Stanford News Service

'Ethics and War' explores the contradictions of modern conflict

Stanford feels a million miles from America's wars – and that may be part of the problem. A yearlong series of events will explore the troubling questions of war today.


Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,

for immediate release October 14, 2010

By Cynthia Haven

An outrage happens somewhere in the world. We send in troops. The public rallies. Then, as images pour back to us via television and Twitter feeds, we reconsider our involvement.

Does war accomplish anything, in an era where war is not always officially declared, enemies are often undisclosed and disputes are only tentatively resolved? Is war ever justified anyway?

These are among the issues to be explored during a season of events in Ethics and War, a program that has received wide interdisciplinary sponsorship across Stanford.

The events begin at 7:30 p.m. tonight with a showing of director Christian Frei's 2001 documentary, War Photographer, in Annenberg Auditorium.

The acclaimed film follows photojournalist James Natchtwey, who has devoted his career to documenting wars, conflicts and critical social issues around the world. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

The film will be followed by a discussion led by Brendan Fay, an expert in the history of photography and 20th-century art. The event is free and open to the public.

War is always a timely topic, but now more than ever, said Debra Satz, the director of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, who developed the program. "More people were killed in the wars of the 20th century probably than in the 10 centuries before that combined," she said. "War seems to be an omnipresent part of the human experience."

Although the United States has been involved in several wars in the last decade, students and professors on campus may feel largely untouched because the weight of war falls disproportionately on the poor, Satz said.

The program will consider the ethics of a volunteer army, the proposal to bring ROTC to campus (currently under discussion by the Faculty Senate) and broader questions, such as whether war is too deeply embedded in human nature to eradicate.

For many, the idea of war and ethics may be a contradiction in terms. But Satz points out that "the alternative to pacifism is not anything goes," pointing to the "just war" concept espoused by Thomas Aquinas.

Richard Rhodes, who will be speaking about "The Ethics of Violence in War" on Nov. 11, also argues that "there is an ethical structure in war."

According to Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, The Twilight of the Bombs and Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, "In the abstract, the dividing line is very clear – soldiers fight those who are fighting them, and not bystanders. There's a sharp dividing line – in the abstract – between those who are attacking them and those who are not."

David Luban, a professor of philosophy and law at Georgetown University, noted that modern war often includes "non-state militants" who "live and work among civilians, many of whom agree with the militants' cause but are not themselves fighters, and the militants don't wear uniforms or other distinguishing signs so that the state army can readily tell who is who."

Luban's Feb. 10, 2011, talk on "Asymmetrical Wars" will address these questions: When should a civilian be considered a direct participant in hostilities who loses immunity and may be legitimately targeted? How should a state army deal with civilian human shields, voluntary or involuntary, who protect the enemy with their own bodies? How much risk must the state's soldiers assume to minimize casualties among the civilians on the other side?

Rhodes said that research shows that the rules of war deeply impact a soldier's psychology and "protect our soldiers from the baleful effects of becoming mass killers."

Properly conducted, war "leaves protection and violence to people who are professionally trained to be violent – so the rest of society doesn't go around stabbing each other."

He points to the brutal levels of violence before governments began to assert control over violence in the mid-18th century: "Firing people, divorcing people, suing each other – people used to solve this with violence."

Although "police officers have to account for all the bullets," he noted that war has become chaotic since soldiers "arrived in the slippery world of Vietnam rice paddies. You never knew who was going to shoot at you. You never knew when you were going to step on a sharpened bamboo stake covered by cow manure."

Rhodes said the alternative to war is "country-building," in which strong, stable governments take control of violence. "They don't have to be democracies; they don't have to be totalitarian, either.

"Our military has made great strides learning how to deal with people in a much more interesting way than threatening them. Get to know the locals and help them build schools. This is the essence of how to move beyond violence."

"Ethics and War" will culminate with two shows next year: a May 14, 2011, performance of The Gurs Zyklus by MacArthur Foundation "genius" award winner Trimpin, and a May 20, 2011, performance of Betrayed, the 2009 play written by New Yorker journalist George Packer. Both playwrights will visit Stanford.

"War and Ethics" has garnered support from across campus. The sponsors include the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Stanford Humanities Center, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford Creative Writing Program, Program on Human Rights, Stanford Summer Theater, Program on Global Justice, Stanford Continuing Studies, Taube Center for Jewish Studies, Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts, Lively Arts, United Nations Association Film Festival and John S. Knight Fellowship Program.



Debra Satz, Stanford Center on Ethics:, (650) 723-0997

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