War and Virtue

Maybe an old fashioned notion, that war and virtue are somehow related.

Our contemporary abilities teach us plenty about war. Everyday we can hear about conflicts all over the world; how many persons ostensibly killed in this city or that; bombs going off in cities; boys forcibly recruited; women and girls raped; genocide; the war on terror.

We hear so much about war that what constitutes a war, or a state of war, has become a vague notion taken for granted. It is debatable if the ‘war on terror’ is actually a war, certainly in the classical sense. There is no clearly defined enemy, often it is hard to understand what the goals of a conflict are.

Vague pronouncements ostensibly related to virtue are invoked: Freedom; security; national interest; liberation from evil. The west is attempting to liberate certain Asian peoples from the evil of tyranny and oppression, to allow the proper expression of freedom, more of an Occidental value. Religious groups are attempting to liberate certain Asian peoples from the evil of tyranny and oppression, to allow the proper expression of religion, more of an Eastern value.

Old notions of the ‘rules of war’ seem to have fallen by the wayside. There is a history of believing that values should inform our behavior, even in the brutish state of war, that because we are humans we are not merely animals, and as such we have the ability, yeh, the duty, the moral duty, to constrain our natural violent tendancies. The idealized ancient Greeks had a season for war; it is often assumed that war has been a primarliy male affair, and that women and children should be left alone, protected as much as possible, though this has never been practiced well. Poison gases are generally considered off limits. Maybe the finest contemporary example of applying values to war is the non-use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagazaki, despite their horrific proliferation and spector.

To go back to the ancient Greeks again, and why my sense that this notion of values in war is old fashioned, Socrates, Plato, attempted to define virtue, and virtues; moderation, courage, wisdom, justice. To focus on virtues is idealistic. War forces a utilitarian strain of thinking, a thinking that attempts to balance our ideals against reality, the reality of obliteration or the horrors of destruction, injury, loss of everyday life and, yes, virtue.


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