zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: Treatment of the Enemy in War: Cruel to be Kind?

Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: Treatment of the Enemy in War: Cruel to be Kind?


[by Pauline Kaurin]

In Book III, we find ourselves facing a classic ethical question in warfare: How ought one treat the enemy? Should one show mercy and follow the rules and customs of war? Or should one be cruel and show no mercy, because that is what the enemy deserves and the harsh example may deter others?

In this case, the Athenians are trying to decide whether to put the Mytilenians to death. (3.36/7) Cleon notes in his speech,

“Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate the feeling, not to those who will never pity us in return, but are our natural and necessary foes… Punish them as they deserve, and teach your other allies by a striking example that the penalty of rebellion is death” (3.40)

Diodotus rebuts the argument by noting that in war hope, greed, fortune and a whole host of other non-rational motivators are operant, in ways that make deterrence ineffective,

“ In short, it is impossible to prevent….human nature doing what it has once set its mind upon, by force of law or by any other deterrent whatsoever.” (3.45)

His point here, is that punishing the adversary is not in the interest of the Athenians and is unlikely to be effective in any case, especially since it would involve violating a the idea of discrimination, that is punishment can only be visited on the guilty, not the guilty and innocent alike; the lack of discrimination, he argues involves ‘senseless force’ and will only show that the Athenians have no interest in guilt versus innocence.

This debate, echoing contemporary arguments about whether to use waterboarding in interrogation and whether and when to accord POW status (with all its legal protections) to the detainees in Guantanamo Bay, is a familiar one in the ethics of war. Since at least Vietnam, there have been regular calls to abandon or modify the jus in bello restrictions and  Geneva and Hague Conventions; the argument being that our enemies do not always follow these and following them requires our forced to fight ‘with one hand tied behind their back’ – that is, at a strategic and tactical disadvantage.

It’s hard not to hear in these calls a familiar version of a Realist argument about the lack of reciprocity, appearing weak in the eyes of the enemy or potential enemies (deterrence) and failing to serve the State interest.  The idea here is that State interest is best served by military victory and using every means at one’s disposal, if militarily required, ought to be done. Cleon actually seems to be making the Realist argument here even though it is cloaked in moral terms, while Diodotus, despite invoking State interest and effectiveness, is actually making the ethicist’s argument, especially at the end in reminding the Athenians that they actually do care about discriminating between the guilty and the innocent.

Before addressing this question of which side we ought to take in this debate, I would also turn our attention to Thucydides’ discussion of the moral erosion caused by revolution and war, which began with the Corcyraeans, but eventually spread to the whole Hellenic world. (3.82ff)  Now one could read this section purely as a tangential conversation on the problems with civil war and revolution, but I read it much more broadly as a discussion related to the earlier one about how to treat the enemy, as a discourse on moral erosion in war.  Does war blunt and erode our moral sensibilities and standards, making possible and reasonable actions that would have never been considered before?  Could a discussion of waterboarding have taken place in the same way and with such public support absent the context of 9/11?

The question of moral erosion has certain obvious implications for the moral injury debate (which I cannot pursue here), but it also has important implications for the debate about how we treat our enemy.  The Realist Deterrence in War argument becomes more and more attractive, I think, the more moral erosion has taken place, the more extreme the circumstances seem to be. But I rather agree with Diodotus that especially in such extreme circumstances, it does not work.  Why?

Any kind of deterrence view (whether in the strategy realm related to war and foreign policy or punishment theory) relies on the assumption that people are making rational judgments and weighing risk and cost in making their decisions about whether to embark on a particular course of action. The more extreme the circumstances, the more moral erosion has taken place, the less this is the case, I’d argue. In these circumstances, it is not rational judgement about self or State interest that are operating, but all the non-rational elements noted before; these are much less amenable to influence.

We might think about the brutal tactics that ISIS uses (torture, beheadings, etc.) which are designed to produce certain kinds of reactions when broadcast to the intended audience. It seems logical that in response to such brutality, the West and other opponents ought to up the ante and use even more brutal tactics to make the case that we are strong, will persevere and also to deter ISIS and other actors from such behavior in future due to the costs of such behavior. Sounds good! If anything seems like Hobbes classic State of Nature this seems it, so logically the brutality should produce accommodation in behavior.

But of course, there is a problem here. Brutality, as evidenced by scores of torture testimonies, does not produce much rooted in logic. It produces fear, fight or flight, anger, a desire for revenge or to defend one’s honor (which seems particularly apt for a group like ISIS). These are not things that lend themselves to rational thinking (think of your last serious and extended fight with a spouse or family member), but rather lends itself to retaliation and escalation of force with little concern for whether it is effective or not.

So on one of many ironies produced by Thucydides (Melian Dialogue anyone?),  we have the foundation for an argument that Realists should, in fact, uphold moral principles in war – both in the short and long term – because moral erosion undermines and accurate and rational assessment of State interest and good decision making. Deterrence will not work in war, because cruelty produces anger, offends honor and creates a desire for revenge – frequently the opposite effect that it is intended to have. Realists ought not abandon moral principles and legal restrictions in war, because that causes moral erosion which makes it much harder to win and bring the conflict to the desired End State. They may do so for non-moral reasons (as opposed to the ethicist), but I think a consistent Realist must reject Cleon’s argument as short term thinking, motivated by a anger and revenge, not rooted in rational State interest.

So we should uphold jus in bello requirements, maintain Geneva and Hague conventions and perhaps (as I argued in an article on Guantanamo Bay) extend mercy even when it is not required. Moral erosion, as Thucydides notes, is as contagious as the plague and perhaps more damaging, especially in the long term.

3 Responses to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: Treatment of the Enemy in War: Cruel to be Kind?”

  1. Ken Hoop Says:

    What about the morality of training and funding jihadis in the first place which has been ongoing since driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan and has been shown by Seymour Hersh and others to have been ongoing in Iraq and Syria?
    Obviously America Firsters have it over even realists, not to mention the much more sociopathic neocons and neolibs.

  2. Rand Koch Says:

    It was a little bit more complicated than that re Bush and Guantanamo. They didn’t abandon the Geneva Conventions. They merely read it very closely where it says that most of it is for wars between countries.

    Even the position of Colin Powell (who was wrongly cited in a leaked document that his office corrected the next day) was not to give POW status to terrorists. He wanted us to follow the British government’s position, and declare that the full Conventions would be in force. But he also said that no terrorists would get POW status. Some Taliban soldiers *might* get a tribunal to decide whether they could get it. The rest would not even need such a tribunal.

    But the Bush administration went with Common Article 3 status for Taliban detainees. That’s the sliver of the Conventions covering civil wars, which certainly applies to the Taliban. It does not recognize a special POW status for anyone. But most detainees were from Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and not Afghans. The Bush administration reasoned that theirs wasn’t a civil war, but nor was it a war between countries. Hence, the Conventions didn’t apply to them at all.

    The Supreme Court decided in 2006 that they should get Common Article 3 status, too, just like Bush had given the Taliban detainees in the beginning. They’ve all been getting annual reviews since the beginning, too.

    The Obama administration continued Bush’s position with Common Article 3. Some people wrongly believe that Obama gave them POW status, but he didn’t. He did add more reviews and parole-style hearings. He released many, but usually with restrictions. This is actually pretty funny when you think about it: He doesn’t want progressives to understand the restrictions because his supporters want to continue the meme that the detainees were somehow innocent victims of “bounty hunters.” At the same time, Obama’s critics prefer to continue the other meme that he’s freeing too many dangerous jihadis. Well, many are only partially free.

    The fact is, the U.S. has given more mercy than is legally required. This brings into question what we’d be getting if we gave them even more. We’re accused of torture, not merely for waterboarding, but for everything from music to keeping some isolated from other prisoners. Our other western allies refrain from even that much, and they’re accused of torture anyway. It really doesn’t matter what we do.

    Meanwhile, our enemies gouge out the eyes of their victims. Iraq’s Al Sadr had a torture chamber using amputation, and yet his representatives were invited to attend a peace rally in Britain. No, I’m not kidding. Fortunately, the U.K. government refused entry to Sadr’s goons.

    If there’s any benefit to extending mercy beyond the treaty requirements, it hasn’t materialized. We should probably roll those requirements back to what we had in WWII.

  3. Grurray Says:

    Later with the Spartans debate of treatment of the Plataeans after the latter had surrendered, both the Plataeans and the Thebans defend themselves by saying the people shouldn’t be punished for the errors of their leaders-
    “Where wrong is done, those who lead, as you say, are more to blame than those who follow”
    It was presented as something like a code of war.
    The Spartans killed them all anyway because it gave them a strategic advantage to satisfy the Thebans’ thirst for revenge. Moral standards were apparently different for each side.

Switch to our mobile site