Sixty years ago this week, Germany invaded Poland and set off a trip wire that plunged the world into chaos. World War II involved the largest armies over the most extensive territory mankind has ever seen.
Ever since it has served as a touchstone for judging war. So as the United States closes the book on the conflict in Kosovo - likely its last war of the 1900s - military ethicists are sorting through its moral lessons. Was it fought more cleanly than World War II? Has mankind progressed in the ethics of war this century?
At first glance, it may seem strange to think warfare contains any ethics. But the theory of a "just war" dates back at least 1,500 years and has undergone considerable refinement. In that framework, America's latest military ventures in Kosovo and Iraq present a mixed ethical picture. On the positive side, the US took historically unprecedented steps to minimize civilian casualties and the risks to its own troops. Military and civilian leaders routinely used the language of ethics to discuss their objectives. And the combatants generally stuck to the international laws and treaties that have sprung up during the century.
But in taking these steps, the US has also lowered its threshold for war. It has given itself new reasons to begin one. And the successes of its precision missiles also carry a dangerous illusion: that future wars can be fought with few American casualties.
"We've come to expect the immaculate," says Martin Cook, ethics professor at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "Precision-guided munitions make it very much easier to go to war than it ever has been historically."
"Standoff precision weapons give you the option to lower costs and risks," adds Albert Pierce, director of the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. But "you might be tempted to do things that you might otherwise not do."
The aim of a 'just war'
The just-war tradition, initiated by St. Augustine in the 4th century, aims to answer two questions: When is it justified to declare war? Once declared, what limits should be placed on combat? Although the language of just-war theory comes from the Christian tradition, many of the same doctrines can also be found in Islam and other religions, says John Kelsay, a religion professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
On the second question - conduct in war - the US and its allies have made important strides this century. Today's generals take far better care to protect their troops than the trench-warfare strategists of World War I. They don't use poison gas or biological weapons, thanks to various international treaties. And in both the Gulf War and the conflict in Kosovo, allied commanders went to unprecedented lengths to avoid inflicting casualties on civilians.
That care stands in sharp contrast to World War II, where strategists on both sides deliberately targeted and bombed civilians, culminating in the dropping of nuclear bombs on the population centers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"World War II was clearly a violation of the basic Christian and ethical principles of the use of force," says J. Bryan Hehir, professor of the practice in religion and society at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
According to just-war doctrine, soldiers must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants and not deliberately target the latter.
Technology has helped. So-called smart bombs or precision-guided munitions (PGMs) have given commanders far more leeway than they had with conventional bombs of World War II.
"The air campaign in Bosnia and Kosovo is light-years away from Dresden," says Fred Woerner, a retired commander in chief of the US Army's Southern Command and now a professor at Boston University. But it's difficult to compare the morality of actions in limited wars, such as Kosovo, with those in total wars, such as World War II, he adds.
And PGMs have created new moral dilemmas for the military. First, they're nowhere near as reliable as popularly believed. "The capability of a PGM to hit a target if everything goes right is remarkable if not phenomenal," says Tom Grassey, editor of the Naval War College Review, published in Newport, R.I. But with bad weather or less-than-optimal conditions, "you can get some pretty crazy bombing patterns. The bombs can go anywhere."
Pilots thus have an additional ethical judgment to make: not only where to release but whether to release their bombs at all. Just as important, commanders have to choose whether to target locations that serve both military and civilian functions.
In Iraq, some military facilities were so intertwined with vital civilian ones, "We chose not to attack those knowing full well we were increasing the risk to allied pilots over Baghdad," says Dr. Pierce of the US Naval Academy.
But in both the Gulf and Kosovo, the allies did bomb power stations and sewage plants that supplied military command centers and hospitals, neighborhoods, and schools.
Such attacks did affect civilians. If there was no electricity for, say, the water purification plant, then people's lives were put at higher risk, especially children and the elderly.
Military ethicists are still wrestling with these moral dilemmas. "The tradition of just war doesn't give you a lot of guidance on this," says Dr. Cook of the US Army War College.
A related challenge for political leaders: Is it ethical to insist on zero casualties for your own troops? For example: As long as allied pilots flew at 15,000 feet or above, there was little chance they would be shot down. But as Kosovo proved in a few instances, it also meant they put civilian lives in more danger.
"If the political directive is ... make every effort to minimize those casualties, it does put a military commander into an awkward position," says Mr. Grassey of the Naval War College Review. "You're supposed to accept a greater risk to your own troops in order to protect noncombatants on the enemy side. That's fundamental military ethics."
Meanwhile, the US and the world have found a new reason to go to war: human-rights violations within a country. In Somalia and certainly in Kosovo, outside powers intervened in the internal affairs of a nation because it was treating its citizens so badly. That represents a sharp break from the past, where for centuries nations were considered the sole masters of what happened within their borders.
More reasons for war?
Such signs do not bode well for a peaceful 21st century, several ethicists say. If the US has found more reasons for taking up arms and has the technology to dramatically limit losses of its own troops, the lure grows stronger to intervene militarily in a number of places around the world, they say.
Another inducement: There's no more superpower rivalry that threatens to escalate limited wars into global ones, so nations or even tribes are more likely to go to war, and great powers are more likely to intervene.
"I don't think there's more proclivity to engage in a Korea- or Vietnam-sized operation," says Mr. Woerner. But "there is a likelihood of a continued active use of military force." In the 21st century, "the rhythm will be increased: more conflict, more use of force."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society