The ethics of war | Katharine Whitehorn

What distinguishes honourable men, defending with their lives their values and homelands, from sadistic barbarians?

News stories come and go, but some dilemmas don’t easily get shrugged off. They touch on issues that have no cut-and-dried answers. The incident of the shooting in Afghanistan, apparently in cold blood, of a prisoner who had already surrendered has had me wondering for a week or more. What would my father, AD Whitehorn, a school teacher who was a conscientious objector in the First World War, and my husband Gavin Lyall, a Quaker but once an officer in the RAF and a thriller writer riveted by all things military, have thought of the rights and wrongs of the incident and its implications?

Maybe my father, presumably totally against trying to settle anything by killing people, would not have thought it made that much difference how and why the man was shot; he shouldn’t have been “shuffled off this mortal coil” in any circumstances. Whereas Gavin, respecting the ethics and rules of civilised armed conflict, would have held that an important – possibly the only – justification for the carnage of war was that you were preventing something worse (Buchenwald, etc). He may have argued that keeping to the ethical understanding of what was justifiable was what distinguished sadistic barbarians from honourable men defending with their lives, values and homelands – so acts of random brutality remove war’s only moral justification. I wish I could hear them now.

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