Thursday, March 19, 2015

Hypocrisy, mercenaries, and Just War Theory

European nations and the United States share a common concern about their citizens going to the Middle East to fight for ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Previous Ethical Musings' posts have addressed the problem of ISIS (cf. What to do about ISIS and ISIS). Contrary to inflammatory rhetoric, the numbers of Westerners fighting for ISIS are relatively small and only a minority of those will want to engage in terrorism upon return to their native land.

Unfortunately, the parallel phenomenon of Westerners going to Iraq, Syria, or another place in the Middle East to fight against ISIS has received little notice. As in the case of those supporting ISIS, numbers are small. Many of them espouse a form of Christian fundamentalism; most have fought in the armed forces of the US or another nation in Iraq or Afghanistan. As with their counterparts who fight for ISIS, some small number of these individuals will engage in criminal behavior when they return to their native land.

Westerners fighting for or against ISIS are indicative of two basic, widely ignored problems, both of which are more troubling than the issues I've seen addressed.

First, these fighters, regardless of the side for which they fight and the rhetoric they use to justify their actions, are marginalized individuals who are misfits in a peaceful society. They reject the possibility of peaceful progress toward a more just world. Among those who are military veterans, many are adrenalin junkies who miss the thrill of action to which they became addicted in the military. In different eras, Western misfits have gone to Russia, China, Africa, and elsewhere and fought for causes they deemed important. Instead of reactively worrying about returnees' potential to cause problems, nation states should proactively work to integrate into the economic and political mainstream those who inhabit the margins.

Second and more broadly, the trickle of mercenaries represents an erosion of the norm, supported by the Just War tradition and international law, that only nation states wage war. When an individual goes abroad to fight other than as part of that the armed forces of her/his native state, then that individual takes upon himself the right to make war and abrogates the larger community's responsibility for waging war.

When government privatizes its coercive power (e.g., by contracting with private companies to operate prisons or authorizing private security guards to arrest people and to use deadly force), government tacitly endorses the principle that it should not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion. Mercenaries represent a step further down a slippery slope that culminates in a society in which might makes right and some will try to grab as much power as they can.


Anonymous said...

A difficult topic to have a good answer. Was it right for us, as a nation,to invade other countries we disagree with? How did we justify going after Noriega in Panama? There was no act of war to make us go to
war with the Panamanians. Are individual actions different from a
country's actions when there is no valid reason? Were the two wars we have been involved with just a mercenary war as the private contractors outnumbered the military. The military benefits to those in a war zone should also designate them as mercenaries as many go there for the benefits they receive knowing the likelihood of being in a firefight is small. Is the price of war worth the results over the long run? Why do people not stand up for their families, homes, towns and countries when being invaded by outsiders? No one in the history of the world ever beat a guerrilla type war unless the people resist. It will be generations before many of these war torn nations are back to anything resembling normal.
My biggest question is why not target those who want war and leave the common man alone? With all our technology can we not eventually find the leaders and eliminate them?

George Clifford said...

Your comment raises several points. First, disagreeing with another nation, per se, is insufficient cause for waging war. Just War Theory emphasizes that war is just only in defense of people or territory. Noriega threatened neither. He sold narcotics, but eliminating one vendor simply shifts demand in another direction. If that were not true, the US would long ago have won its war against drugs. Second, mercenaries by definition are individuals who fight for pay for another country. The issue of why members of a nation's armed forces serve is a separate and, as you note, complex question. Third, research on counterterrorism tactics underscores the futility of a decapitation strategy, i.e., killing the leaders may temporarily retard a group's ability to fight but will not end the conflict because new leaders inevitably emerge who, sometimes, are more competent than the leaders they replaced.