West Point holds 2021 Conference on the Ethics of War and Peace

By Jorge Garcia PV Staff Writer - October 28, 2021
Victor Tadros, a professor of Criminal Law and Legal Theory at the University of Warwick, focused, during his presentation, on a comparison between using resources to prevent terrorism and using resources to achieve other goals, among other topics he spoke on, during the 2021 Conference on the Ethics of War and Peace Oct. 13-15 at the U.S. Military Academy. (Photo by Jorge Garcia/PV)

On Sept. 11, 2001, Americans observed as two planes crashed through the north and south towers at the World Trade Center, forever impacting life in the United States.

After the attack, at around 8:30 p.m., former President George W. Bush took the podium at the White House and addressed the nation.

“Our way of life — our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts ... Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil — despicable acts of terror…,” Bush said.

It’s been 20 years since the attack. Yet, military and civilian scholars are still hard at work, aiming to unravel the deeper, philosophical meaning of how a ‘despicable act of terror’ can have an overwhelming effect on the stratagems of war in the 21st century.

    And so, legal scholars and philosophers from across the world gathered at the Haig room at the Jefferson Hall Library during the 2021 Conference on the Ethics of War and Peace to discuss the topic titled, ‘The War on Terror Then & Now: Twenty Years after 9/11’ Oct. 13-15 at the U.S. Military Academy.

The conference began with words from two keynote speakers: the Honorable Robert Gates, the 22nd Secretary of Defense, and USMA 1974 graduate, retired Gen. Martin Dempsey. Afterward, 12 plenary speakers gave their presentation, followed by dissertations from nine undergraduate presenters. 

“The main focus of the conference was getting some scholarship and thoughtful reflection on the War on Terror and what our viewpoints are on terrorism itself 20 years later now that we’ve had time to reflect,” Lt. Col. Stephen Woodside, an academy Professor at the Department of English and Philosophy, said. “We (at the department) think it’s really important to have a good interdisciplinary approach to these questions, so we don’t become so insular in our views.”

Reflection included questions focused on the ethics of some of the methods used during the War on Terror, such as targeted attacks, drone attacks, torture, and enhanced interrogation, Woodside added. The speakers also addressed the larger question, such as, what is the right way, from an ethical perspective, to defend against terrorism?

Woodside explained how killing, in response to a terrorist act, has to be justified by a form of preventive or defensive means. An act of war should not be supported by mere emotion. Rational thinking should win the day.

Retributivist motivated killings or wars, if they are motivated by emotion, might lead the Army astray.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for us as an institution to be critical of our mistakes and I think it’s essential, not just individually growing in character, but also collectively as a ‘character based’ or ‘ethics based’ organization,” Woodside said. “Again, I think that’s sometimes hard to do in places like the Army, whether that’s for fear of retribution, or fear of looking weak. We’re not assigning blame when we have these discussions. I think the important thing to stress is that, yes, we need to have these conferences so that we can collectively learn from mistakes and return to some of the values we may have strayed away from.”

One of the plenary speakers, David Luban, a university professor at Georgetown University Law Center, remembered the fear and intensity of 9/11 and the emotional upheaval that came with it. Then, he recalled, days after 9/11, counterterrorism officials discussing strategic measures to counteract the devastation the terrorist left in their wake. 

“Famously, five days after 9/11, former Vice President Dick Cheney warned that, ‘we would work through the dark side,’” Luban said as he gave his presentation. “Nobody who heard Cheney’s words ‘dark side’ was very surprised. We knew what the dark side meant and (at the time) torture became a dinner conversation within days of 9/11 when our anger, panic and vengefulness were at near maximum.”

Regarding torture, Luban added that even after the Abu Ghraib scandal back in March 2003, it’s estimated that 43% of surveyed Americans thought that terrorism suspects should or often sometimes be tortured. Those numbers have not receded. Currently, more than half of Americans believe torture is a tolerable method of acquiring information from terrorists and international polls show that the United States has become one of the most pro-torture countries in the world.

“People often debate the morality of torture through the use of ‘ticking bomb scenarios’ where it’s stipulated that interrogators are certain there’s a bomb, certain the bomb will go off soon, certain that the prisoner knows where it’s hidden, certain that nothing but torture will make him talk and desperate to prevent the catastrophe,” Luban said. “As a lot of critics, including me, pointed out, these conditions are really unrealistic. The ticking bomb fantasies simply stipulate reality out of the picture and seem to justify every torture interrogation as a kind of supreme emergency ... I’ve long argued that this is an intellectual fraud.”

With that, how do 20 years of reflection allow military institutions to make effective, ethical decisions, not only defending against terroristic threats, but using resources effectively without the inflammatory influence of emotion, public opinion or lobbyists? 

During his presentation, Victor Tadros, a professor of Criminal Law and Legal Theory at the University of Warwick, focused on a comparison between using resources to prevent terrorism and using resources to achieve other goals.

“When we asked how the War on Terror is going, we can operate with narrower or wider focus, the very narrow focus simply investigates the number of terrorists attacks the different wars on terror result in. One of the remarks in the opening discussion (on Wednesday), for example, suggested that U.S. personnel fighting the War on Terror could be proud of their efforts because no large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil had occurred since 9/11. Well, that’s an extremely narrow lens to assess the War on Terror … No one should think that causing death and destruction elsewhere is a legitimate way of achieving that goal,” Tadros said.

He also added that the remarks made on Wednesday simply focus on the prevention of terrorist attacks. However, the wider focus looks at the overall effect of different Wars on Terror and at the opportunity costs where resources can be expended on the War on Terror or other things such as healthcare, road safety, etc. 

Tadros brought up a statement made by David Rodin (one of the plenary speakers), who addressed that the costs of the actual War on Terror are incredibly high. 

“The opportunity costs to resolve the (War on Terror) are enormous, other things equal or rather very unequal, we should prefer minimal wars on terror, e.g., cheap ones, rather than the very expensive ones that we’re engaged in,” Tadros added. “There are many people in the world who die from preventable diseases. For example, we could use resources to save many, many lives that we currently use on the War on Terror. And even if those resources were focused on domestic healthcare, many deaths would be averted… rather than spending them on the War on Terror. So, it might be argued, as a result of this, that it’s clear the minimum War on Terror is best.”

Despite the speakers having varying opinions on how to perceive and handle the War on Terror, Woodside explained how military leaders don’t want the ideas of civilian philosophers to center on theoretical importance, they want them to matter and have meaning to Soldiers. When analyzing the nature of war, it’s essential to have more than one demographic thoroughly analyze the circumstances of war.

“I think we do have great philosophers here at West Point, at the U.S. Naval Academy and the other service academies, but I think it’s important to get diversity of opinions in this case because civilians — they bear some of the costs of war and that’s important, it matters to them, also,” Woodside said. “But I would worry about this field of philosophy, ethics of war, if it were only written about by those associated with the military academies because I think, in general, I could see things getting insular.”

The conference culminated with the nine presentations by the undergraduates, with four of the nine graduates hailing from West Point. Soon after,  the Department of English and Philosophy held a discussion between the audience and the Lieber Institute for Law and Land Warfare Panel.”

“The most important thing I want (cadets) to take away is the importance of critical self-reflection. And I know I say the word ‘self,’ but I also mean to self-reflect as an individual and consider the importance of our country and the Army in that self-reflection,” Woodside said. “We’re building leaders of character and we do a pretty good job of it, but I think one thing that needs to be emphasized is that in order to do that well, we’ve got to produce officers who are willing to do some critical self-reflection on themselves and our Army … Be open to the possibility that we could do things better. In other words, don’t be stubborn and closed off to ideas. Also, this advice is not just for officers, this is advice we’d want any good citizen to have.”