World·Point of View

How Canada deploys its military has moral costs, even if we don't fight

War, it is sometimes said, is hell. Deciding when to make war, though, is a hellish problem in itself, argues philosophy professor Michael Blake.

Ending air mission against ISIS doesn't let Canada off human rights hook: Michael Blake

Canadian CF-18 Hornets are part of the coalition that has been fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The new Liberal federal government has said it wants to pull Canadian planes out of the coalition. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Michael Blake is a professor of philosophy and public affairs, and director of the program on Values in Society, at the University of Washington.

What should Canadians be fighting for?

War, it is sometimes said, is hell. But deciding when to make war is a hellish problem in itself.

Now that the election campaign rhetoric has cooled and the Liberals are coming to grips with actually running the country, one of the major things the newly elected federal government must decide is when, where and how to deploy Canada's military.

  • Philosophers Michael Blake, Simone Chambers and Arthur Ripstein grapple with war and peace on CBC Radio's Ideas. Part 1 airs Nov. 12 at 9 p.m., The Morality of War. Part 2 airs Nov. 19 at 9 p.m., The Meaning of Peace.

This is hardly a hypothetical question. Canadian troops are already involved in Operation Impact, fighting against the so-called Islamic State. And there are growing doubts about whether the response of Canada and its allies to the civil war in Syria is appropriate.
Michael Blake is professor of philosophy and public affairs, and director of the Program on Values in Society, at the University of Washington. (Michael Blake)

During the election campaign, Justin Trudeau, now Canada's prime minister,  said his party would end air combat operations, focusing instead on humanitarian support.

But is this the best course of action?

What's the point?

War, even under the best of circumstances, is a messy business. Even the most justified sorts of warfare involve destruction, and there has never been a war in which that destruction's costs did not fall upon the innocent.

There is another sort of messiness, though, that we generally don't reflect upon. It involves deciding what, exactly, the point is of fighting.

That decision is particularly fraught when we consider our fight to be justified, in part, based upon the atrocities and human rights abuses of the other side.

As Canadians, we all have occasion to answer the question: What should the role of our military be, in working against human rights abuses abroad?

Fighting evil

No matter what we propose to do, we ultimately bear the moral costs.

We might, for example, decide to use military force simply to stop the specific actions we identify as evil. Our goal in warfare, then, might be simply to prevent the powerful from engaging in atrocity – not to change who, in a given society, actually has power.

This is a limited vision of warfare, in which we do not seek regime change or fundamental alteration of the government that produced these evils. Instead, we simply use threats and violence to stop particular practices.

This vision of warfare has a long pedigree; American political philosopher Michael Walzer defends something like it in his book Just and Unjust Wars.
More than 100 people protested in Montreal in March to mark the anniversary of the war in Syria. Organizer Faisal Alazem said it was a day of sadness. (Jennifer Choi/CBC)

Its appeal is obvious; it allows us to work against particular evils, without thinking that we are thereby committing to remaking some other society's political identity. We want only to stop particular criminal actions undertaken by some foreign government – rather than declaring that government itself to be criminal.

The costs, though, are obvious as well. Leaving in place a government that has proven itself willing to attack its own citizens, for example, simply allows that government the opportunity for future abuses.

Replacing a sub-par regime

If we are worried about moral costs, we should be worried about the fact that we may stop the present evil, only to see the possibility of future evils emerge.

So, we might be more ambitious and take ourselves as licensed to topple regimes we think have demonstrated an unwillingness to take the rights of their own citizens seriously.
A young Kosovar refugee waves to a Canadian soldier in 1999 after arriving at CFB Trenton. Canada's new Liberal government has proposed speeding 25,000 refugees from Syria into the country. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

On this understanding, our goal should be to ensure that states such as Iraq and Syria are governed by – at the very least – minimally decent political institutions and political leaders. 

We might, that is, commit ourselves to regime change, and the possibility of remaking a foreign society's political identity.

The problem here, of course, is made vivid by recent events, especially the American adventure in Iraq. There is no guarantee that, having destroyed a sub-par political regime, you will be able to replace it with a superior one.

What you risk, instead, is eliminating those minimal forms of safety and security the prior regime made possible.

There is, after all, some moral wisdom in the so-called Pottery Barn rule: "You break it, you buy it." When we break another political society, it is at the very least our moral obligation to repair it – and when we are unable or unwilling to do so, the moral costs rightly lie upon our heads.

Staying home

We might, then, refuse to engage in any military responses to human rights abuses. We might say – to ourselves, if not to others – that someone else should fight for human rights, or that our response to atrocity should involve something other than military force.

We might, on this understanding, work to alleviate suffering, but not through violence directed against those who have brought about that suffering.

There is something appealing about this response. It lets us off the hook and limits the concrete costs we have to shoulder in the name of human rights. It also reflects a healthy skepticism about how much the use of force can really accomplish in the world.

The moral costs of this choice, though, are significant.

If human rights are to mean anything – if they are to be facts in the world, rather than words on paper – then they have to be defended. If human rights can be ignored with impunity, then they are not rights, but mere aspirations.

If we do not commit to bear concrete costs in the name of their defence, it is likely time for us to stop talking about them as if they were values we claim as our own.

All options are fraught

The problem, then, is that whatever way we turn, we bear moral costs. We run the risk of either damaging other people, or letting their own leaders damage them, in a manner of which we should be ashamed.

The world of warfare is inherently a dangerous one, not only in the obvious sense, but in the moral one as well.

A Canadian Armed Forces CF-18 fighter jet, part part of the Canadian Armed Forces' contribution to coalition assistance to security forces in the Republic of Iraq who are fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). (Combat Camera/DND)
There are, in short, no good answers to the question of what we ought to do with our military — and no escape from having to provide an answer to that question.

The decision to withdraw from air combat operations, then, might not be the wrong decision, but it cannot be regarded as a decision without its own costs and moral risks.

The new government has an obligation to ensure that it works steadily and effectively in defence of the human rights of the powerless, even if it no longer does so through military means.

Canadians — and the world — will be watching.


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