CTAP INTERVIEW: Dr. Cécile Fabre, Oxford University

By: Amina Kator-Mubarez , US Naval Postgraduate School

This interview is taken from the collection of the Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP).1 Dr. Cécile Fabre is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford and a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. She specializes in the ethics of war and has written most recently on that topic in her book Cosmopolitan War (Oxford University Press, 2012). On 11 February 2015, Amina Kator-Mubarez sat down with Dr. Fabre to discuss her research on the ethics of warfare and how cosmopolitan theory relates to military personnel and operations.2

AMINA KATOR-MUBAREZ: Dr. Fabre, please briefly explain cosmopolitan theory and what significance it has for military personnel.

CÉCILE FABRE: Cosmopolitanism is the view that an individual's fundamental rights and obligations are completely independent of national and political borders.3 According to cosmopolitans, all human beings, whoever they are and wherever they happen to live in the world, have a set of basic rights and obligations towards all other human beings, whoever those other human beings are and wherever they happen to live in the world. By way of example, if I, a French national, have a choice between saving the life of another French national and saving the life of someone from Afghanistan, a typical cosmopolitan principle is that I cannot justifiably use the fact that I am French as a reason to give priority to the life of the French national over the life of the Afghan person.

National membership is irrelevant to the cosmopolitan, particularly when it comes to life-saving decisions. I thought it would be interesting to look at cosmopolitanism's theory of the just war because, when we talk about war, it is very tempting and intuitively plausible to regard nationality and political membership as being very relevant. Most people take the view that, in war, a community is entitled to privilege the life of its own citizens over the lives of even enemy civilians, let alone enemy soldiers. Cosmopolitanism has reemerged as a very dominant political theory in the last 30 years or so. Alongside it, war has reemerged as a very important field of inquiry, but the two really haven't been looked at together. In the book, therefore, I ask, If you are a committed cosmopolitan—as in fact many fellow moral and political philosophers are—what does that mean with respect to how we should conduct ourselves in war? Indeed, on what grounds should we make a decision to go to war?

KATOR-MUBAREZ: Your account of just war theory, as you state in your book, relies on "the right to kill in self-defense and the right to kill in defense of others," yet there is extreme controversy among present-day just war theorists about whether self-defense is a promising justification for killing in war.4 What would your response be to this?

FABRE: There is an instance in which appealing to self-defense is not controversial, and that is the view that says states are like individuals. So, in the same way that individuals have the right to defend their own lives by killing those who threaten them, states have the right to defend their integrity by attacking other states in national defense. I don't think that is right because I don't think states have a personality and a status that is separate from the personalities and status of individual members of that state. When we look at war in general, and wars of defense in particular, at the end of the day, I think we really have to assess whether individual members of states have the right to kill in defense of their own interests. Of course, you could object that political actors, especially in a democracy, decide to wage war as representatives of the people—that is, of the group whose state it is. But even if that is correct, it still is not the same as the claim, "Britain kills enemy soldiers to defend itself." And in fact, that claim is odd. Britain is not a person, it does not kill, it does not have interests. Rather, British individuals have interests, insofar as they are members of this community, and British individuals—in other words, soldiers—kill. That is what we ought to say. That is the first point to make.

Such a view is thought to be very controversial because it implies that there is a profound difference between the morality of killing in war on the one hand and the morality of killing in an interpersonal context on the other hand. A lot of people say that war is different, and that the norms that govern killing in war are very different from the norms that govern killing in an interpersonal context. I, and many other people as well, disagree with that view, which you could argue is the "orthodox" position on killing in war. Once the war has started, this thinking goes, there is no longer any moral difference between the soldiers who fight on either side of the war, irrespective of whether they are fighting for the right causes and pursuing the right kind of aim. From that view, if you think about it, as soon as Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and the war started, the German soldier who killed in pursuit of his country's invasion of Poland was as entitled to kill a Polish soldier in self-defense as a Polish soldier was entitled to kill that German soldier in defense of his own country and his own life.

Now, we wouldn't apply that sort of model in an interpersonal context. In the interpersonal context, if I am under attack by someone who has no business attacking me, I am absolutely entitled to kill him in self-defense. But even at the point at which I start defending myself, even though my attacker's life is under threat from my counterattack, he is not entitled to try to kill me. What he has to do is surrender. If he were to succeed in killing me, even if at that point he did it in defense of his own life, most jurisdictions would hold him liable for murder. This is why people who disagree with my point of view say, "Well, war is different, because in war the German and the Polish soldiers are morally on a par." But in interpersonal situations, the wrongful attacker is not on a par with his victim. From my view—a view that others like David Rodin and Jeff McMahon have defended as well—there is no good reason to think of war as being radically different from interpersonal violence, in these particular respects, at any rate.5

KATOR-MUBAREZ: Do cosmopolitan theorists receive a lot of criticism?

FABRE: Well, we do receive a bit of criticism. But interestingly, we receive less criticism from serving soldiers than I would have expected. This particular view I just described, which I defend in the book and which other people have defended too, we call the revisionist, or neoclassical, account of killing in war. I have talked to soldiers about the revisionist account, and in particular I have pressed the thought that soldiers have to think about the reasons why they are agreeing to go to war. They have to ask themselves, When I go off to Iraq to kill Iraqi soldiers, do I have any business doing this? When we press this question, we are met with much more sympathy by serving soldiers than we would have expected before we engaged in that kind of dialogue.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: What do you mean by sympathy?

FABRE: What I mean is that a surprising number of the serving soldiers I have spoken to have been willing to say, "Yes, you are right. Of course we have to ask ourselves whether an order to deploy is a just order. If we conclude that the order is not a just order, we have to accept that, if we go to kill enemy soldiers, there is a sense in which what we are doing is wrong." Now, quite often the soldiers evoke other reasons, overriding reasons, to justify going to war nevertheless. But they are more open than I thought they would be to the possibility that there is one sense in which this particular act of killing, carried out in prosecution of an unjust war, is itself morally problematic.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: How do you think they reconcile that choice within themselves?

FABRE: The reason I have heard put forward most often by serving soldiers is loyalty to their mates. I had a British soldier actually tell me, "It was wrong for me to go to Iraq in 2003, I shouldn't have done it in some respects. It was wrong of me to kill those Iraqi soldiers, but I did it because of my mates, because they had trained with me, they had become dependent on me, and I was dependent on them. In the end, I decided that the bond of loyalty I had with them was more important than my duty not to go and kill those Iraqi soldiers. But I can see there is a sense in which killing those Iraqi soldiers was wrong, although not as wrong as betraying my comrades."

KATOR-MUBAREZ: Special Forces operators often have increased autonomy in their work. Does this increase their ethical challenges on the battlefield? If so, how?

FABRE: Well, I think it does, because if they are more autonomous, then it seems to me that they cannot as easily invoke the fact that they were given a very prescribed and precise set of orders with which to comply. It seems to me that greater autonomy on the battlefield means they actually have more scope to exercise their own private, individual judgment about the legitimacy of what they are doing. In that respect, one might argue that Special Forces have a luxury that other soldiers don't have: the choice of how exactly to fight. They are treated as autonomous agents to a greater extent than soldiers who serve in other branches of the military.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: Do you think the idea of autonomy is easier for US military personnel to put into practice than for international military personnel?

FABRE: I am not an empiricist; my research is in philosophy, not in political science. But I wouldn't be surprised if, generally, the armed forces that serve in democratic cultures would find it easier than the armed forces that serve under dictatorships or authoritative regimes to question the legitimacy of what they are doing, if only because personnel in democracies might find it easier to find information. The media, for example, are powerful allies when it comes to questioning what the government is doing. Let me give you an example from the British context. When Britain was deciding whether to go to war against Iraq alongside the United States in 2003, General Mike Jackson, who took over as Chief of the General Staff of the British Army six weeks before the invasion, went on the record to say that he, of his own authority, had decided to seek legal advice as to whether the invasion would be lawful. If the invasion turned out to be unlawful, it would count as a crime in international law, and Jackson didn't want to risk being prosecuted for it.

Now, there are two things to consider about this. First of all, Jackson took advice from a lawyer who was, in fact, the government's senior lawyer. So a number of people said, "Well, why did he not seek completely independent opinions?" But the point I want to make is that Jackson did feel that he could at least take advice, but more importantly, that he could say publicly that he had to reassure himself that what he had been ordered to do was the legal thing to do. I very much doubt that the head of the army in—take your pick—Pakistan, or Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or Syria right now, would be able to say, in public in his own country, "Well, you know what? I am going to check it for myself before I agree." In fact, if the advice Jackson received had said the invasion was unlawful, Jackson always said he would have resigned, and I believe him. I believe he would actually have been true to his commitment not to act in a way that was illegal, and resigned. So I imagine that soldiers in the United States would find it easier to take those sorts of steps in public than would soldiers in countries where the sense that you really have to do whatever you are ordered to do is much more deeply rooted.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: Current US policy seeks to build a global network of Special Forces operators. Are there additional ethical concerns when building partnerships that may span many cultures and political systems?

FABRE: I think that is a very interesting question. I would imagine that the most obvious concern is twofold. The first task is to make sure that the rules of engagement are the same for all members of that particular network. The second is to ensure that when there is a conflict between the rules of engagement that are being used by that network and the rules that are internal to a particular military culture, the former will prevail. This is the kind of difficulty we have witnessed when it has come to multinational peacekeeping forces, where cultures can have different understandings, for example, of what counts as imminent danger. I think that is one of the deepest challenges for coalitions.

I suppose the other challenge arises for any network that claims to be global but whose various participants are vastly asymmetrical when it comes to the resources available from each member to that particular network. Any such network would face the challenge of trying to be a genuinely multilateral network as opposed to being a network funded and operated by the most powerful backer or contributor, under the guise of multilateralism. For the individual soldiers taking part in such a network, this raises specific difficulties. For example, suppose that you belong to the army of the less powerful member of the network. The rules of engagement are dictated by the powerful backer and are much more strict, or much more lax, than the rules you are used to. How should you behave in this case? What if following those new rules means that, by your lights, you would commit a criminal offense (if those rules are more lax), or, on the contrary, would end up not engaging with the enemy at all, at some risk to yourself or others (if those rules are more stringent)? So these are the two potential problems that come to my mind at this point.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: You wrote a paper discussing the ethics of war termination. The United States has had two recent instances, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which it could unilaterally time its withdrawal. What is your perspective? Could the Iraq withdrawal have been done, or can the withdrawal from Afghanistan be done, more ethically?

FABRE: Well, I am not the only one to worry that the withdrawals are happening—or did happen—too early. The situation the Americans left behind in Iraq is not one that is conducive to a durable and overall just peace. That always is the worry when you decide to withdraw. So I do think that the coalition forces were right not to leave Iraq as early as 2005 or 2006. I can't help thinking that a more sustained effort, and in particular a more sustained effort at ensuring that the rule of law could genuinely be implemented in both countries, would have been desirable. There is still a major attack at least once a month somewhere in Iraq. That is not a country that has been left stable.

Now, the counterargument goes like this: Well, look, the coalition forces are not the only ones responsible for the mess. There is a sense in which the Iraqis as a society have to take responsibility for the enduring power of insurgent groups to destabilize the country. I can see the force of that argument. I am not yet persuaded, though, that there was nothing more that the United States and its partners could have done to help the legitimate Iraqi armed forces, and enforcement mechanisms in particular, to get stronger.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: With the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan, do you think Afghans will blame the United States for failing to leave the country in a stable state?

FABRE: They might blame the United States, but in a way, the question is not so much will they blame the United States—or Britain, for that matter, since Britain is about to withdraw as well. The question is whether we really did all that we could have done to ensure, for example, that the Taliban do not come back into power and devastate the country the way they did for a few years, some time ago. To ensure that young girls and women do enjoy genuine opportunities for a decent life. To ensure that the Afghan economy does not continue to be as dependent as it has been on the culture of poppy, for example.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: Thank you for talking with us.

FABRE: Thank you.


Amina Kator-Mubarez is a research associate in the Defense Analysis Department at the US Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.

About the Author(s):
Cecile Fabre is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford and a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.

  1. The Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP) aims to collect and archive knowledge on strategy, operations, and tactics used by military and other security personnel from around the world in the twenty-first–century fight against global terrorism. Collectively, the individual interviews that CTAP conducts will create an oral history archive of knowledge and experience in counterterrorism for the benefit of the CT community now and in the future.go back up
  2. This interview was edited for length and clarity. Every effort was made to ensure that the meaning and intention of the participants were not altered in any way. The ideas and opinions of all participants are theirs alone and do not represent the official positions of the US Naval Postgraduate School, the US Department of Defense, the US government, or any other official entity.go back up
  3. For a detailed explanation of cosmopolitanism's history and the variety of its manifestations, see Pauline Kleingeld and Eric Brown, "Cosmopolitanism," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2014 ed., ed. Edward N. Zalta: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmopolitanism/go back up
  4. Cécile Fabre, Cosmopolitan War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012): 55.go back up
  5. David Rodin and Jeff McMahan are two of the most prominent just war theorists. For more on their work, see David Rodin, War & Self-Defence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); and Jeff McMahan, Killing in War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).go back up
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