Can there be such a thing as morality in war? Those who have argued for an idea of a just war (an idea which has been around for over 2,000 years), argue that there can.
So what are we to say to the two warring sides in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict which again flared up in January 2009.
There are two issues here: jus ad bellum the justice of going to war to right perceived wrongs (in this case, missiles being fired from Gaza on Israeli towns) and the justice of prosecuting war in a certain way jus in bello.
No-one disputes that, in the complexity of Middle Eastern politics, both sides have genuine grievances: Palestinians argue that they have a right to land and to be free from isolation by a regionally dominant Israel; Israel argues that it has a right to exist, and exist peacefully, and finds in Hamas (Sunni, as was Saddam Hussein) an organisation banned throughout the civilised world for its links with terror, violence and suicide bombings (not to mention its charter document which vows to annihilate the state of Israel).
But even if there are grievances, there also remain procedures for righting them. Some of these, such as United Nations arbitration are peaceful. Ceasfires only hold if real issues are addressed: why did Israel place an economic blockade on Gaza if it wanted peace? Why did Hamas dig tunnels to bring in weapons and then fire these rockets into Israel in acts of blatant provocation?
Notwithstanding this, governments around the world have been slow to speak about morality. Just war theory roundly condemns disproportionate sue of force. If a sniper fires at me from a village steeple, I don't order the destruction of the whole village, because such disproportionate force is immoral. So why can western governments not condemn with one voice a casualty rate of 100 Palestinians for 1 Israeli (1300 dead for 14 at March 26th 2009), with 50% estimated to be civilians, including, by Israel's admission, 189 children?
Imagine the response if the casualty rate was the other way round, and the response of Israel's western allies.
Such failure to address real moral issues creates three dangers: war and violence continue as revenge is sought; terrorism worldwide escalates, and so few of us are as safe, and countries like Shia-led Iran side with Hammas (paradoxically, Sunni) and create the potential for nuclear escalation.
We study ethics, but do we have the moral courage to apply its principles?