Just War, Pacifism, and the Abolition of War

Fresno Bee, Oct 15, 2023

As war and terrorism rear their ugly heads, it’s useful to recall basic moral arguments about war and peace. The just-war theory teaches that it is wrong to deliberately target noncombatants. So, the Hamas attacks that assassinated and kidnapped Israeli civilians are wrong.

The just-war theory allows for targeted retaliation in response to aggression. But it does not allow indiscriminate violence. So, if Israel responds indiscriminately, it also is wrong to do so.

Critics may suggest that the just-war theory is a feckless attempt to regulate the inherent brutality of war. So-called “realists” say that moral judgment does not apply in war, where the goal is attaining supremacy. Realists maintain that power trumps morality and anything goes in pursuit of victory, including terrorism and terror bombing.

The just-war theory rejects this. It demands that violence be limited to legitimate targets and minimized by rules of proportionality. These limits aim to prevent escalation and atrocity.

But what does a military force do when responding to those who do not play by moral rules? Some militants and militaries ignore moral limits. They employ terror tactics and commit war crimes, as Russia has in Ukraine. It is tempting to respond in kind. But tit-for-tat retaliation is wrong. An atrocity committed as retaliation for an atrocity still remains an atrocity. And retaliatory violence tends to provoke further atrocity.

Pacifists have often pointed out that the logic of war tends toward escalation and depravity. Pacifists argue that few, if any, actual wars live up to the standards of the just-war theory. Pacifists also suggest that nonviolence can be effective.

The critics of war also argue that war should be abolished. In 1950s, at the dawn of the nuclear age, Albert Einstein said, “the only solution is to abolish both war and the threat of war.” Pope Francis reiterated this idea last year, saying, “The moment has come to abolish war, to erase it from human history before it erases human history.”

War abolition may seem a naïve goal at present. And it is not clear how nonviolence can effectively stop terrorists and criminal armies. The realists will say that in a world at war, the only thing that matters is supremacy. The just-war theorists worry that realism is a recipe for moral disaster. And the pacifists complain that it is all a kind of madness.

To cure that madness, pacifists call for radical change. War abolition would require the construction of just and equitable global systems. More fundamentally, it would require a change of human consciousness such that terrorism and war are simply unimaginable.

Abolishing war would be like abolishing slavery. It would require the evolution of our economic, cultural, and political systems. The analogy with slavery reminds us that brutal systems can be abolished. But it also reminds us of the extent of the challenge. Slavery existed in human culture for millennia. In America it took a terrible Civil War to abolish it. War has a seemingly more permanent hold on the human spirit. War will not be abolished simply because Einstein or the pope wishes it were so.

And yet, the pacifists argue that this is what we must work toward. In his argument against war, Pope Francis said, “War is a cancer that feeds on itself.” Cancer provides another useful analogy. Cancer is avoided by preventative health care, including fundamental changes in lifestyle. By the time chemotherapy is needed, it’s already too late. The same is true of war. To abolish the cancer of war, we need the preventative measures of justice, equity and love. By the time the bombs are flying, it’s already too late.

The just-war theory is a guide for present emergencies. This theory condemns terrorism and war crimes. It allows for limited and targeted responses to aggression. But history shows that war fighting often exceeds those limits. So, the just-war theory is not the end of the story. We must also continue to imagine a better future.

In the long run, we must find nonviolent ways to prevent atrocity and reduce animosity. We must cultivate global justice and a sense of our common humanity so that terrorism and war become unimaginable.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article280473439.html#storylink=cpy

Pacifism, Isolationism, and Just War: Ukraine, Russia, and Impending Hostilities

Fresno Bee, January 30, 2022

Should we go to war with Russia over Ukraine? A recent poll indicates that only 15% of Americans support that idea. The American public seems more sympathetic these days to isolationism and even pacifism.

Pacifists and isolationists oppose foreign wars, but for different reasons. The isolationist asks, “What’s in it for me?” The pacifist asks whether violence ever really solves anything. To the pacifist, isolationism looks cynical and callous. To the isolationist, pacifism looks naïve and utopian.

But isolationism and pacifism often converge. Consider Tucker Carlson’s opposition to a war against Russia. The Fox News firebrand is more of an isolationist than he is a pacifist. He recently said, “We’re really going to fight a war over some corrupt Eastern European country that is strategically irrelevant to us? With everything else that’s going on right now in our own country? No normal person would ever want to do anything like that.”

Carlson is also an opportunist. He may simply be trying to score political points by opposing Biden’s saber-rattling. But he gives voice to a reasonable reluctance about foreign wars. Isolationism is increasingly popular among Trumpian conservatives.

In his comments, Carlson also suggested that a war against Russia primarily serves the interests of the defense contractors who profit from war. This is the kind of argument that is often made by pacifists, who have long been critical of the military-industrial complex.

But the pacifist case against war is not only about profit and self-interest. Rather, pacifists ask whether violence and war ever really solve social and political problems. They believe that nonviolent solutions are better at producing lasting and stable peace.

Recent wars tend to support pacifist conclusions about the futility of war. American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in significant suffering for civilians and soldiers. These wars have not left the world better off.

Now, there is a moral argument in favor of war against Russia. The just-war theory teaches that war can be used as a response to aggression. This is connected to an international norm known as “the responsibility to protect” (R2P) which holds that there is a global responsibility to protect people against aggression, ethnic cleansing, genocide and war crimes.

But the Ukrainian crisis is complicated. Western powers warn against Russian aggression. Russia maintains that the West is behaving aggressively by expanding NATO into Eastern Europe. The Russians even appealed to the R2P doctrine to defend their invasion of Crimea in 2014, claiming that Russian sympathizers in Crimea were being oppressed. Critics claimed that this was a cynical employment of R2P, used by Russia as cover for its aggression.

And so it goes. Arguments about war are difficult and complex. Pacifists wonder whether there is not a better way. Isolationists will ask what’s in it for us. And just-war theorists argue about who has a responsibility to do what.

The gravity and the complexity of this issue require careful, critical thought. If American soldiers are going to be sent into harm’s way, our country ought to be engaged in deep moral reflection. The Congress ought to be debating this and voting on it, as the Founders intended when they stipulated that declarations of war ought to come from the peoples’ representatives.

Unfortunately, congressional declarations of war have given way to unilateral decisions about war made by the executive branch. At the same time, the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. and the polarization of our country make sincere debate nearly impossible.

It is not clear how to fix our political morass. But the good news is that in our country the citizens remain free to debate the morality of war. This is not true in Russia, where dissent is prohibited. Nor is it true in Ukraine, where war-resisters have been jailed.

Let’s make good use of our freedom. Our soldiers deserve that from us. We must think carefully about the morality of war before we ask our sons and daughters to kill and die on our behalf. To honor the troops, as the saying goes, means that we should listen carefully to the pacifists, the isolationists, and the just-war theorists. Now is the time for reasonable debate, before the howling of the dogs of war drowns out critical thought.

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.