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.

Death Penalty and War

What do we want when it comes to war or the death penalty?

Fresno Bee, July 26, 2014

Federal judge Cormac Carney recently ruled that California’s dysfunctional death penalty is cruel and unusual because those who are sentenced to death are rarely executed. Since 1978 only 13 people have been executed in California, while more than 900 people have been sentenced to death. The average time spent on death row is 25 years. Execution in California is a matter of luck, not justice.

DP

Carney argues that the arbitrariness of the death penalty means that this punishment is not working to deter crime. Nor is it working as retribution. Neither of these moral purposes is fulfilled when executions are infrequent and random. Carney does not deny that the death penalty can be justified. Rather, he maintains that the current system does not live up to its own standards.

Carney’s argument raises the challenge of idealism and perfectionism in thinking about state-sponsored killing. He concludes that if the execution system does not live up to the ideal, we ought not employ it. One obvious response would be to fix the dysfunction in the system and make it less arbitrary. But until that is done, the judge ruled that executions are cruel, unusual and unconstitutional.

We usually don’t demand this sort of perfectionism. Schools, marriages and sports leagues rarely live up to our ideals. However, we don’t abolish them. Instead, we aim to reform them to bring them closer to the ideal.

Usually it is not wise to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Perfectionism sets up a false dilemma: either perfection or abolition. The perfectionist false dilemma can lead us to jettison valuable but imperfect things. It can also cause us to give up the effort to reform and improve.

But state-sponsored killing seems to require a special and more perfect justification. If we are bothered by the arbitrary and capricious nature of the death penalty, then we should be even more worried about arbitrary and random killing in war. Consider the problem of collateral damage in war. Enemy soldiers are legitimate targets of justified warfare. But noncombatants — innocent civilians — are not supposed to be killed. Unfortunately, modern wars kill noncombatants in large numbers.

Defenders of the morality of war argue that civilian killing is permissible so long as armies do not deliberately target civilians. Critics of war reject this subtle moral point.

Critics argue that bad luck and accidental factors cannot justify the killing of the innocent. Following Carney’s reasoning about the death penalty, a critic might conclude that war ought to be abolished until we can ensure that wars are fought without creating collateral damage.

The analogy between war and the death penalty is not seamless. We presume, for example, that the convicted criminal is guilty of a crime and deserves to be punished, even though some death row inmates have in fact been exonerated. On the other hand, we presume that noncombatants are innocent and do not deserve the harm they suffer, even though the mothers and children of soldiers can work behind the lines to support the war effort.

A form of skeptical pacifism can result when we insist on perfectionism with regard to state-sponsored killing.

Until state-sponsored killing becomes less capricious and more deliberately targeted, the pacifist will say, states ought not kill.

Those not convinced by this argument will have to reconcile themselves to the apparent conflict between the arbitrary and random nature of state-sponsored killing and perfectionist idealism about justice.

A perfectly just system of state-sponsored killing would only kill those who deserve death and it would kill them in a fair and consistent way. A perfect system of state-sponsored killing would not bomb children or apply the death penalty in haphazard ways. It would give people what they deserve. And it would bring about good consequences. But of course, in a perfect world we would not need executioners or armies.

This line of thinking leaves us with a difficult decision. Should we demand perfection, or can we accept something less than perfection when it comes to war and the death penalty? This is a crucial and serious question for democratic citizens, since in a democracy state-sponsored killing is ultimately done in our names and on our behalf.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/07/25/4040930/ethics-what-do-we-want-when-it.html#storylink=cpy