The Ripon Forum

Volume 40, No. 4

Aug - Sept 2006 Issue

The Battle Abroad

By on October 19, 2015 with 0 Comments

Today, the greatest threat to our military does not come from armed forces, but, rather from moral ones


As the United States confronts this Long War against terrorism, a critical debate has emerged over the relationship of the nation’s military force to foreign policy and moral principle. Put baldly: U.S. military power is today so superior that the only way any nation or stateless group can counter it is by appealing to moral principle. This is the real battleground in the years ahead, and it is essential that U.S. national security policy recognize the growing relationship between military strength, foreign policy, and moral principle. 

Any fundamental critique of American policy in Iraq, for example, can be seen as a variation of Lord Acton’s observation that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is not the change in the Iraqi regime and the removal of a despot that concerns the critics. Nor is it the conduct of the military operation through which we did this. It is American willingness to use our military power, and the strength of that power, that, to some observers, implies we are becoming less limited by moral principle in foreign policy. Indeed, some pundits now argue that planning inside the Pentagon focuses strictly on “asymmetric warfare” — on how enemies might seek to counter U.S. military power militarily — largely uncoupled from and unconcerned with the moral principle component of foreign policy. But they are incorrect. 

Founded on the sensible assumption that no enemy would fight the United States military the way the U.S. military hopes, trains, equips, and prepares for an enemy to fight, we have tried to think seriously about how we don’t want our enemies to fight. So, we presume a military enemy would be inclined to fight us asymmetrically — to do the things we would prefer not to do. We don’t like to use our power indiscriminately, so we presume an enemy might seek to do so; that is, prefer to use weapons of mass destruction. 

We prefer to attack an enemy’s armed forces or at least those means of production, communications, control, and support that tie directly to his military  capabilities.  So, an enemy, we presume, would be far more willing to direct violence against civilians; that is, to engage in terror. We don’t want to fight long, bloody wars — we call them quagmires. But, an enemy, we presume, might want to fight those kinds of wars for that very reason.  

A protester pulls a U.S. marine in protest during a joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise at Mallipo beach, southwest of Seoul in March 2006.

A protester pulls a U.S. marine in protest during a joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise at Mallipo beach, southwest of Seoul in March 2006.

There’s nothing wrong with considering such contingencies. That we may have to face them is a very sensible assumption, and one that enhances the deterrent effects of our military capabilities.  

The real danger in concentrating on asymmetric warfare possibilities is that it can divert attention from the main threat to American military power. The main threat is not coming from a concerted, effective effort to develop asymmetric military counters to U.S. military power. It is coming from criticisms based on moral principle. It is not American military power, per se, that concerns others. It is that the use of our military power will undermine the moral principle side of the foreign policy equation.  

This concern bridges the widely divergent explanations of U.S. behavior held by friends and foe alike. The themes of Osama bin Laden’s fatwa and recruitment videos claim U.S. power is morally corrupt and emphasize the moral imperative of opposing it. The British Sir Timothy Garden argues that “there is a growing concern that this rich, commercial, high technology, well-armed, superpower is minded to take ever less notice of the views of other states or the constraints of the international system.”1 These are not mere justifications of the balance of power by nations seeking their self-interest. They are judgments that U.S. military power is unconstrained by morality. 

Why should we heed such views, and, if we do, how should the United States link its military power with moral principle? As the war on terrorism shows, there is deep dispute on the merits of different ethical and moral systems. Not everyone in the world agrees with our ethical and moral system, and many seek to rally allegiance to systems inimical to ours. Their ability to recruit adherents to another ethical and moral system is due in part to the increasingly ubiquitous information technology that makes it much faster to inspire and focus hatreds, rally like-minded people, and mobilize lethal force. The perception that American foreign and military power have a weak moral foundation lowers the barrier to mobilizing opposition. 

The link between military power and moral principle occurs in the purpose of American military power, and in the way we use it. We should make clear that the purpose of American military power is not to establish or maintain American sovereignty over other nations or peoples. It is to protect the United States and help enforce universally applicable moral principles, among which are the sanctity of life, liberty, and justice.   

Another answer stems from the character of our military forces and how we use our military power. Here our moral compass is a commitment to avoiding harm to the innocent and truth and candor in explaining why we use force. 

It is not American military power; per se, that concerns others. It is that the use of our military power will undermine the moral principal side of the foreign policy equation.

These are generalizations, the real meanings of which become clear with respect to military transformation. The Defense Department’s interest in military transformation, for example, focuses on building military capabilities that can apply force faster, with greater precision, across greater distances, with lower risk to the men and women who wield the force, and less danger to the innocent. We do this because such forces provide greater military effectiveness. But we also do it because the resulting character of the forces — forces that are highly networked, knowledge rich, loosely-coupled, more able to operate jointly — are better able to meet the moral commitment to avoid harm to the innocent. The investments we are making in the ability to collect, process, and distribute information will help that force discriminate, not just among physical complexes, specific buildings, rooms, or other smaller areas, but also among individuals. The precision weapons we are buying will allow that force to reduce collateral damage as will the non-lethal weapons we are developing.  

We are transforming the U.S. military from a force that epitomized industrial age military power — designed to shock, awe, outlast and overwhelm other industrial age militaries and the societies that built and maintained them — to a force designed to prevent the use of violence and genocide by others. In doing so, we seek to be able to quickly alter undeterred and budding conflict, and to be able to end armed conflict and restore civil society quickly. 

The force we are building to provide these capabilities will differ greatly from the force we are leaving behind. Some of the differences are already visible, and will emerge more clearly over the next several years. These changes are likely to include a shift away from the pattern of forward garrisons, some of which we have maintained for decades. We will move toward sea-based deployments and greater reliance on  maneuvering from strategic distances; that is, from basing hubs at greater distances from the area in which we use military force.  We will begin to reintegrate into the active force the support, military police, and civil affairs units that we sent to the reserve components a generation ago. We will change the way we modernize the force. And we will increasingly see U.S. military forces as an instrument we use to export security, not just project power; to prevent aggression or terrorism, not just to punish it after it occurs; to provide political solutions, not just win on the battlefield. 

And we will accompany these changes in the force with differences in how we explain their use. We will extend access to the transparency our technology provides our military forces to the world as a whole. Over the last decade U.S. officials have increasingly revealed the results of sophisticated intelligence. We may well seek to make the world as transparent to the general public as we once reserved only to our military forces. It is not a new notion to the United States. We were founded on the principle that a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that we declare and make clear the causes of our actions. 

We will do all this, and more, because it will make us more militarily effective. But we will also do it because we recognize that power, uncoupled from moral principle, cannot be sustained.  RF

Terry Pudas is the Acting Director of the Office of Force Transformation at the Department of Defense. 

1 Sir Timothy Garden, “US Hyperpower: what role for Europe?,”  Quinlan Lecture King’s College, London. 22 May 2002

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