Archive for the Just War Category

What If There Is No Ethical Way to Act in Syria Now?

Posted in Just War on 15 April 2018 by Daryl Densford

Moral philosophers around the world confess they’re at a loss.

by Sigal Samuel, April 13, 2018, The Atlantic website

“For seven years now, America has been struggling to understand its moral responsibility in Syria. For every urgent argument to intervene against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop the mass killing of civilians, there were ready responses about the risks of causing more destruction than could be averted, or even escalating to a major war with other powers in Syria. In the end, American intervention there has been tailored mostly to a narrow perception of American interests in stopping the threat of terror. But the fundamental questions are still unresolved: What exactly was the moral course of action in Syria? And more urgently, what—if any—is the moral course of action now?”

Continue reading this compelling article at The Atlantic website

Why is the Catholic Church Moving Away from Just War Theory?

Posted in Just War on 13 April 2016 by Daryl Densford

Just War and Ethics isn’t only in the domain of religion, but religion certainly has influenced the development of morality, values, ethics and Just War in the United States and continue to do so. Movement in thought on these topics by as large of a denomination as the Roman Catholic Church can influence perceptions on Just War thought worldwide so is pertinent to both people of religion and those who are non-religious but are interested in Just War.

Following is an article by Terrence Rynne from The National Catholic Reporter which reports on the shifting tide of Just War thought within the Catholic Church:


The Catholic church’s ongoing move away from the just war theory as “settled teaching” to a more expansive call to proactive peacemaking has been made clear in a global conference scheduled for April 11-13 in Rome.Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International, the conference, “Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence,” is gathering educators and activists from all over the world, particularly from the global South. The precise purpose of the conference is to more fully develop a vision of nonviolence and just peace for the Catholic church.

Five reasons underlie this pivot to a positive vision of peace and a point of view that goes well beyond the just war theory:

  • Modern wars have made the just war theory obsolete;
  • The rise of a Christology “from below”;
  • A clearer understanding of how the New Testament relates to contemporary problems;
  • A renewed appreciation of the way the early church practiced Jesus’ teachings on peace;
  • The compelling, thrilling saga of nonviolent action over the 60 years since Gandhi.


Continue reading about 1900 more words at The National Catholic Reporter website…



Truman’s Decision to Use the Atom Bomb

Posted in Ethics for Leaders, Just War, Warrior Ethics with tags , , , , , , , on 9 August 2015 by Daryl Densford

August 6th and 9th marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ultimately brought an end to the war in the Pacific. An ongoing debate regarding President Truman’s decision to use the atom bomb against Japan continues today. Much of the fodder for the debate uses inaccurate history and distorted views of the options President Truman had available to him.

Truman’s decision is wrapped up in Just War Doctrine and Military Ethics so an understanding of what went into his decision is beneficial to military officers studying those disciplines and wanting to lead ethically while making moral decisions.

Below is a link to a video produced by Prager University which features Father Wilson Miscamble, professor of history at Notre Dame University. In this 5 minute video, Father Miscamble offers an historical and ethical view of the use of the atom bomb to end the war with Japan, giving insight into President Truman’s decision.


Atom Bomb




Why Distinguishing a Moral Injury from PTSD is Important

Posted in Just War, Moral Injury with tags , , on 12 March 2015 by Daryl Densford

A recent opinion piece by Thomas Gibbons-Neff in the Washington Post speaks to the need of recognizing Moral Injury as a condition many vets suffer with as well as a condition that is separate from PTSD. Gibbons-Neff provides a good definition of Moral Injury as well as examples of situations that can cause it and the results of its presence.

It seems that many who speak of moral injury consider it a reaction to having to do something that is morally wrong. I don’t completely agree with this definition. There can be conditions, such as war, when acts that would normally be immoral become moral. This goes into the issue of Just War and whether killing can ever be just. But if one accepts the premise of just war, it follows that killing in a just cause (if done within applicable laws, regulations, rules, treaties and agreements) is not immoral but should rather be considered a moral act.

Moral Injury does not only occur when a Soldier does what is immoral but also when a Soldier does something contrary to what is normally moral, like killing. Since a human taking the life of another human isn’t normal and is usually a punishable act of immorality, when a Soldier kills, even under just and legal circumstances, it can cause a moral injury that can be attributed to that act of killing.

In his article, Gibbons-Neff accounts for moral injury as a result of a Soldier “making the wrong decision” of killing, instead of killing being the right decision in certain circumtances, such as in combat when it is just and legal. However, being a morally ambiguous decision, while it shouldn’t have guilt attached, still produces moral injury because it normally isn’t a moral act, being contrary to natural human behavior toward other humans.

Following is the article by Gibbons-Neff as posted on the Washington Post website. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on his approach to, and assessment of, moral injury as well as your experiences with it.

Haunted by Their Decisions in War

March 6. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a senior at Georgetown University, was a 2014 Washington Post summer intern. He served as a rifleman in the 1st battalion, 6th Marines in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2010.

Even on the short overnight ops, sometimes we talked about things we knew we’d carry home. On a cold night in March 2010, Jeff brought up the kid he’d shot a month earlier, when the battle for the Afghan city of Marjah was hot and there was no shortage of 15-year-olds picking up Kalashnikovs off the ground. Jeff had killed one of them with four shots from a heavy-caliber semi-auto that made a soft thud when the bolt released. The kid had a rifle, and even kids with rifles can kill Marines, Jeff had figured.

A few weeks later, we were on the side of the road watching for Taliban fighters digging bombs into the ground, and Jeff was telling me about it. He described the way the kid fell and how he wasn’t sure he’d done the right thing.

That was five years ago. Jeff doesn’t bring up that story anymore. I know he thinks about it, though, because a couple of years back he put a Remington 700 short action in his mouth and didn’t pull the trigger. Rather than remaining in the flooded poppy fields of Afghanistan, the story of the kid Jeff shot stuck with him. It grew and matured just as Jeff had, until one day Jeff sat on his bed with a loaded rifle across his lap, staring at a part of his life he could no longer understand.

“I’m not crazy,” he told me, and I knew he wasn’t. Ten years ago we would have just called it post-traumatic stress disorder. Sixty years ago, it would have been combat fatigue. And in the shell-raked trenches of the Western Front, it would have been shell shock. But Jeff’s dead kid was none of those things. Jeff’s weight was something else — a moral injury.

Moral injury is a nebulous term that few use seriously because it doesn’t read well on Veterans Affairs claims. It’s a new term but not a new concept. Moral injury is as timeless as war — going back to when Ajax thrust himself upon his sword on the shores of Troy. Unlike post-traumatic stress, which is a result of a fear-conditioned response, moral injury is a feeling of existential disorientation that manifests as intense guilt.

David Wood, a Huffington Post reporter, describes moral injury as “the pain that results from damage to a person’s moral foundation.” In her forthcoming book “Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers,” Georgetown University’s Nancy Sherman thinks of moral injuries as a painful “transgression” or as an erosion of “a sense of goodness and humanity.” Moral injuries, she says, have to do with failing to hold yourself or others to account. For some, it’s realizing that what you choose to do or not do in combat doesn’t align with the person your parents raised. The person who volunteers at rescue shelters and takes his grandmother out to lunch on her birthday doesn’t seem like the same person who once reveled in the shock waves of 500-pound bombs.

Moral injury is discussed in academia but is rarely talked about — and is often misunderstood — among those who suffer from it. It isn’t really a part of the “returning veteran” lexicon; instead, veterans use PTSD as a convenient catchall. Yet there is a danger in conflating post-traumatic stress and moral injury. While in many cases they can overlap, differentiating the two allows the returning veteran to understand not only the trauma he or she experienced but also the damage left by the decisions made in war.

Moral injury makes its mark by creating a flawed sense of who you were when you were in harm’s way. This is the second self. Deployed veterans, morally injured or not, have this second self formed in war — one who can tell incoming from outgoing artillery and whose first reaction to an arterial bleed is to kneel into their best friend’s pressure point.

Back in civilian life, that second self must merge with the present self — the person who wanders the aisles at Safeway and wakes up to the soft bleat of an iPhone alarm. Those months, or even years, of transition are wrought with moments that confuse the two selves. Strange moments in movie theaters when folded American flags make your breath come short and hot; or on the Fourth of July, when the muted pop of bottle rockets induces a nostalgia you can’t explain. Even the smell of burning trash reminds you of a place you’d secretly rather be.

Time passes, and most of us find a way to remember the old self. The self that was younger and faster and damn good-looking under that half-cocked helmet. Those memories are put in boxes or hard-drive folders labeled “Spring Break Afghanistan.” Your war stories become well-rehearsed scripts, and even your traumas, those hellacious days when you bore witness to the young and the dead, are scrubbed and polished and placed in a mental vault that you know how to open — or keep shut.

But moral injury makes it hard to transition from memory to the present; it confuses the old self and the new. If the injury is severe enough, it can be almost impossible to see yourself in the present. Instead, you see the person who was capable of making the wrong decision when, years later, you know you could have made a different one.

My friend Jeff remembers his old self by wearing around his neck the bullet he almost used to end his life. It is a reminder, he says, of the moment he could no longer bear the pain of what he had done that day in 2010 — and what he had to do to move on. After he didn’t pull that trigger, he decided to live — and to share his experience with me and other Marines he had served with. In many ways, Jeff transfused his moral injury into the bullet. He turned the emotional damage into a physical object — a reminder of when he strayed from his values — that he could balance in his palm and run his fingers over.

As a nation, we have spent the past 14 years at war. Men and women have returned. Some have returned broken. It is our job, as a country, to understand what broken means. We have reached the point where PTSD is bandied about as a diagnosis, a fallback and a lens through which to consider, and sometimes wrongly label, those troubled by our conflicts. But what happens when the drugs we prescribe or the approaches we take are misguided? What happens when we treat for the wrong injury?

Recognizing moral injury isn’t so much about how the country understands its veterans; rather it is about how veterans understand themselves. Moral injury usually stems from a precise moment in a service member’s experience and is not an abstract issue, nor another name for PTSD. “Moral injury is so personal in so many ways,” says Molly Boehm, a former case manager for recovering Marines and soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “It’s about reconciling that event” that sticks with you, she says. “And it’s also about reconnecting with a moral community, feeling connected to your fellow man.”

While treatment for moral injury — such as group therapy — sometimes overlaps with treatment for PTSD, it usually differs in the sense that the morally injured need to have an ethical dialogue as well.

To understand moral injury and address its effects, we need to recognize that it exists. If we don’t, if we continue to categorize moral injury under the same umbrella we have for centuries, those who have borne our wars will have to carry their own wounded. Those faceless few with draped arms over slouched shoulders will still be trudging across the terrain of battles fought long ago.


———-End of article———-




The above referenced article first appeared on the Washington Post website. It was republished on the Stars and Stripes website under the title, “Why distinguishing a moral injury from PTSD is important.”



Just War and Syria

Posted in Just War with tags , , , , , , on 3 September 2013 by Daryl Densford

by Chaplain (MAJ) Daryl Densford, Ethics instructor at the U.S. Army Military Police School, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri

At the time of this writing, the conflict in Syria is dominating the news. Flowing from the “Arab Spring” where Libya, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries saw a groundswell of popular support for regime change, Syria’s people rose up to also seek reforms from their government. While many of the combatants currently fighting the Assad regime increasingly are identifying with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, this does not provide justification for the Syrian government to not abide by Just War doctrine. Neither does it relieve the international community from acting to protect innocent Syrian civilians as Just War doctrine might allow.

In this article, I will briefly compare the Syrian governments actions to Just War doctrine, showing where it strays from accepted principles of war.  I will also show how the United Kingdom has employed Just War doctrine to justify their use of force against the Syrian government and Assad regime.

Justice toward War

In discussing the Syrian governments military response to the popular uprising in Syria, there is much disagreement as to whether military action by government troops is justified. Some may suggest that the Syrian people are simply seeking basic rights and freedoms which should be available to citizens of any country so therefore, are justified in “rebelling” against their government removing the justification for government forces to respond.  On the other hand, any government has the responsibility and right to defend itself and ensure the safety of its citizens.  If the uprising is viewed as an attack against the people of Syria, the government is then obligated to launch a defense. Additionally, and clearly, any government has the right and responsibility to defend its borders from terrorists and outside forces. It is this justification that the Assad regime has used for their military operations, claiming that the combatants battling the government are terrorists and forces from outside of Syria seeking to destabilize the Syrian government.

If we can categorize the Syrian government’s military response as just is a matter of debate. Whether engaging the rebels militarily is seen as abiding by Justice toward War doctrine or not, the Assad regime is still responsable to prosecute its war on Just War principles. It is to this Justice in War that I now turn.

Not Consent to Do Evil

According to the Voice of America website, “U.N. investigators say Assad’s forces have carried out war crimes including unlawful killing, torture, sexual violence, indiscriminate attacks and pillaging in what appears to be a state-directed policy.”[1] If proven true, the Syrian military would be guilty of violating the Just War principle that states that war is not a consent to do evil. While realists may assert that “all if fair in war,” allowing any use of force or application of evil to bring a speedy end to the conflict, Just War doctrine does not permit it. Military forces are not permitted to perform atrocities against combatants or civilians that our outside of normal war fighting tactics. Torture and sexual assaults certainly fall outside of this standard.


Identifying who are the combatants and who are civilians are often difficult in this type of conflict, however the government is obligated to proceed with due diligence to differentiate between the two. Discrimination is a major component of Just War doctrine.  Military forces are obligated to make every effort to protect and not engage innocent civilians. By most Western reports, the Syrian government has not abided by this principle by being indiscriminate in their attacks and pillaging of civilian material. Artillery salvos into populated city centers are sure to inflict many civilian casualties without a reasonable military purpose. The use of chemical weapons in population centers also has no way of discriminating between civilians and combatants, thus violating the doctrine of discrimination.


United Kingdoms Justification for a Military Response

On 29 August 2013 the British government their legal position on possible military responses to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. This document, Chemical Weapon Use by Syrian Regime – UK Government Legal Position, “…sets out the UK Government’s position regarding the legality of military action in Syria following the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Damascus on 21 August 2013″[2].

The position of the United Kingdom is that Syria’s use of chemical weapons “amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity” by violating “the customary international law prohibition on [the] use of chemical weapons.” They maintain, however, that the previous use of chemical weapons is not their legal basis for intervention but rather, “humanitarian intervention [with the] aim [being] to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.” Over the course of the internal conflicts in Syria and with the resolutions being pursued in the United Nations Security Council, the United Kingdom is has sought to exhaust all other reasonable means to protect the innocent civilians of Syria, “averting a humanitarian catastrophe” [2].

Considering the West’s decision to take military action, using the United Kingdom’s legal position as its foundation, I will go through the five basic elements of Justice toward War and weigh the justifications given.

Proper Authority

The first principle to consider in Justice toward War is whether the wager of war has the authority to do so.  No individual can just decide to declare war.  War must be waged by a legitimate government based on their laws and regulations.  Considering the West, recognized countries can wage war or execute military action when determined to be justified and a reasonable course of action when they follow their country’s procedures.  For the United States, the President can authorized certain and limited military action, while it takes an act of Congress to actually declare war.

Just Cause

The second principle in Justice toward War is whether the reason for waging war is just.  Many have argued for decades that the West’s involvement in the Middle East has always been over oil and that any military involvement in that region is just to protect our oil interests in the region. While national interests do come into play in the political and military consideration of the use of force, unless citizens or property of that country is at risk, national interests alone should not be considered the just cause to go to war.

In the case of Syria, the use of chemical weapons against their own citizens and prevention of this recurring is the cause stated for the West’s consideration of using force. Since chemical weapons are disproportionate, inhumane and indiscriminate, they are not recognized as being a proper weapon in prosecuting a just war, therefore are in violation of accepted Just War principles and international law making their use by the Syrian government and the potential for their future use, a just cause for taking military action against them.

Right Intention

The criterion of right intention should produce regret when war is embarked upon.  Nobody should want to go to war, but rather reluctantly agrees to do so to bring about peace or a greater good than the resultant harm.  Considering the situation in Syria, the stated intention is to prevent future use of chemical attacks against Syria’s own people.  Assuming the effectiveness of military action, to prevent the greater harm of chemical weapons usage outweighs the harm that would come by using force against the Syrian government.  Thus the intention of preventing chemical attacks against Syrian citizens can be said to be a right intention.

Last Resort

While some will argue that you could always do more to avoid war, sometimes military force becomes necessary. However, the use of diplomacy, sanctions, embargoes and appealing to the United Nations are all measures that should be exhausted before committing to war. It is not often that what works in one situation will work the same in another.  Sometimes, diplomacy fails when other times it succeeds.  Sometimes sanctions and embargoes are effective while other times they don’t seem to make an impact.  Some situations require quicker action and leaves little time for non-military options to be exhausted.  All of these things must be taken into consideration when contemplating the use of force, and even when a decision is reached there will be much disagreement.  Nevertheless, if war is determined to be the last resort, it must eventually be executed.

For the Syrian situation, it appears that time is of the essence.  Again, many will argue that there are a number of other options, but time with the Syrian governments willingness to use chemical weapons and the availability of them, a decision to use force sooner rather than later may be the most ethical decision to make.

Reasonable Hope of Success

Before a nation engages another with military force, they must ensure that there is a reasonable hope that they will be victorious or at least accomplish the purpose of engaging in war.  If a commander sends his/her troops into battle knowing that they can not possibly win, he has violated this criterion of Just War. There is little doubt that the West holds superior military might to the Syrian government and any regimes that may ally with them, so this criterion is met in the situation with Syria, at least on the surface. To a lesser degree, the West also needs to consider the ramifications of military action against Syria, such as responses -both conventional and terror- by Syria, its allies and  Islamic extremists. The success of  the military action to accomplish its purpose must  be weighed against the consequences, intended and unintended, of that action.  Many of these consequences are largely an unknown, but at least reasonable doubt should be satisfied.


In this article I have considered the Just War criteria for military action in Syria. While it can be asserted that miliary action in this situation could be defended as just the political, social and economic considerations could weigh heavily against military action. Public opinion, both in the West and the Middle East, should also be considered and could have an impact on any decision to go to war.

To say the deliberations concerning taking military action is complex is an understatement. At the same time, those at the highest levels of the government have more information about this situation than most of the public is privy to.  At the end of the day, the military is ultimately controlled by the civilians who make these decisions and will follow orders.  The use of force is never longed for, but when properly engaged in can be an effective means to bring about peace.


[1], accessed 29 August 2013.