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Monday, November 12, 2012

Is There Such A Thing As A Just War?

Philosophers have debated the issue of the morality of war for centuries, and have concluded that there is, in fact, such a thing as a just war; and a just way of waging war.  In a two-part series for the New York Times (11.12-13.12) Jeff McMahan has written about the origins of the just war theory and how it is being challenged by the changing nature of war.  The principles of right wars and right conduct were developed and applied when wars took place between nation-states; but now that armed conflicts rarely pit countries against each other and more often set factions in opposition within a country or a region, these principles may no longer be applicable or appropriate.

Enshrined in the principles of the Geneva Convention, such wars must adhere to the following principles:
In most presentations of the theory of the just war there are six principles of jus ad bellum [undertaking just wars], each with its own label: just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, necessity or last resort, proportionality and reasonable hope of success. Jus in bello [conduct in just wars]comprises three principles: discrimination, necessity or minimal force, and, again, proportionality. These principles articulate in a compressed form an understanding of the morality of war that is, in its fundamental structure, much the same as it was 300 years ago.
These principles were rarely adhered to, even in the more innocent age of World War II.  America’s firebombing of Dresden, or the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could hardly be called proportional; but obviously the generals who planned these attacks certainly thought so.  Curtis LeMay, a senior officer in the Air Force who advocated annihilation of the enemy through massive air bombing, said it best.  War is hell, he averred, saving American lives was the only priority, and all calculations and equations of Japanese dead had no relevance whatsoever.  Bombing the Japanese back to the Stone Age was perfectly right and acceptable because it would shorten the war and stop the killing of American soldiers.  His argument, indifferent to the numbers of Japanese dead, was only focused on the morality of victory and lives of the victor saved.

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For LeMay ‘proportionality’ had no meaning.  Since the value of one American soldier had no equivalent for an enemy force – that is one can never put a value on an American life because that life is inestimable.  Similarly one could never put a value on Japanese lives because they had none.
Israel applies the same theory.  There is no way to calculate the life of one Israeli solider because it is inestimable; and if it takes the death of 100 or even 1000 Palestinians to stop the killing of Israeli personnel, then so be it.  In short, Israel has their own definition of proportionality.

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‘Legitimate authority’ has been generally interpreted as a response to an armed attack.  A just war would be one in which the aggrieved country has a legitimate right to declare war on the aggressor.  There was no question, therefore, concerning the Allies’ armed response to the invasions of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  Given this rather simple and straightforward definition, the principle of ‘right intention’ followed logically.  ‘Reasonable hope of success’ seems the least important and relevant, for few countries would embark on a war with little expectation of victory.

There is no doubt that American politicians and their generals felt that the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the War of 1812 were just wars, with clear legitimacy, right intention, and reasonable hope of success.  Yet, a strong case could be made that these were American wars of aggression designed to consolidate territory, remove the British once and for all from American lands, and to extend horizons of empire. 

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While the Korean War appears to fit within the just war category, since consensus is that it was provoked by the North Koreans, the Vietnam War clearly does not.  No one can claim that this war met any of the conditions of the Just War Theory.  What legitimacy was there in a war for which the casus belli was invented (Gulf of Tonkin)?  How was it legitimate to intervene in what was basically a civil conflict fought over nationalism, not regional domination?  Where was the proportionality in the massive, LeMay-style carpet bombing of the North?  Where was the reasonable expectation of victory when the United States completely underestimated the force and resolve of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.

The point is, the argument about just wars is an academic exercise with no real relevance.  From the perspective of the aggressor, all wars are justified.

The academic exercise itself gets more complicated as philosophers try to make sense of the asymmetrical wars of today.  Countries do not fight each other much anymore, but al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shaba and a hundred other armed militias in the world attack ruling regimes or each other with increasing regularity.  These ‘wars’ are, like state conflicts, fought over land, resources, power, and perhaps some principle; and there can be no doubt of the perceived legitimacy of them.

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The moral argument comes when superpowers have to decide whether to intervene or not.  Surely there was a moral case for a just war for the United States to intervene in the Rwandan genocide and wage war against the Hutus; or to send in expeditionary forces into Sudan to stop the killings in Darfur; or to have intervened far earlier in the war in Bosnia.  Many argue that in failing to fight a just war, America and its allies were immoral.  Justness or rightness have to be defined within the context of sins of omission as well as sins of commission.

Philosophers are trying to decipher the new rules of engagement and place them within a moral context.  Some, like McMahan want to revert back to classical theory which places the onus of responsibility on individuals, rather than states.  In the War Against Terror we are neither fighting states or armed groups, but individuals who want to do us harm in a general cause.  Destroying or neutralizing them is necessary to keep the United States safe. 
[The Theory] returns, for example, to the idea that it is individual persons, not states, who kill and are killed in war, and that they, rather than their state, bear primary responsibility for their participation and action in war.
This is counting angels on the head of a pin.  We wage war under the briefest and flimsiest pretenses, and no one really seems to care who is threatening us or how.  It is enough to be threatened and to take whatever action necessary to remove the threat. Once we engage in war, the issue of just action arises; and any semblance of Geneva convention niceties have been thrown out the window.  Who doubts that an enemy of the United States would hesitate to use chemical or biological weapons; or that we would use strategic nuclear strikes if necessary?

If wars were left to be more brutal, more horrific, more unthinkable in their savagery and brutality, there would certainly be fewer of them.  No school of moral philosophy nor any attempt to apply its principles on the battlefield have made any difference.  A nice academic exercise, but little more.

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