Eastern and Western Ethics of War Applied to the U.S. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

By: Ryan Thurwachter-King

Last week I posted the first part of this two part article on Eastern and Western ethics of warfare applied the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I discussed the criteria of the cause of war (jus ad bellum) under the Just War Theory including just cause, last resort, and high probability of success.  This week I will discuss the remaining criteria; including legitimate authority and proportionality.  And finally, I will discuss the criteria of the conduct of war (jus in bello).  Throughout the article I will point out the ideas of various ideas from Eastern traditions that I see as parallels to the Just War Theory and can be applied to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Cause of War

Legitimate authority

Under Just War Theory, a legitimate authority must authorize a war for it to be just; the higher the authority, the more legitimate the authority.  In the current context, the United Nations is a higher authority than the United States and hence the more appropriate authority to authorize conducting war.  International law is clear, “The [U.N.] Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken … to maintain or restore international peace and security” (United Nations).  It is the U.N. Security Council that has the authority to decide to conduct warfare, not individual states.   The U.N. Security Council was not convinced that the United States should use force in Iraq, and it failed to accept resolution that would have allowed the U.S. to use force in Iraq to stop production of and seize WMDs which were non-existent (“UK, US and Spain Won’t Seek Vote on Draft Resolution, May Take own Step to Disarm Iraq”).  Kofi Anna, The United Nations Secretary-General, when asked whether the invasion of Iraq was illegal said: “Yes, if you wish. I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter from our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal”(“ Iraq War Illegal, Says Annan”).  So the wars were initiated without the appropriate legitimate authority according to Just War theory.  However, if the president were to be substituted as the king of the U.S., then under the Hindu tradition, Confucianism, and under the puritan, Sunni Islamic tradition, and older versions of the Just War Theory President Bush would be the legitimate authority to initiate war.


The clause of Just War theory of proportionality states that the anticipated benefits of waging war must be proportionate to its expected harm.  The potential benefits and harms have been disputed from before the invasion.   Many important sources argued, very effectively that the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan would cause a substantial increase in terrorism and much unnecessary harm to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan (Gorman).  With the benefit of retrospect we can quantify to some extent the harm and the benefits of these wars.  The benefits can be listed as followed: the elimination of the tyrannical rule of Hussein and the Taliban, the crippling of al-Qaeda in the region, and the killing of many insurgents.  The harm: an exponential increase in worldwide terrorism, further worldwide deterioration of the U.S. reputation, anywhere from 100,000 to 1,000,000 possibly more dead Iraqi non-combatant citizens, a rough estimate of between 13,000 and 33,000 possibly more dead Afghani non-combatant citizens, extreme financial costs, death of American soldiers (“Civilian Casualties of the War in Afghanistan (2001-present)).  This is just a rough outline of the total costs and benefits, but as we can see the harm caused by this war vastly outweighs the benefits.

Conduct of war

To cover the aspects of war ethics that apply to the conduct of war I will address non-combatant immunity, the treatment of prisoners of war, proportionality and the principle of military necessity.

International law prevents the killing and torture of prisoners of war.  Just War theory requires that international law of warfare be followed.  This law banning torture has been violated so blatantly that almost every American now knows that the U.S. is systematically conducting torture.  Also the treatment of some prisoners of war has led to their death; another violation of international law and therefore Just War Theory.

The Just War theory concept of non-combatant immunity is intended to protect civilians who do not fight against the military and are hence bystanders.  This is a tricky concept to apply both because in every war some civilians will die just because of the nature of war.  This concept is even trickier when applied to the current context because of the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because the U.S. does not always know who is an enemy and who is a non-combatant.  There are many instances, too many to list, of the U.S. military targeting civilians, apparently unknowingly, however as discussed above non-combatant casualties are expected.

The concept of non-combatant immunity, the concept of proportionality (in the conduct of war), which states that an attack cannot be launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage, and the principle of military necessity, which states that the military is required to use the minimum force necessary to achieve a military objective all share the fact that they are intended to protect non-combatants.  Rather than focusing on individual situations were these principles may or may not have been followed, I intend to find an overall trend of the behavior of war ethics.  Because these principles are all intended to protect non-combatants we can accurately gauge whether or not they are being adhered to by looking at how well non-combatants are being protected.

The most convenient, and arguably the most accurate, way to gauge non-combatant protection is to look at the death tolls of non-combatants as a result of the wars.  This method also evades running down the long list of individual instances where these principles were not adhered to, but could be dismissed as isolated incidents not reflecting the overall trend.  Non-combatant death estimates from independent sources are all we have to rely on because official death tolls are not taken.  Non-combatant death estimates in Afghanistan as a direct result of the war are between 13,372 and 32,969 and non-combatant death estimates in Iraq are between 100,000, thoroughly documented deaths in the Iraq Body Count (“Iraq Body Count”), and 1,000,000, according to a survey by Opinions Research Business (LaMoreaux).  It is important to note that estimates of the dead in wars have very often been vastly understated, as the public finds out in the aftermath.  I could obtain any reliable estimate for total insurgents killed in Afghanistan.  The military estimates that about 20,000 insurgents have been killed in Iraq as of 2007, other sources estimate 55,000 as of 2009 (“How Many Insurgents Killed In Iraq?”).  It is abundantly clear from these rough estimates that the protections given to non-combatants are insufficient when non-combatant deaths outnumber combatant deaths from 2 to 1 at minimum and 50 to 1 on the higher estimates.  So it is clear that the principles meant to protect non-combatants are not adhered to, in any serious way.

Non-combatant immunity is recognized by the early Chinese tradition yi bing, Confucianism, Islamic, and Hindu ethics of warfare.  The only Eastern tradition I studied that would tolerate such indiscrimination and lack of protection for non-combatants is the philosophy of the bushi of early Japan.

The bushi have another peculiar relevancy to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The bushi, later known as the Samurai, where privatized fighters that the government used to replace the official military.  This mirrors the independent security forces, like Blackwater, used in Iraq and Afghanistan today.  We should use caution while employing privatized military forces.  We can learn from Japanese history that the bushi eventually became too powerful for the government to control.  This lead to a norm of privatized warfare at home among the bushi.  Also the government was no longer able to control the conduct of warfare and the bushi then implemented any conduct they liked.  This was the devolution and deconstruction of any and all ethics of war for Japan.

So far every major cause given to invade Iraq and Afghanistan violated the Just War tradition, usually in a variety of ways.  Also the conduct of the military has led to the harm of an astoundingly disproportionate amount of non-combatants.  This is clearly a result of the dwindling protections granted to non-combatants, circumventing many restrictions on the conduct of war under the Just War tradition.  On these grounds the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are by no means justified by the Just War tradition.  Also the ethics of war of early China, Japan, Islam, and Hindu have been similarly violated.  It seems the only ethics of warfare that have been upheld are those of the bushi of early Japan.  For the bushi, the cause of the wars can be justified as a means by which to gain wealth or power, both of which have been substantially provided to private interests in the U.S.  Also the conduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan war could have easily been justified by the bushi of ancient Japan where non-combatants were indiscriminately killed and the limits of warfare were ignored.  The strategy of warfare was the bushi’s only concern, with wealth and power often being the aim (Friday).

The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not justified by the Just War Tradition or most Eastern traditions of war.  It is extremely important that the moral inconsistencies between these wars and traditional war ethics become better known.  Without this context we forfeit any claim of morality.

War is an act, understandably so, for which a compelling moral argument must be presented in order for a given war to be accepted,  The leaders of the U.S., and other nations, know this, it is evident because each war that is waged is proceeded by an argument of why it is not just ethically sound, but morally imperative.  With the tools tradition has granted us, the Just War Theory and Eastern traditions of ethical warfare, we are able to scrutinize such arguments.  With these tools we can ask ourselves, “By which ethics are these wars justified?”  If these wars are not justified by the ethics we, as a nation and an international collection of people, ascribe to then we are not only forfeiting our morals for the current wars, we are widening the basis for future wars that will likely step further outside our ethical limitations.


United Nations. United Nations Charter, Chapter 7: Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression. San Francisco, 1945. Print.

“UK, US and Spain Won’t Seek Vote on Draft Resolution, May Take ‘own Steps’ to Disarm Iraq.” United Nations News Center. 17 Mar. 2003. Web. 22 May 2010. <http://www.un.org/apps/news/storyAr.asp?NewsID=6472&Cr=iraq&Cr1=inspect>.

Gorman, Siobhan, and Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. “Officials Fear War Abroad Will Breed Terror at Home.” GovExec.com. NATIONAL JOURNAL GROUP, INC., 28 Feb. 2003. Web. 22 May 2010. <http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0203/022803nj1.htm>.

“Civilian Casualties of the War in Afghanistan (2001-present).” Wikipedia. Web. 22 May 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilian_casualties_of_the_War_in_Afghanistan_(2001%E2%80%93present)#Aggregation_of_estimates>.

“Iraq Body Count.” Iraq Body Count. 22 May 2010. Web. 22 May 2010. <http://www.iraqbodycount.org/>.

LaMoreaux, Heidi. “Over One Million Iraqi Deaths Caused by US Occupation.” Project Censored. 2009. Web. 23 May 2010. <http://www.projectcensored.org/top-stories/articles/1-over-one-million-iraqi-deaths-caused-by-us-occupation/>.

“How Many Insurgents Killed In Iraq?” The Velvet Rocket. 6 Nov. 2009. Web. 23 May 2010. <http://thevelvetrocket.com/2009/11/06/how-many-insurgents-killed-in-iraq/>.

Friday, Karl. “Might Makes Right: Just War and Just Warfare in Early Medieval Japan.” Ed. Torkel Brekke. The Ethics of War in Asian Civilizations A Comparative Perspective. London: Routledge, 2006. 159-77. Print.