elites and in Congress suffer from a moral and spiritual bankruptcy, because they can’t say a mumbling word when it comes to what’s really happening on the ground with the heroic struggles in Iran right now. They can’t say a mumbling word about the Palestinian struggles, what’s been going on for the last 50 years. But all of a sudden they’re willing to breakdance and act as if they’re concerned about domination when it comes to Ukraine. So we want to be consistent. We want to support any people who are dominated, whether they are Dalits in neofascist India, whether they’re landless peasants in Brazil, whether they’re Black people and working people in America, whether they’re workers in the UC, University of California, system. And not a mumbling word from Democrats like the governor, caving. We want moral consistency. That’s what Martin King was calling for. That’s what Dorothy Day was calling for. That’s what Rabbi Heschel was calling for in the '60s. That's our legacy (DemocracyNow.org, 12/23/22).
Professor West’s rhetoric fails to transcend the debate that tends to separate rather than unite all people who seek justice and peace. Dialectic is a better way to reach that goal: The purpose of dialectic is to reason through an issue, refusing to rest until the participants in the dialogue freely reach common ground. To do that, we should first identify common principles on which moral actors can agree. In this case, Professor West identifies the idea of supporting “any people who are dominated,” a principle that is fully consistent with the fundamental moral demand for autonomy. When Russia invaded Ukraine, that principle was violated, so Putin’s war can be condemned on moral grounds. We might ask whether any use of military force can be justified on moral grounds. The obvious answer is that it can be justified by the responsibility to respect and to support the autonomy of other individuals and other groups. That clearly includes the sovereign nation led by Mr. Zelensky.
Even the purest exponent of pacifism, Mohandas K. Gandhi, acknowledges our obligation to use violence in defending the autonomy of others:
“I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. Thus, when my eldest son asked me what he should have done, had he been present when I was almost fatally assaulted in 1908, whether he should have run away and seen me killed or whether he should have used his physical force which he could and wanted to use, and defended me, I told him that it was his duty to defend me even by using violence” (https://www.lrdigital.dk/en/Forcing-Justice-Violence-and-Nonviolence-in-Selected-Texts-by-Thoreau-and-Gandhi-9788728204634).
To escape the deadlock that separates debaters, we can use dialectic to seek common ground. Let’s begin by questioning the assumption that all use of violence is the same. If Gandhi’s son were to use violence to defend his father whose life was in danger, that use of violence is different from the violence being used by the Russians who were invading the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Even though it is difficult to see the difference in practice, the moral act of defending a victim is totally different from the unjust act of using force to deprive someone else of life, health, property, or dignity. Military use of force can only be justified as a defensive act, never as an invasion that deprives others of their rights. As different as these two principles are, once military force is in play, there is a thin line between these two kinds of action. General Milley’s support of a cease fire and negotiation and the recent call for a Christmas truce by the “faith leaders” can be morally justified by the intention of maintaining a defensive use of violence and refusing to use military force for offensive purposes. No doubt this is what Professor West had in mind when he shared with Amy Goodman his concern over any attempt to promote the American Empire.
“I think Sister Medea’s point that you’ve got 14,000 courageous Russian brothers and sisters who were willing to go to jail for seven years in order to have some accountability of the gangster who runs their empire, Russia, we need to have an equivalent antiwar movement in the American empire that’s willing to put pressure on our political elites” (12/23/22).
The very concept of an American empire shows the danger of moving from military defense to military offense. If those who urge us to “make America great again” are promoting the American empire, then their call for troops and weapons is a blatant violation of morality. If the U.S. involvement in Ukraine goes beyond defending and promotes the American empire, then it is also immoral and should be ended. Knowing when that line has been crossed is a matter of judgment on the part of those who are implementing the policy in question. There is no algorithm by which to determine that, but the principle is crystal clear. This is not a new concern, but it has become urgent as the “Cold War” has been revived and threats of using nuclear weapons have returned to the international stage. Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, scholars attempted to explain the cause of such anger against the U.S. The Asian historian Chalmers Johnson is among those who, in a series of books (Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, Nemesis), blamed the building and defending of the American Empire as the root cause.
“As distinct from other peoples on this earth, most Americans do not recognize—or do not want to recognize—that the United States dominates the world through its military power. Due to government secrecy, they are often ignorant of the fact that their government garrisons the globe. They do not realize that a vast network of American military bases on every continent except Antarctica actually constitutes a new form of empire. Our country deploys well over half a million soldiers, spies, technicians, teachers, dependents, and civilian contractors in other nations and just under a dozen carrier task forces in all the oceans and seas of the world. We operate numerous secret bases outside our territory to monitor what the people of the world, including our own citizens, are saying, faxing, or e-mailing to one another. Our globe-girding military and intelligence installations bring profits to civilian industries, which design and manufacture weapons for the armed forces or undertake contract services to build and maintain our far-flung outposts. the world for the largest military we ever maintained in peacetime” (Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, 2004, Kindle Edition).
These distinctions help us understand how we might move from debate to dialogue on this topic. True democracy can only function on the basis of moral justification, so it is reasonable to justify military action on the principle of defense against explicit aggression and condemn crossing the line and building an empire at the expense of others without their consent. This means that the U.S. and its allies can and should defend Ukraine against the recent Russian invasion, but it also means that the principle of military defense must be maintained, and strict limits should be placed on the amount and kind of military aid. It is important to keep in mind that the U.S. is by far the largest merchant of military weapons in the world; Russia is #2.
Today, December 30, 2022, the federal budget for 2023 was approved by Congress and signed by President Biden. The military budget was by far the largest portion of that bill—$858 billion—which included a 10% increase, more than President Biden requested. That budget also included $45 billion for aid to Ukraine and NATO allies, more than President Biden had requested (U.S. News and World Report, 12/30/22).
The goal of military aid to Ukraine aid should be to end the fighting as soon as possible through a cease fire and diplomatic negotiations. Such negotiation is never easy, especially when some of the participants are unwilling to embrace and implement moral actions. But the alternative is unthinkable when the very existence of the human species is at stake. Gandhi put the matter this way: “I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.” Following Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, clearly demonstrated the courage that is required to stand up to injustice. Negotiation is more courageous than excessive force.