The Just War Myth and the War in Afghanistan

The conclusion of two decades of American war in Afghanistan reminds us that war is rarely justified.  A just war responds to aggression or defends human rights.  Just wars should be fought for noble intentions.  Just warriors should avoid deliberately harming noncombatants.  Just warriors should not use torture or commit war crimes.  And a just war should leave the world better off.

In Afghanistan, more than 150,000 people were killed.  This includes Taliban fighters, Afghan government forces, and an estimated 47,000 civilians.  Nearly 2,500 American soldiers were killed.  Trillions were spent.  Millions were displaced, including 2.6 million Afghan refugees. 

It is not clear this was worth it, morally speaking.

This is not to say that the American soldiers who fought, bled, and died in “the war on terror” did anything wrong.  Individual soldiers do not decide where to fight.  In our democratic system, that decision is made by civilian leaders who are accountable to “we, the people.” 

We asked our soldiers to fight in a war that was morally suspect from the beginning.  We should apologize.  In addition to saying “thank you for your service,” we should say, “I’m sorry.”  And we must add, in addressing our veterans, “it is not your fault.”

Retrospective analysis is fraught with difficulties.  But it was not clear from the beginning that an all-out invasion of Afghanistan was a proportional response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.  The Taliban regime was not responsible for 9/11.  It is true that Osama bin Ladin was hiding out in Afghanistan.  But it was overkill to invade an entire country in order to root out terrorists.  Critical voices argued, even in 2001, that a more targeted and proportional response would have been wiser.

It is also important to consider whether sustained and well-funded nonviolent alternatives to war could have been efficacious.  What kinds of nonviolent terrorism prevention programs could have been funded with the trillions of dollars spent in Afghanistan?

The Taliban was (and is) undemocratic and repressive.  It could be argued that removing the Taliban was justified in defense of human rights.  But nation-building wars are much more difficult to justify and to win, as Afghanistan and Iraq show.  As we’ve learned in both cases, the regimes we installed suffered from corruption as well as a lack of legitimacy and popular support.

From the beginning our intentions were mixed.  Some wanted revenge for 9/11.  Some wanted to “drain the swamp” harboring terrorists.  Some wanted to create democracy.  There were also strategic considerations involving Iran, Russia, Pakistan, and China, linked to the neoconservative desire to assert American supremacy around the globe.

Along the way, atrocities were committed.  Lies were told.  Goodwill was squandered.  Contractors enriched themselves.  And brave men and women lost limbs and lives. 

In 2007, I offered a critical analysis of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where I showed the problem of “the just war myth.”  The just war myth evolves from wishful thinking about war.  We want to believe that war can be easily justified.  We want to believe that we are the good guys who win the wars we fight because of our moral superiority.  Those are illusions.

We also want to believe that civilian and military leaders are wise and moral.  We want to believe that our leaders know what they are doing, that they are concerned with morality, and that they are not merely playing politics with the lives of our soldiers. 

Our trust in the probity and sagacity of our leaders is broken after years of polarization.  This should undermine our faith in the just war myth.  This does not mean one must affirm absolute pacifism.  Rather, it means we should be more critical of war and more vigilant. 

We, the people must say “never again” to ill-advised and unjust wars.  We should be skeptical of militaristic rhetoric and simplistic narratives that divide the world into good guys and bad guys.  We should question the idea that war can be an effective tool for promoting democracy.  And we should educate ourselves about the importance of nonviolent alternatives to war.

This critical perspective is offered in solidarity with the soldiers who fought and died during the past 20 years.  It is offered on behalf of the next generation of warriors who will be asked to bleed on our behalf.  It is offered with compassionate concern for the men, women, and children who suffer the horrors of war.

Wrong to Bomb Cultural Targets: Trump Threatens War Crimes against Iran

Fresno Bee, January 12, 2020

It is good that tensions with Iran have cooled for the moment. But the heated rhetoric of the past week shows a moral deficit in our thinking about war.

The president threatened to destroy cultural targets in Iran if it retaliated for the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. President Trump threatened, in his words, “disproportionate” violence in response to Iranian retaliation. He explained, “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.”

But morality does indeed work that way. The enemy is not “allowed” to do these things. We should rightly condemn them for it. And we must understand that it is immoral to return evil for evil.

Proportionality is key. The law of retaliation says you may demand eye for eye, and life for life. But justice says you can cannot demand more. To threaten disproportionate violence and escalation is immoral.

A higher, more humane morality goes beyond retaliation. Humanitarian morality calls upon us to give mercy to our enemies with the goal of restoring peace.

So-called “realists” reject this. They say anything goes in war, so long as it is effective and you can get away with it. But the “just war theory” developed over the past millennia, which calls for moral restraint in war.

The just war theory has roots in ancient Greek, Roman, and Christian sources. These ideas are woven into contemporary international treaties and conventions governing the laws of war. These ideas were used by Americans to prosecute war crimes after the Second World War. Until recently, the United States was a leading proponent of these ideas.

The just war theory prohibits disproportionate violence. It seeks to avoid the escalation of tit-for-tat reprisals. It prohibits torture and abuse of prisoners. It rejects deliberate attacks on innocent civilians and on cultural heritage sites.

Realists reject all of this. They see war as a matter of power. If you win, you do what you want. And if you lose, well, judgment does not matter to the dead.

The realist view of war is immoral and too narrow. All wars end. Soldiers return to civilian life. Communities are rebuilt. And history will render judgment after war.

Thousands of years ago, the Greek historian Polybius condemned the wanton destruction of temples and statues in a war led by Philip V. The historian said this was how frenzied tyrants fight. Good men do not make war with the goal of destruction and annihilation, he said. Rather, good men wage war in order to reform evil and create justice. Tyrants are ruthless and cruel. Good rulers earn people’s love with humanity and beneficence.

Future historians will judge our country’s actions as either tyrannical or benevolent. But judgment also occurs in the short-term among soldiers and those who love them. When soldiers are asked to behave immorally, they suffer from moral injury.

The soldiers who would be asked to carry out immoral orders are our students, friends, and loved ones. These are human beings with consciences. It would be wrong to ask them to violate morality by delivering disproportional harm or by destroying cultural heritage sites. Soldiers come home from war. We should want them to come home whole and morally intact.

It would, of course, be better if there were no wars at all. But an important step in the direction of peace is to understand the need for moral restraint in war. As Augustine said in a passage quoted with approval by Thomas Aquinas, “we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.”

Moral restraint in war helps to create a just and lasting peace. Cruelty creates hatred, enmity, and escalating violence. Tyrants ignore this to their peril. So let’s encourage our leaders to learn the lessons of the just war theory. And let’s hope they cherish the moral integrity of the soldiers they command and that they consider the judgment that history will render.