Moral Decision Making -- An Analysis - Ethics Web

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Two of the liveliest moral debates during the Gulf War involved weaponry used. The coalition wondered if Hussein would use gas warfare and Iraq wondered if President Bush would use nuclear bombs. Fortunately neither were used even though some suspect limited gas attacks were made. President Bush animatedly declared that if coalition troops were gassed, the strongest retaliation would be used. There was little doubt what he meant by "strongest retaliation" and the threat worked. In his autobiography, General Powell stated that he was asked to draw up plans for the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq (Associated Press 1995). After the war, military planners admitted that nuclear bombs would not have been used even if large-scale gas attacks killed coalition troops. Instead, large dams were targeted which, once destroyed, would flood Baghdad. Whether nuclear bombs or flooding were to be used, either one breaks the most basic rule of war: non-combatants are not legitimate targets. As horrendous as gas attacks would have been, retaliating by mass killing of the Iraqi civilian population would not have been acceptable. Just as Saddam Hussein's presence in the war zone qualified him for justifiable death, so did the coalition troops' presence. If the unlikely situation of gathering only Iraqi troops together and destroying them using nuclear bombs or flooding, then those means would then be justified.

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Some acts lose meaning during a war. The assassination of international leaders is one such case. Many people questioned before during and after the war if the coalition should have ensured Saddam Hussein's premature death. Under a 1981 Executive Order, the U.S. government is forbidden to participate in assassination. But during wartime, international law recognizes military commanders as legitimate targets. During the Gulf War, the assassination of Saddam Hussein was never revealed as an official goal but every location where he should have been was bombed. Most military analysts believed that if Hussein was killed, the war would have ended instantly, (Beyer 1991). It was easy for the American public to accept the effort because the leader in question was the enemy's. Less savory would be the thought of Iraqi bombers dumping ordnance on the White House, claiming it was a just act of war. The difference was that Hussein was located within the physical limits of the war. President Bush was not. So if Hussein was killed in a bombing raid while in Baghdad, no moral question is raised. Similarly, if President Bush was killed in a bombing raid while visiting Al Jubial, no moral rule would be broken. But what if the leaders are removed from the area of hostilities? Are they fair game? International law says they are. Therefore, the idea of assassination being morally wrong loses all meaning during war because the political leaders are legitimate targets. The moral equivalency of the "assassin" is the same as that of the coalition soldier fighting in the desert. It is the dysfunctional agreement during war: both sides try to kill the other side's forces, including the leaders.

Walzer points out that while a surrendering soldier is not to be killed, a fleeing one is a legitimate target (Walzer 1977). Walzer then questions the reasoning of this fact because the basic theory behind killing a fleeing soldier is to prevent him from returning to the fight. It ends up soldiers who fled did return to fight, rather slaughter, during the Kurdish rebellion after the war. But Walzer sees that as an internal issue and therefore because the soldiers were not going to return as combatants against coalition forces, killing them was not morally correct. The facts are that a state of war still existed and during a time of war, the killing of enemy soldiers, even if in retreat, is an acceptable act. While the atrocities they committed as an occupying force in Kuwait would seem to warrant the destruction of the convoy, that mentality falls too close to raw revenge. As distasteful and horrendous as the Iraqi conduct in Kuwait was, destroying their convoy as they fled solely for revenge would not hold up under jus in bello (Justice in War). But not only were they legitimate targets, they were also thieves. They had plundered Kuwait and were attempting to return with the ill-gotten booty. As part of just-war theory, the legalist paradigm states that aggression justifies two kinds of violent response: a war of self-defense by the victim and a war of law enforcement by the victim and any other member of international society (Walzer, p.62). Because the war was still in effect at the time and just-war theory dictates that a member of international society can respond violently when enforcing laws, the "Highway of Death" was a just act in a just war.


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Along with aggression, the Iraqis were guilty of atrocities in Kuwait. While these acts fall under jus in bello (justice in war), the fact that the atrocities were performed on the civilian population qualifies another justification for just war: humanitarian intervention. According to just-war theory, an ally of a country is justified to intervene in a crisis when conditions exist that are morally and ethically inexcusable. Here again is the problem of judgment on the part of the intervening power. But on the broad scale of the Kuwaiti invasion, the coalition's use of force was a humanitarian intervention because no one could argue that the systematic slaughter of civilian Kuwaitis was anything but evil.

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By what authority did the coalition use to wage war against Iraq? Many critics in the early stages of the war asked this question which was soon answered. Once Congress backed President Bush, competent authority was fulfilled because the ruling body, representing the American nation, provided the authority to wage war against another sovereign country. But opponents still argued that proper authority does not reside in the country that simply agrees as a whole to fight. If the competent authority that authorized the Gulf War was the American Congress, then the United States could be accused of aggression or intervention. But there was a higher power. As much as the world would like to believe that the Gulf War was the United States against Iraq, that was not the case. While it is true that America was the leader during the crisis, the entire coalition effort was sanctioned by the United Nations. This body of leaders, an international assembly of representatives, provided the competent authority to wage war against Iraq. Any more justification than that, if possible, would be hard to come by. Regardless, there was more.

And that’s harder than you might imagine

After the initial invasion, diplomatic efforts were made to avoid fighting. For six months, every opportunity was given to Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait and avoid a war. Yet some critics claim that another major point in just-war theory was not met. According to the theory, not only must a war be a response to aggression, but also be a last resort. But Walzer points out that the concept of last resort would nullify any war as just. There can never be a true end to attempts to avoid war. In practice, a point is reached when it is decided that all reasonable attempts have been made to avoid conflict. But here lies the problem. Who makes that decision? Once it is made, there will always be those who question if all possibilities had been explored. The Gulf war raised many such arguments. Even General Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed his desire for more time to allow the blockade around Iraq to force Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. But with the prospect of a fortified country such as Iraq holding out for possibly years until the blockade finally worked, the coalition decided that the only answer was to remove Iraq from Kuwait by force. Iraq was given every reasonable opportunity to leave but chose to remain in Kuwait. The coalition, therefore, fulfilled the just-war requirement of last resort and hostilities were soon to follow.