Warfare will keep testing our morality

Joseph Johnson


EDITORIAL: New Zealand's armed forces risk life and limb for us. But that's not all. They risk their consciences too.

Warfare can bring out the best in our military, through feats of heroism and mateship. But it is such a hideous, arbitrary business that mistakes, misjudgments and misdeeds can be evoked from decent but fallible men and women.

This year's Anzac Day comes in the wake of the book Hit & Run which makes the accusation, denied by the Defence Force, that a retaliatory raid in Afghanistan was ill-disciplined, indulgent, and achieved only the death of innocents.

Public reaction was of course mixed and the Government has resisted calls for an independent inquiry.

That book starts with the sentence: "In any Anzac Day, someone is sure to talk about honour."

And it ends like this; "The real message of Anzac Days should be that we do not want to make the same dreadful and unnecessary mistakes over and over again. Facing up to wrongdoing is part of making them less likely to recur. Honour is not about ceremonies, bugles and ribbons. It is about trying to adhere to moral principles and stand up to wrong, especially when it would be easier not to. It requires a special kind of courage."

Whatever we individually make of the book's specific contentions and the responses, that last sentiment it holds true.

The profound sense of gratitude that infuses Anzac Day does not preclude honest assessments, even painful ones, of when things go wrong in war. Not just organisationally, but in the most human and personal of ways.

It would have been better, by far, had the inquiry gone ahead. It may have led to an emphatic vindication. Or it could have provided lessons which, as a nation, we should be able to handle with maturity. Not trite recriminations, nor poisonous reproach, but a clear sense of how to do better next time.

Old soldiers have for generations now been talking, sometimes publicly but often just among themselves, about such things.

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We haven't resolved the morality of war. Nobody has, really.

For one thing, the changing methodologies find new ways to test us. Ahead lie battlefields beset by drones and robots. Before long, if not already, we must determine whether decisions to kill or not should be made, in the instant, by machines themselves rather than a distant human operators.

Yet human error is the price we pay for human judgment. We need to get our heads around such things.  To do so requires a willingness to look, openly and honestly, about what honour really means to us and requires of us.

 - Stuff


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