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Proportionality and combat trauma

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Abstract

The principle of proportionality demands that a war (or action in war) achieve more goods than bads. In the philosophical literature there has been a wealth of work examining precisely which goods and bads may count toward this evaluation. However, in all of these discussions there is no mention of one of the most certain bads of war, namely the psychological harm(s) likely to be suffered by the combatants who ultimately must fight and kill for the purposes of winning in conflict. This paper argues that harms to one’s own soldiers must be included in proportionality judgments, and goes on to argue that one of the most significant harms one’s soldiers face are the psychological stresses and traumas associated with combat. The arguments draw on a growing wealth of psychological literature exploring the connections between combatancy and psychological trauma, and highlight, in particular, the uniquely negative impact which killing has on a combatant’s mental well-being. The paper concludes that these factors place an almost certain and rather weighty negative weight in any proportionality calculations concerning wars with ground combatants who must fight “up close and personal”, and that for more remote warfighters, there is also evidence to show that they may suffer deep psychological harm as a result of their combat roles as well. The argument, however, does not attempt to demonstrate that these factors render war impermissible. Rather, it merely shows that these harms, or bads, which can be quite significant, must be factored into our considerations of proportionality. The arguments themselves are rather uncontroversial, but they bring to light an element in the moral calculus which is sadly overlooked in most discussions of the ethics of war.

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Notes

  1. Proportionality is also central to ius post bellum (justice after war) and ius ex bello (justice in termination of war) decision-making. See respectively, for example, Orend (2000), Bass (2004), Orend (2007), Mollendorf (2008), Moellendorf (2011, 2015).

  2. The exact ratio of goods to bads demanded is a contested issue, but in all accounts it is taken for granted that there must at least be more good than bad achieved, with most accounts holding that there must be “sufficiently” or “‘significantly” more goods achieved than bads.

  3. Geneva Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions (hereafter AP I), Art. 57.2.iii, found in Roberts and Guelff (2004, p. 453)

  4. See, e.g. Gardam (1993, 2004), Haque (2013, 2017).

  5. For recent definitional and foundational work on moral injury, as well as its relation to post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological harms associated with combatancy, see, e.g., Hoyt (2023), Connelly (2023), Sherman (2023), Talbert and Wolfendale (2023) and MacIntosh (2023). More generally, see McDaniel et al. (2023), as well as the recent special issue dedicated to moral injury in Aether: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower (Volume 2.3).

  6. See, most notably, Article 57.2.a.iii of Geneva Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions (hereafter AP I), and AP I, Art. 50.5.b, found in Roberts and Guelff (2004, pp. 453, 449) respectively.

  7. Hurka (2005, 2008) and Shue (2018) discuss proportionality in a way that seems to include harms to all individuals, and by extension then, friendly combatants as well. However, these discussions generally do not give explicit treatment to friendly harms, but rather focus on a totalist accounting of harm.

  8. The cause may not be enough to justify way (cf. Rodin, 2002), but an unjustified act of aggression against the territorial sovereignty of a state provides at least a fair degree of justification for harmful responses to be employed.

  9. It should be noted though that killing in particular, and combatancy in general, can lead to a variety of psychological harms besides those associated with PTSD. Some of these other harms will be discussed in Sect. 4.1 below.

  10. Ibid See also, respectively, Pietrzak et al. (2011), Schlenger et al. (2015), Nazarian et al. (2012) and Sareen et al. (2007).

  11. See also MacNair (2002a) for extensive elaboration and further exploration of these findings.

  12. Maguen et al. (2013, p. 346). These findings of Maguen et al. (2013) may appear to conflict with those of Fontana and Rosenheck (1999). However, the work of Fontana and Rosenheck (1999) only looked at the impact of various factors on the development of PTSD in general, and not at the precise symptomatology or severity of a PTSD diagnosis. As such, these results are not at odds with one another.

  13. Note that the cited studies only differentiated between combat and non-combat veterans, but did not include differential analysis between different types of combatants (e.g. infantrymen, artillerymen, airmen, etc.). Such differences in how one fights (and kills) are likely to affect the prevalence of PTSD, as well as its symptomatology, and there is therefore a need for such differential research to be undertaken.

  14. American Psychiatric Association (1994, p. 429). Note that there are differences between the DSM-IV and DSM-V with regards to diagnosis of PTSD. These differences, however, do not alter the core aspects of PTSD symptomatology being discussed here.

  15. See also the brief discussion of moral injury in Sect. 1 above, as well as the citations in footnote 5.

  16. Scioli et al. (2010, p. 353), quoting the findings of Sherman et al. (2006). Note that there may be hidden correlates to these particular values, as it is possible that veterans who are more likely to kill (and hence more likely to suffer from PTSD) may already be more violence-prone. This is an area worthy of further study. That being said, the relation between PTSD and interpersonal violence in general is well corroborated across independent research (see citations above).

  17. It is worth noting that revisionists’ focus on liability in proportionality judgments naturally removes discussion of “enemy” and “friendly” combatants from the debate, as these markers are largely irrelevant to their core position.

  18. Ziegler and Otzari (2012) explicitly discuss harm to friendly combatants and proportionality, but their arguments rely on deeply suspect moral and legal categories, especially the characterization of some civilians as “enemy civilians” (a view which is unsubstantiated in either ethics or law).

  19. Physical harms can also have long-term impacts. The point here is not to undermine the magnitude of physical harm suffered by combatants, but only to make clear that all harms can be significant, and in some cases debilitating and potentially life-threatening.

  20. One may ask whether there are any concrete cases of wars traditionally considered just that ought to be re-evaluated as unjust based on (the actual or expected) mental injuries suffered by participating combatants. This is an interesting question, but would take us too far afield from our philosophical argument, requiring nuanced assessments of history and empirical psychology. At any rate, wars with traditionally “close” moral assessments on grounds of proportionality may present such situations (e.g., the Falklands War).

  21. Chappelle et al. (2012), for example, report that “[r]ates of clinical distress and PTSD were higher among RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] operators (20% and 5%, respectively) in comparison to non-RPA airmen (11% and 2%, respectively)” (Chappelle et al., 2012, p. 1). Chapa (2017) provides insightful exploration of some of the ethical implications of these findings.

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Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the Research Foundation - Flanders, whose support enabled me to conduct this research. I must also thank the participants of the 2023 annual conference of the European International Society for Military Ethics, as well as the anonymous referees of this journal, whose comments and discussion allowed me to clarify certain core points. Finally, as always, I must thank my wife Anna for giving the day to day support most crucial for getting any of this work done.

Funding

This work was supported by the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO), under PhD Fellow research Grant #1187718N.

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Wood, N.G. Proportionality and combat trauma. Philos Stud 181, 513–533 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-024-02100-2

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