Supreme Political Emergency: A #CivMil Hypothetical

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The views expressed here are those of the author alone. And its a crazy hypothetical that analytic philosophers love. So there is that.

In his seminal Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer proposes the “Supreme Emergency” argument wherein a nation or other political community suspends its observance of the War Convention (the rules of war/jus in bello roughly speaking) when the future survival of the political community faces a truly existential threat. (Just and Unjust Wars, 1977 Chapter 16) This suspension must come with the proviso that those who break the War Convention are doing so on behalf of the political community (Dirty Hands theory style) and must also be punished for their actions afterwards. Rather than the standard utilitarian approach of saying that the suspension of the War Convention is morally justified on the grounds that the survival of the political community is a greater good, this argument acknowledges the wrongness, the immorality of the act while also acknowledging the necessity of the acts to the survival of the political community – which for Walzer is the beginning point of all the arguments about Just War. Without the political community, there is nothing to discuss or debate in a real sense.

Is there an analogous argument with in the #CivMil community for suspending the non-partisan norms within the military (especially for commissioned officers) in a political Supreme Emergency? The standard view is that members of the military ought to stay neutral on partisan political matters to preserve the Huntingdon-esque notion of objective control (the military is given autonomy to use its expertise to win wars, provided they leave political policy matters to the civilian political leaders), a bedrock principle and norm of civilian/military relations over the last half century.

However, a colleague (who I will not throw under the bus here!) has raised (on several occasions) the very valid question about whether neutrality by senior military leaders in certain circumstances is viewed not as non-partisan, but as complicity and tactic agreement with certain civilian political authorities. The salient point here is not that this is the intention of these senior military leaders, but rather how their actions are interpreted by the public, whose trust they need to perform effectively in their Profession.

Ought members of the military, in the event of an existential threat to the political community they are sworn to serve, consider a suspension of this civ/mil norm along the lines of Walzer’s Supreme Emergency? Are they to be viewed as the option of Last Resort here? What are the long term impacts of a suspension of this norm, even if those who suspend it are punished for it?

And what about the civilian role in this Supreme Emergency? Why is the military on the hook here?

DISCUSS. Hate mail and marriage proposals to Mac, my agent, please.

Published by shankskaurin

Philosopher and military ethicist. Author of two books, including "On Obedience" (USNI Press, 2020) I also teach war college students for the Navy. (Views here are personal only.) Mother to two energetic young lads. Foodie, gardener and Diva with a shoe obsession.

One thought on “Supreme Political Emergency: A #CivMil Hypothetical

  1. How about a case study, something like-You are a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a recent presidential election, a victory was secured by the incumbent by means that included gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the selective elimination of votes cast for his opponent. In addition, the re-elected incumbent has pursued policies that threaten American lives and security. These actions seem to you to add up to a violation of the Constitution, forcing on the American people a government that neither represents them, protects them, nor respects their rights. What should you do?

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