Morality, Ethics, and Limits

Getting back to this blog has been much more difficult than I originally thought.

Of course, the intent was not to take a two-month hiatus, with only a brief commentary during that time. Work, parental responsibilities, and a general malaise were present and contributing factors; however, they are not to be excuses for my own inability to focus effectively.

A question the other day served as the creative spark which may rekindle the fire which powers the reasons and rationalizations for this blog:

Do you think there’s any actual value in being moral? It just seems like all the worst rise to the top.

Bonhoeffer… Kierkegaard… their books became the loose thread of an itchy philosophical sweater – something best treated with care and reserved for blustery nights when nothing else can be found, yet at risk of becoming a tangled unravelling if screwed around with long enough.

These books became secondary to Always with Honor, by Pyotr Wrangle. In those pages, I had found the perspective which I had been looking for during the last few years: a recollection of what the transition from monarchy to Communism via anarchy in Russia a century ago.

Some of Wrangle’s words resonate even today:

You fight your enemy’s Army, but you can respect the individuals who compose it.

(p. 39)

Quite often the end justifies the means, but the nation which uses unworthy means always gets a bad reputation.

(p. 40)

While others resonated on the morality within conflict:

I ordered three hundred and seventy of the Bolshevists to line up. They were all officers and non-commissioned officers, and I had them shot on the spot. Then I told the rest that they too deserved death, but that I had let those who had misled them take the responsibility for their treason, because I wanted to give them a chance to atone for their crime and prove their loyalty to their country.

(p. 47)

Focus of effort and intent:

We wanted to do too much and make ourselves master of every position at once, and we have succeeded only in weakening ourselves and so becoming powerless.

(p. 90)

The dangers of informational warfare long before it became a topic of the will behind conflict:

The question had to be settled for an important psychological reason: we had to tear the enemy’s principal weapon of propaganda from him, kindle the imagination of the Army and the populace, and make a favorable impression on foreign opinion.

(p. 144)

Finally, the proposition in 1920 of what could be considered the first application of social warfare decades before the weaponizing of social media:

“Your Excellency, I would not have troubled you at all did I not believe that my invention could be useful to you, especially now that you are having such difficulties; treason is prowling all round you, and you can trust no one. This simple instrument that I have invented can be of enormous service to you. It is a kind of compass. You can fix it to a corner of your desk so that it is invisible. Now suppose you are talking to someone about whom you know very little. You just press the button of my instrument, quite imperceptibly, and the needle will show you on this screen who the person is—whether he is a Germanophile, a supporter of the Entente, a Bolshevist, a Democrat, or a Monarchist. I have all the rough sketches of the instrument here…”

(p. 168)

Back to the question of the value of morality.

My credentials are not absolute in history, philosophy, ethics, or law; my responses at the time were abbreviated only because elaboration was counterproductive and risked diluting the simplicity of what I have learned over the years:

The value of being moral only exists for those who share the same basic values. If one has no morals, then they have an amoral advantage over those who do.

In any conflict, there is rarely a solid parity of advantage or capability. Quite often, the deciding factor lies with the side which understands the ethical and legal limits which exist on the battlefield and in the minds and societal constraints of those who fight… and how far and blatant they chose to disregard what is deemed “fair” and “just.”

One such example could be the 19Sep1918 cable from Germany to the US Secretary of State via Swiss Foreign Office concerning the use of shotguns during the First World War:

The German Government protests against the use of shotguns by the American Army and calls attention to the fact that according to the law of war (Kriegsrecht) every prisoner found to have in his possession such guns or ammunition belonging thereto forfeits his life. This protest is based upon article 23(e) of the Hague convention respecting laws and customs of war on land. Reply by cable is required before October 1, 1918.

Another example is from an earlier post about the worst thing done during war in history:

“You see! Unrestricted warfare! – anything is permitted as long as you win! The only thing you mustn’t do is lose!”

Values must be shared for morals to have validation. In the case of shotguns, I find it interesting that the side which was the first to find the machine gun and chemical warfare as advantageous implements also saw fit to complain about such a devastating close-range weapon. As for unrestricted submarine warfare and the industrial and civilian second- and third-order effects they caused, any nation during the 20th century understood the importance of maritime domination and necessity of a totality in warfare – the only thing which was truly important was who survived to make the case against the tactics which they themselves used.

As for the advantage going to those who lack the same values and morals as their opponent, one would only need to look at more recent examples of when terrorists and insurgents resorted to vehicle borne, suicide vest, or traditional improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other means to bring the conflict to what is often described as vile and inhumane levels. The use of morals as part of the essence of the weapon delivery may be viewed as being advantageous against those who recoil in thought of stooping to such a level of depravity.

Let me be quite clear: that last observation was way harder to write as I had to wrestle with my own experiences in the aftermath of such attacks versus the objectivity of whether or not such tactics warrant acknowledgement of effectiveness… which is exactly my point, really. As long as there is a line one side will not cross, there is an advantage to the side which can – and will – exploit that fact.

Vicious optimism:

If there is an aspect of morality which might be exploited, it is imperative that there is a conscious effort to understand how and to what extent a response can and should be offered.

It is important to know the limits of response, but also to appreciate the risks of not going beyond those limits as well as the repercussions of success.

Ethics and morality are far from a perfect science and there is not one correct answer for any one given situation. However, this is why we continue to strive to be better, understand the costs of conflict, and the risks of avoidance, acquiescence, and appeasement.

Invader Coffee (yes, this is a link… damn fine coffee – especially the Mexican Chocolate blend):

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