May 30th, 2009

Principles in Perpetual Warfare

photo credit: kygp

In a recent interview on Fox News, General Petraeus advocated that America stand by her values with respect to how detainees are treated and processed in our legal system. In a brief review and discussion after airing the interview, two news reporters discussed various points the General had made. Regarding the comment on “embracing” and “operationalizing” our values, one of them remarked that in times of war our values are and should be “alterable and fungible”.

In other words, when engaged in military combat we should be justified in skirting the law and ignoring the rules.

Frankly, this is a stance supported by numerous historical examples, one of which the reporter himself cited. And while a case may be made regarding the suppression of such value-based actions during emergencies, the real question we must ask ourselves is: where do we draw the line?

Put in context, this question becomes extremely important if we are to stand by any values at all. The history of our nation is one of nearly perpetual warfare—especially during the last century. America’s military has been engaged in one combat zone after another, whether or not their presence was duly authorized by Congress as an act of war. Given this set of bloody circumstances, we must ask ourselves if in a state of perpetual warfare we are to tolerate lawlessness in the name of security, and subversion in the name of spreading democracy.

The United States of America have long been involved in some form of warfare, and thus the reporter’s comments should raise a high level of concern for those who agree with the General. If America is to abide by any set of principles, to what extent will we allow them to be ignored? And how principled can we claim to be when we only stand by our values when it’s convenient and expedient to do so?

Our principles are best demonstrated in times of difficulty and moral ambiguity—otherwise they are simply propaganda-laden platitudes offered without challenge or validation. Thus, the excuse of war should not be used to justify ignoring our values, especially since our constant state of warfare would allow for it to be used at any time. Rather, America should demonstrate her integrity and virtue by sticking to her principles at all times and in all places—even (and especially) when it’s easy not to.

14 Responses to “Principles in Perpetual Warfare”

  1. kannie
    May 30, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    I heartily agree that principles matter, particularly when it’s going to cost you to stick to them.

    I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about principles and values, though, lately, and it seems like it would be helpful (at least to me) to 1) lay out exactly what those principles/values are; and 2) to acknowledge where they may fairly conflict.

    Please forgive me for oversimplifying, but this is the exact debate raging in my head right now, and I’m looking for some help sorting through my thoughts: what specific values should I be defending? (And how do I not feel like a hypocrite for supporting Good Value A over Good Value B in certain circumstances, and choosing B over A in others?)

    For instance, is one absolute value “life?” What about life-vs.-life dilemmas? In a less complicated (?) scenario, it seems we should do away with the death penalty.

    Except that we value “law” as well, in which case the death penalty is an acceptable consequence for certain crimes because it is legally prescribed. (Or is it legally prescribed because it is acceptable? 😉 )

    Do we value freedom absolutely? Obedience? Property? Children? Equality? Knowledge?

    It seems that holding on to any particular value eventually brings that value into conflict with other values we hold dear… at least in this (mortal) sphere.

    Any thoughts? (I promise I’m not trying to be a pain…)

  2. Frank Staheli
    May 30, 2009 at 12:52 pm #

    Surprisingly (I wish I had known my history better) Conservatives have only recently been the war hawks. These classical liberals provided the biggest outcry against WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.

    What happened? Oh yeah, we got torpedoed by Newt Gingrich and the RINO brigade.

  3. Connor
    May 30, 2009 at 5:09 pm #


    I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about principles and values, though, lately, and it seems like it would be helpful (at least to me) to 1) lay out exactly what those principles/values are; and 2) to acknowledge where they may fairly conflict.

    This list, while certainly not comprehensive, seems pretty good to me.

    As per conflict, I think the main argument is whether or not we can even agree upon a common set of values. The same-sex marriage issue alone shows the division that exists on a national (and often state) level on certain issues. While we share a state (that is, government), one might argue that we lack a nation (that is, a community based on common values). What ties us together as a people is no longer our core set of principles, but our codified set of laws. Without a solid foundation upon which a solid majority of us can agree, the structure of our government is found decaying, and will likely soon collapse.

    Do we value freedom absolutely? Obedience? Property? Children? Equality? Knowledge?

    I don’t know that there exists a perfect equation for general implementation. I suppose I might argue that it is generally only okay to violate a principle/value when it is necessary to uphold a more important one. For example, if my son locks himself in my neighbor’s car on a hot day, and I find him locked inside and unconscious, I would no doubt be justified in violating my neighbor’s property by smashing in the window, so that I can rescue my son and save his life.

    This would only work, though, if it was an immediate, apparent, and unavoidable threat. And even then, it wholly depends on what the secondary value in question is. Would I be justified in violating somebody’s sexual virtue in order to save a life? Or would I be justified in violating somebody’s liberty through detaining them without any opportunity for due process? A form of this argument, though, is the basis upon which people have been and are being tortured and illegally detained. The assumption that information these individuals might divulge will help lead to the protection of American lives at some point in the future has been used as an opportunity to abandon any and all other lesser values, all in the pursuit of “saving lives”. However, my counter argument would be that the related threat is almost always not immediate, the correlation between the threat to another person’s life and the information the person has is usually not readily apparent, and the question of the threat’s unavoidability is likely uncertain in nearly every case. Thus, since the threat to life does not meet the criteria I above suggest, I think it’s best that we stand by all the other values we might otherwise seek to reject in the name of one day, maybe, saving American lives.

    So, the answer to your question? I don’t think we should value certain things absolutely, since there are very often qualifiers and exceptions based on various circumstances. I do, however, think that we should always err on the side of defending and upholding our values, and only consider otherwise when we are presented with an immediate threat of a higher value (e.g. life)—and even then we should ensure that other important conditions are met that merit wavering on a principle.


    Surprisingly (I wish I had known my history better) Conservatives have only recently been the war hawks. These classical liberals provided the biggest outcry against WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.

    You may enjoy this book.

  4. rmwarnick
    May 31, 2009 at 8:37 am #

    America hasn’t always lived up to its principles in time of war. History shows that when we didn’t, the results were not good. Whether or not you buy the “clash of civilizations” meme, the world is watching us to see if we really believe in the rule of law, human rights, freedom and justice –or if we are hypocrites.

  5. JHP
    May 31, 2009 at 4:02 pm #


    I agree with the comment you made above. Sometimes we have to choose to uphold one value or principle over another because sometimes they conflict.

    Another problem is that there are very few people in this nation who have all the intelligence necessary to make informed decisions about war. It’s dangerous to assume that any president or military leader made an improper decision when we don’t have all of the information available to them at the time of the decision. This fact is hard for us to accept, but it must be so. The president and his advisors can’t make all information public or else risk the nation’s safety, so we have to have some measure of trust in them.

  6. Connor
    May 31, 2009 at 4:29 pm #

    It’s dangerous to assume that any president or military leader made an improper decision when we don’t have all of the information available to them at the time of the decision.

    For my position on this, I refer you to Carissa’s comment here with which I agree.

    I believe there’s a reason the Founders gave the power to declare and manage war to Congress—the people were the ones who fought in the war, and thus they, through their representatives, were the ones who had to determine if the circumstances justified military action. Granted, once the war campaign is started it is to a large extent under control of the executive. But the purse strings remain in the people’s hands, and thus they are given the power to have oversight and on an ongoing basis determine if war will continue or not.

    So, in direct answer to your statement above, I think that any information that merits warfare or the institutionalized/operationalized revocation of traditional values is something that should be put to the people, and not the executive branch and/or military.

  7. Kelly W.
    May 31, 2009 at 6:24 pm #

    “It’s dangerous to assume that any president or military leader made an improper decision when we don’t have all of the information available to them at the time of the decision.”

    It is now apparent that the president and military leaders had more information than they were telling us, and we now know what they were telling us at the time was NOT what the information they had in secret. They were fixing the facts around the policy.

    This is the very thing that brought me to my “awakening” of the dark side of our government – even BEFORE we invaded Iraq with that Shock and Awe display of bombs killing innocent people. Back during the run-up to the Iraq War, Cheney was appearing on TV news saying “Saddam and Iraq have the world’s worst weapons of mass destruction and is poised to use them on his neighbors and on the USA.” The newspapers would then all parrot his “claims.” But, the German media were actively stating that Cheney was wrong, and that there were no WMD. The German media were backing up their claims with sources and solid info, but US media did no such thing, using only hype and fear. I told my familiy even before the Iraq War started that I believed the German media, and thought Cheney was purposely concealing the facts the German media was openly reporting. I proclaimed that there would never be any WMD found, because there were no WMD and Cheney knew it!

    We now know through the efforts of the Iraq Survey Group headed by David Kaye and Charles Duelfer that Cheney was wrong and the Germans were right.

    So, I submit that the question is NOT whether presidents and leaders have correct info or not – – the question is if they are lying or not. I submit that in the matters of war, our US leaders are ALWAYS misrepresenting the truth. Just look to things like the foreknowledge of Pearl Harbor, the Northwoods documents, the Kuwaiti babies in incubators, the sinking of the Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin………..

    If the current wars of Afghanistan and Iraq are NOT based upon lies, then it is the exception.

  8. Neal Davis
    June 1, 2009 at 1:20 pm #

    I have to agree with the imminent danger of a perpetual war. In the 1840s, with the Mexican War, many favored taking the ability to declare war away from Congress altogether and leaving it in the hands of the people. That still leaves the problem of adequately informing the public (especially with a media with its own agenda), but it was a line of thought I’d never heard of before.

    I ask in a recent essay, “Is it not a sin to point to extenuating circumstances? Does that not challenge the validity of God’s Law and the reach of Christ’s Atonement?”

    War may become inevitable if we put off the hard decisions early on. (I am not arguing for or against the justice of our current war here.) However, the waste of resources that we’ve poured into death is appalling.

    On another note, if we truly believed in the Constitution, would we not extend its protection to everyone, regardless of their home country? Our insistence that the“terrorist” detainees are to be denied rights that must be afforded to any American citizen puts us immediately on shaky moral ground. What worth does the Constitution have if we don’t really believe it applies to everyone?

  9. Connor
    June 1, 2009 at 1:30 pm #

    Neal, I very much enjoyed your blog post that you linked here. I encourage the other commenters and lurkers here to go read it as well.

    As per your last (rhetorical?) question, I am in complete agreement. The amplification of an “us vs. them” mentality that is created by denying others the rights we claim to adhere to is hypocritical at best, and un-Christian at worst.

  10. Reach Upward
    June 1, 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    I’m much less interested in our “standing with the world” and what the world thinks when it watches us than I am with our standing with ourselves. Who do we really think we are and what are we all about? Get that worked out properly and what the world thinks will take care of itself.

    That said, Connor has eluded to a hierarchy of morals. The classic example is the moral superiority of Germans that violated laws by hiding Jews and smuggling them to safety during WWII. Rarely is there a codified law that cannot be superseded morally under the proper conditions. That is one reason that we have political leaders at all; although, Kelly W. suggests that they never act in good faith.

    Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that political leaders act according to the incentives in the system in which they operate. For this reason, it is vital that we have a healthy debate about any public issue. Certainly there may be times when sensitive information must be kept secret, but even then it should be only temporarily so and it should be made public at the earliest feasible moment.

  11. kannie
    June 2, 2009 at 11:57 am #

    Thanks for the great response & link, Connor!

    When to waver (if ever) is the real question… and your point regarding immediacy of threat is excellent in regard to the US’s usage of EIT.

    And wow, here’s another rather coincidentally-timed post about these moral dilemmas.

    I appreciate this part of Neal’s comment, in particular:

    On another note, if we truly believed in the Constitution, would we not extend its protection to everyone, regardless of their home country?

    I’ve had that same thought many times when reading D&C 101:77-79 (-ish) –

    77 According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles;
    78 That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.
    79 Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.

    To me, that says that – forget the useless Geneva Conventions – the self-evident truths in our Constitution do indeed apply to all human beings, regardless of their land of origin. It could also be used to argue for a more interventionist foreign policy (not necessarily the way we’ve done, but *something* within our Divinely-inspired Constitutional constraints).

    The biggest thing I’m thinking right now is that where two important values collide, it is possible to have more than one “right” answer. *ducking rocks* As Neal’s post lays out so nicely, certain responses are justified. Not responding in that way can be better and accounted to us for righteousness, but responding is acceptable (meaning not a negative mark on our mortal-eternal “report card”). The only way to make those sorts of decisions is through prayer, and I think we need to allow for good people to arrive at either (/several) of the possibilities.

    Getting situational for a moment, Connor’s scenario of his precious kiddo being locked in a neighbor’s car is clear – not only is an innocent life more important than property, but it’s *replaceable* property that I’m certain he, as a responsible person, would offer to accountably restore.

    In the (I pray) hypothetical ticking-time-bomb-in-a-crowd-that-includes-one’s-kiddo scenario, do you ask the captured architect of the plot for answers? How loudly do you ask? How close to his sneering face do you get? When do you start smacking him around? When do you do worse? OR… are any of these necessary at all, if we’re living worthily and entitled to personal revelation? The prophet Nephi in Helaman 9 was given revelation to solve a crime; might we not be given the same, provided we are worthy?

    As Connor & others have pointed out, anything that smacks of torture erodes our moral authority. It should absolutely not be used as a matter of policy. But at this point, I still believe that good people, based on common good principles, can arrive at both “I’ll do whatever it takes to save those bunches of people, particularly those over whom I have stewardship, and whatever sin I commit in doing so, be upon my own head” and “God forbid I should sin, so may the consequences of his actions be entirely on the head of the evildoer.” Justified vs. accounted favorably unto us?

    Whether agents of the people have the right to make those decisions in isolation is questionable, as both Connor and Reach have discussed, and Neal, in his post. If someone is acting alone, that’s one thing; but if they’re acting in our name, we should definitely at least have review of their activity. We have only to elect those who still have operational consciences to do that… 😉

  12. Carborendum
    June 2, 2009 at 4:31 pm #

    Wow, I had dropped out of that conversation too soon. I got real busy real fast.

    My response to Carissa (and to Connor): There is a difference between what criteria one uses to decide a vote and what criteria one uses to determine another’s guilt in a court of law. The tone was that other thread was one of passing sentence and calling for a tribunal. VERY different than a discussion of principles.

    In that other thread, I would not consider that a convincing argument to call for trials and accusing them of crimminal action.

    In this thread, I accept that as an argument to persude me this much: I did not agree with the actions of my government based on the principles up for discussion here.

    I believe we must ALWAYS abide by our principles IN ORDER OF PRIORITY.

    I’m having trouble sorting out how I believe our government ought to behave vs. the way we ought to behave as individuals. Where does religion come to play in a government where we are not to pass any laws regarding an establishment of religion? Yet, God should be the #1 priority in any individual’s life.

    There are the principles outlined in the Declaration, vs. the structure of the Constitution. What do those mean to the separate stations of individuals and of government?

    What do ANY of these mean to a nation that is now “multi-cultural”? To me “multi-cultural” actually means that we have no principles. We have NO values as a nation. How can we be hypocrites when we have no values in the first place?

  13. Carborendum
    June 2, 2009 at 4:34 pm #

    Bad choice of words:”call for a tribunal”. I suppose there is enough to call for a tribunal. I’d just like to make sure it is a fair trial and not a drumhead. That was the feeling I was getting from that other thread.

  14. Sidney Carton
    June 9, 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    I heartily agree, we are either a nation of laws or we are not. If we choose not to be, we choose the eventual erosion of all our values as the exigencies of the moment will always be able to win out over values that can all to easily be considered “inconvenient” and “behind the times.”

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