The Ethics of War

In 1898 W.V. Herbert said: ‘All said and done, “Win your war” is the most  important, and it is the most primitive, maxim of the science of strategy – that is drive your opponent into such a corner that he is content to have the terms of peace dictated to him. The rest comes a long way after’.  

Should ethics be put aside in order to win a war, or should ethics take the fore during conflicts?


“War is cruelty and you cannot refine it”

General William Tecumseh Sherman

Interning civilians in concentration camps whilst operating a scorched earth policy helped British forces win the Second Anglo-Boer War, (1899-1902). Ignoring the collateral damage to the civilians below, the systematic destruction of German and Japanese cities by allied bombers helped to bring about the collapse of these regimes, whilst two atomic bombs dropped on Japan finally brought an end to the horror of World War Two, (WW2).

Today these examples seem unethical, but should ethics be a consideration when fighting a war; or as W.V. Herbert said, “Winning your war is most important. The rest comes a long way after”

Using examples from the American Civil War, (ACW), to the Malayan Emergency, this essay will demonstrate that Herbert’s Bellum Romanum contention is supported by the history of warfare; with the caveat that this applies only to total, and not limited wars.  The essay will argue that during total war, non-combatant civilians become legitimate targets, and that often a dirty hands decision has to be made; one in which transgressions committed in the light of extraordinary circumstances would normally be deemed unethical. Strategic aerial bombing will be cited as an example in order to substantiate the author’s argument. The author will also examine how the treatment of Boer civilians enabled the British to win the Second Boer War; drawing parallels with General Sherman’s actions throughout his ‘march to the sea campaign’, during the American Civil War, (ACW).  Finally, the author will bring together their argument in the conclusion.

‘Thou shalt not kill’ is one of the tenets upon which the Christian faith is based; but it is at odds with the act of war.  As industrialised warfare increased the destruction inflicted, treaties were established to both determine what is a ‘just’, and thus a legal war, jus ad bellum, and a moral code by which wars should be conducted; jus in bello. However, when former Turkish Army Captain, W.V. Herbert spoke at the United Services Institute in 1898, he stated that, “Winning your war is the most important.  You should drive your opponent into such a corner that he is content to have the terms of peace dictated to him. The rest comes a long way after”.  The author interprets this as Herbert giving his blessing to use any and all means to win a war, regardless of any consideration of jus in bello. This being the core of the German term kriegsraison; a doctrine that justifies reducing the risks of losing a war by whatever means.

However, the author argues that the history of warfare only supports Herbert’s contention in total wars, or wars of national survival; the supreme emergency. The reason for this being that, if  a war of national survival is lost, that country becomes at the mercy of an enemy who may impose an unethical peace upon the defeated population; as was the case during the Sino-Japanese war, (1937-1945), and that of mainland Europe during the Nazi occupation, (1939-45). In support of this argument; in more recent times, generals fighting limited wars have sought to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the local population, in contradiction to Herbert’s contentious speech. General Templer’s approach to the Malayan Emergency, (1948-1960), being one such example; him being oft quoted as saying that, ‘the shooting side of the war is only a quarter, and the rest lies in getting the people of the country behind us’.

Thus, when examining the Second Boer War, (1899-1902), the author argues that it was only jus ad bellum on the Boer side; the Boers having been presented with their own supreme emergency. They were fighting the imperialist British invader, who, having restored the Transvaal’s independence at the London Convention in 1884, wished to return the state to the British Empire once gold had been discovered there in 1886.  As such, the Boers initiated Herbert’s contentious speech, when, upon the realisation that they could not win a conventional war, they began guerrilla operations against the British. However this decision did not come lightly, the Boers facing a ‘Dirty Hands’ scenario; one in which all of their options were unpalatable. One in which transgressions committed in the light of extraordinary circumstances would normally be deemed unethical. Aware of what a guerrilla war would mean for Boer civilians, they continued their conventional war much longer than they should have, in an attempt to avoid involving civilians in a savage guerrilla war.

Boer wives, still living on their farms thus became crucial in supporting the fighters once the war became asymmetric; so from July 1900 the families of Boers who refused to surrender were deported to refugee camps, and a scorched earth policy was implemented to punish the guerrillas, and to make asymmetric warfare in the arid countryside impossible.  During the implementation of this policy over 30,000 Boer farms were burned by the British; initially leaving Boer women and children exposed and homeless.  According to Pakenham, it was the suffering of their families, left to fend for themselves on the desolated farms, that demoralised the Boers and encouraged final surrender.

In parallel with this, the British initiated refugee camps, for the families of captured Boers, in order to provide safety from retaliation.  Eventually renamed concentration camps, these were administered by the army. Conditions in the camps started off bad, and worsened once Kitchener used the internment of Boer civilians as a cheap shortcut to ending the war; thus greatly increasing the camps’ population.  Administration of the camps bored Kitchener, leading to a high mortality rate in the camps; generally from easily preventable illnesses. Demonstrating the callous attitude towards the Boers by the British, Lord Milner wrote in a telegraph dated November 20th  1901, ‘no doubt the aggregation of large numbers of people, including thousands of young children, in hastily-formed (sic) camps is favourable to the spread of infectious diseases.’

In December 1900, although being refused access to camps in the north by Kitchener, Emily Hobhouse visited some of the camps and presented a report that caused shockwaves back in Britain when it was released. This led to the all-woman Fawcett Commission recommending many practical improvements be made to the camps, drastically reducing the mortality rate of the (approximately) 154,000 inmates, (89,910 at the time of Hobhouse’s report).

Unlike the Nazis concentration camps, which were not a war winning policy, the author believes that Kitchener was not guilty of intentional genocide at his concentration camps. He was simply blasé as to the welfare of the refugees, despite having overall responsibility for their wellbeing. Kitchener had ignored the very tenet of non-combatant immunity, so enshrined in the laws of war since medieval times. He had made war using women and children as weapons, thus using ‘any, and all methods to win the war, driving his opponent into such a corner that the Boers were content to have the terms of peace dictated to them’ in May 1902. Kitchener had taken a utilitarian approach to his war; where the means by which he had brought it to an end mattered not. Just four years after Herbert had made his speech, Kitchener had carried it out to the letter.

Pre-empting Herbert’s speech by three decades, whilst supporting its contention, the actions of General William Tecumseh Sherman during the ACW mirrored Kitchener’s scorched earth policy; when following a long siege, Atlanta, the second most important city in the Confederacy, fell to Sherman’s army on September 1st 1864. Rather than divide his force defending it, Sherman simply evacuated the civilian population, destroyed everything of military value, including railroads and buildings, and then burnt the city to the ground before carrying on his ‘march to the sea’. During this campaign, Sherman confiscated and destroyed everything that could be of use to the Confederates. Indeed, his adversary in the battle for Atlanta, General Hood is quoted as saying that, “this transcends all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war.” Sherman, however believed that war is the crime of those who begin it, and that soldiers who resist this aggression cannot be blamed for anything that they do to bring victory closer. The author believes that during the recovery from his breakdown, Sherman formed the opinion that the more violent and destructive a war was, the sooner it would end; thus justifying his actions in 1864. Sherman implemented the writings of Clausewitz when he wrote, ‘the ruthless user of force who shrinks from no amount of bloodshed must gain an advantage if his opponent does not do the same.’ Once more the history of warfare supported Herbert’s contention.                                                                

So; with regards to Herbert’s statement. So; should we ignore non-combatant immunity in order to win a war? 

Micheal Walzer states that, the second convention of war is that non-combatants cannot be attacked at any time, whilst discussing the military necessity of doing so; the ‘double effect’.  Based on its ‘good’ and ‘evil’ effects, this notion reconciles the absolute prohibition of attacking non-combatants with the legitimate conduct of military activity. In essence, it is acceptable to harm non-combatants dependant on four criteria; the most significant one in the author’s opinion, being that ‘the good effect is sufficiently good to compensate for allowing the evil effect’.  That Kitchener’s scorched earth policy and concentration camps ended his war could be seen as a good effect, and in line with Herbert’s contention. That non-combatant deaths occurred in the camps was very much an evil effect.

Regarding non-combatant immunity, Walzer points out that, in an age of modern warfare vast numbers of factory workers must be mobilised before an army can be fielded; and once deployed, these armies are dependent on the goods produced. Walzer argues that munitions workers could be deemed legitimate targets, but civilians not engaged in this type of work should remain immune from the dangers of war. The author does not concur with this argument; because, using Herbert’s contention that you should ‘win your war first’, civilians too can be armed. Such was the case when German civilians joined the Volkssturm from October 1944 onwards, and children of the Hitler Youth staffed anti-aircraft guns, thus making non-combatants part of the war machinery. Using the realist position, where the reality of the situation can sweep aside both utilitarian and deontological arguments, the author argues that it was impossible during WW2 to segregate non-combatants from combatants when bombing from high altitude. Dresden, itself now a metonym for area bombing,  being a case in point; once again proving that history supports Herbert’s contention.

Germany engaged in its doctrine of kriegsraison when it introduced area bombing with the Zeppelin raids of 1915, and resumed this two years later with the Gotha raids. Germany’s bombing failed to achieve its aim of breaking the British will to fight, but did once again prove that history supported Herbert’s contention. Germany once again engaged in aerial bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War, bombing Guernica on a market day when the town would be at its busiest. However, this was not aimed at winning the current war, it was an experiment, and thus in the author’s opinion was immoral and in breach of jus in bello. This experiment delivered a flawed result, persuading Germany to invest in tactical rather than strategic bombing; the allies proving this when their strategic bomber offensives decimated Germany and Japan. 

At the time, the public revulsion to this bombing was comparable to that attributed to the raid on Dresden today. London too suffered eleven weeks of indiscriminate German aerial bombardment during the Blitz, whilst in 1942, Exeter, York, Norwich, Canterbury and Bath were all bombed simply because they were listed in the Baedeker travel guides. In Exeter, the closest city to the author’s hometown, 480 homes were demolished, with over 3700 being made uninhabitable. Thus it was, that from 1943 the allies began a policy of the systematic aerial destruction of German cities. A memorandum by the First Sea Lord, Dudley Pound, dated 16th  June, 1942 stated that, ‘continuous attacks at the greatest possible strength” (sic) will seriously undermine during the coming months the power of Germany to wage war at maximum intensity.’  Thus, thegoodof defeating the Nazi regime was deemed to far outweigh the evil of inflicting civilian casualties. Indeed; the tu quoque, or ‘you did it too’ argument that is often cited in defence of the allied bombing policy, in the author’s opinion is all that is needed by way of justification. 

On balance, the author argues that, regarding the double effect as applied to strategic aerial bombing, the good of ending the war far outweighed the evil needed to achieve this; the history of warfare once more supporting Herbert’s contention.

Bloxham explains this double effect, by stating  that the chief criterion for a bombing attack must be the relationship between the military advantage that could be expected, and the collateral damage cost of the attack. This concurs with the instruction that Churchill, a prime proponent of the area bombing strategy, gave to Air Chief Marshall Tedder regarding the bombing plan for Operation OVERLORD, that targets ‘should be assigned on a basis of 60% being the damage inflicted and 40% on the extent of civilian casualties.’ Churchill also suggested that the total number of civilians to lose their lives during the pre-invasion bombing for Operation OVERLORD be no more than 10,000; a massive number of deaths; but one that had been considerably downsized from initial estimates of between 80,000 and 160,000 casualties with, 16,000 civilians killed, quoted in a Confidential Annex dated 27th April 1944. This figure pales into insignificance when compared to the estimated 300,000 Germans killed, and 780,000 seriously injured, most of them civilians during the bombing offensive over Germany.  Sir Arthur Harris is often accused by historians of being a war criminal, primarily for targeting centres of civilian population; essentially making non-combatants targets.  However, as Gray states, until 1943, strategic aerial bombing was the only feasible method by which Britain could strike back at Germany.  With the double effect in mind, the author agrees in favour of this strategy, and supports Harris when he is quoted as saying to an American colleague, “You destroy a factory and it is made operational again in six weeks. I kill the workforce and it takes twenty-one years to provide new ones.” Harris had supported Herbert`s contention.

In retaliation for the deteriorating military situation and the decimation of German cities by allied strategic bombing, Germany  initiated its policy of kriegsraison  when it used ‘Vengeance Weapons’, or Vergeltungswaffen; the most widely known being the V1 ‘flying bomb’ and V2 ballistic missile. These were indiscriminate weapons that targeted civilians and sought to instil terror in the population, being in direct contravention to the 1923 Hague Rules of Aerial Warfare, (to which the main proponents of aerial bombing did not sign). Ignoring the concept of non-combatant immunity, Germany predominantly fired these weapons at London, (many falling around south-east England), rather than any specific military target.  According to a War Cabinet Briefing, held on  28th August 1944, up until that date 44,892 casualties had been caused by the flying bombs, with 5,753 fatalities.

Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffens were the pinnacle of aerial bombing technology in the European war; however, the Americans trumped this in the Pacific campaign with the atomic bomb,  thus plunging the world into the Nuclear Age and the prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction,( M.A.D.).

In the author’s opinion, the circumstances in which atomic bombs were dropped on Japan are questionable; these being, the question as to whether they were actually needed, and the unknown effects of their fallout.  For example, in 1946, the US Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that it was not necessary to drop the atomic bombs on Japan in order to secure its surrender; many senior military figures having predicted that Japan would have surrendered by November 1945 regardless of the attacks. Regarding the fallout, a report dated May 1956, stated that, ‘given a significant number of atomic bombs dropped, no part of the world would escape biologically significant degrees of exposure’.

However, the decision to drop ‘The Bomb’ presented the allies with a political and military dirty hands scenario.

In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the unpalatable choices for the allies were championed by President Truman, who, with estimates of half a million American deaths expected during an invasion of Japan, wanted to keep American casualties to a minimum. Truman believed, rightly in the author’s opinion, that, ‘were there to be more victims in the war, better they be the enemies; as they had after all started it.’ Truman was also under political pressure by the cooling off of relations with the Russians and so he wanted to end the war through an American action rather than through the Russian intervention of entering the Pacific War.  Truman’s scientists were also keen to see the military effects of their creations.

On 15 August 1945, less than a week after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, the Japanese Emperor broadcast to his people that Japan was going to surrender, stating that, ‘The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb that could result in the obliteration of the Japanese nation.’ The atomic bombing of Japan brought to an end the Second World War. Herbert’s argument for bellum romanum had been put into practice.  Truman had made his dirty hands decision, and driven ‘his opponent into such a corner that he was content to have the terms of peace dictated to him’; the history of warfare once more having supported Herbert’s contention.

Thus, the author argues that when applied to strategic aerial bombing, since its inception,  the history of warfare has supported Herbert’s contention, that winning your war is the most important consideration. It was a utilitarian answer to the wicked problem of winning the war against the axis forces; and the means by which this was achieved mattered not; the author arguing that deontology, where the means are more important than the end, has no place in total war.

So; in conclusion, the author has argued that the period between the ACW and the Malayan Emergency supports Herbert’s contention, that winning your war is of the utmost importance, and not ethics; but only in total war scenarios. Limited wars tending to be fought with more consideration of jus in bello.

The author has deliberated as to whether the history of warfare supports or denounces Herbert’s contention; considering the principles of jus ad bellum, (a just war), and jus in bello, (the moral code by which wars should be conducted) throughout. The author would have liked to have discussed siege warfare, submarine warfare and immoral weapons, such as gas in defence of their argument that the history of warfare supports Herbert’s contention, but the constrained word count dictated otherwise.

In defence of their argument that the history of warfare supports Herbert’s contention, the author has majored on Kitchener’s utilitarian approach to winning the Second Boer War; citing Kitchener’s concentration camps and scorched earth policy, whilst demonstrating how these helped Britain to win this war, albeit at a moral cost that would linger. This example was paralleled with General Sherman’s burning of Atlanta and his ‘march to the sea’ campaign during the American Civil War.

The author argued in favour of strategic aerial bombing, stating that, in today`s era of detached warfare, practicalities dictate the removal of non-combatant immunity. They quoted Bloxham, when he wrote that the chief criterion for a bombing attack must be the relationship between the military advantage that could be expected and the collateral damage cost of the attack. This argument was emphasised using one of several pieces of primary material used throughout this essay, sourced at the National Archives, Kew.

The author argued in favour of the principle of the double effect, where the good (military) effects outweigh the evil effect of harming non-combatants, citing the tu quoque, or the ‘you did it too’ argument.  Discussing the utilitarian versus deontology views; in regards to the allied aerial bombing of Germany and Japan that culminated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the author argued that there is no place for deontology in total war, and that this needs to be replaced by a dirty hands decision; a decision that has to be made when all the options are unpalatable, because desperate times call for desperate measures.

Thus; quoting Bloxham, ‘The fact that the allies (in the Second World War), sometimes committed what were arguably war crimes under particular circumstances, does not make the war effort itself criminal’. Often these would have been utilitarian decisions forcing adherence to Herbert’s ideas of a half-century before; that one must win your war first, and drive your opponent into such a corner that they are content to have the terms of peace dictated to him. The rest comes a long way after.

Essentially; all is fair in love and war.