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Recent reflections on Iraq War ignore key ethical questions

  • 10 August 2016


Donald Trump's obiter dicta on war and the military role of the US in the world have sparked much comment. And as does almost all discussion of military matters, the conversation has moved quickly to the Iraq War.

The recent Chilcot report on British participation in that war elicited embarrassing responses by British and Australian leaders and apologists of the time. Specious justifications were accompanied by a failure to take responsibility for the consequences of the invasion.

In his recent Quarterly Essay ('Firing Line: Australia's Path to War'), too, James Brown acknowledges the military and political shambles that was the Iraq War, but endeavours to move beyond it in order to encourage hard thinking about military operations undertaken by Australia.

In contrast to the apologias, Brown's work is thoughtful, responsible, rigorous and adult. But like them it puzzlingly lacks any explicit consideration of ethical issues raised by war.

Brown offers a soldier's perspective. He believes, as any soldier must, that governments are responsible for keeping their people safe and that the military must act when directed by the government. He also argues that if they are to act responsibly, governments must constantly review possible future threats, devise plans to meet them, and provide resources adequate to purpose.

Because the Australian assessment of threats always involves study of relationships between nations, the government cannot meet them alone. It must act in concert with other nations on whom it can call and by whom be called.

Since decisions on military action must often be made quickly in response to a crisis the prime minister must be able to make them without prior reference to Parliament. But if he is to act responsibly he needs to be supported by informed groups of advisors. The decisions should also be ratified by a properly informed Parliament.

Brown makes it clear that by these criteria Australian practice has been sloppy, discontinuous and idiosyncratic.


"I find it surprising that the criteria fail to include the stipulation that intervention be shown to be ethically justified."


He also outlines rigorous criteria that should inform any decision to use military force. It should be in the national interest, have a clear political goal to which the military action is linked, convince people that it is in their interest to stay in for the long haul, and be based on a clear understanding of the costs to country, civilians, soldiers and the enemy. It must also be preceded by assessment of