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 Wisdom of Nonviolence

Fresno Bee, October 3, 2021

Violence is increasing. Domestic terrorism is rising, including threats against members of Congress. The FBI just published its annual report on crime. The bad news is that violent crime is on the rise.

So let’s reflect on the dumbness of violence. Violence produces bad outcomes. It is also dumb in a metaphorical sense. Violence does not speak, it growls. Like a roaring lion, it does not argue. It merely threatens and attacks.

Violence can be spectacular. It attracts our attention. But violence does not really seek to persuade. Persuasion requires an argument. Violent acts are not arguments. That’s why violence does not create or convert.

The ugly truth about violence is well-known. Gandhi explained it. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. Both advocated nonviolence as the higher road.

Oct. 2 marks Gandhi’s birthday and is an International Day of Nonviolence. Gandhi said that even when violence appears to do good, that is merely temporary. Nonviolence creates lasting change because, as Gandhi explained, nonviolence is a “process of conversion.” Instead of destroying those you hate, nonviolence builds bridges and finds common ground.

Gandhi demonstrated that organized nonviolence can be a powerful force for change. Martin Luther King Jr. put this method to work in the United States.

In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 1964, King explained the critique of violence this way: “In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.”

This truth is reaffirmed as we reflect on the aftermath of the war on terrorism. After 20 years of war, we wonder whether the war was worth the cost. The war in Afghanistan teaches us that violence is a blunt instrument for transforming hearts and minds.

The “Costs of War” project at Brown University provides a recent summary. Totaling deaths from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, they estimate that almost 930,000 people were killed in the war on terrorism. This includes over 7,000 American military personnel. About 38 million people were displaced as war refugees. The war is estimated to have cost $8 trillion.

We did kill Osama bin Laden and other terrorist masterminds. But terrorists still lurk in the shadows. And the Taliban quickly returned to power. The war did not resolve the social, political, and cultural problems that give rise to terrorism and oppressive regimes such as the Taliban.

War is a destructive force that breeds reactive antagonism. It does not educate, democratize, or humanize. Political violence does not create just or lasting change. Rather, it destabilizes and provokes, causing polarization and pain.

This truth about war and violence is easily overlooked. There is a primal urge to employ violence. We are animals after all. Like the lion, we roar. When pushed, we attack.

The world’s moral traditions teach us to subdue the lion within. We are not merely animals, after all. We are human beings. We can learn to “turn the other cheek” and resist animal aggression. This is the message of Jesus and the Buddha, as well as Gandhi and King.

Our own culture often ignores this message. We celebrate violence. Pop culture is full of gangsters and cops, super-spies and superheroes. Our culture encourages us to falsely believe that might makes right and that in the end the good guys are justified in using violence.

But we are not superheroes. We are fragile and flawed beings. And unlike in a James Bond fantasy, real lives are destroyed when we uncage the lion.

The good news is that we are intelligent beings. We can learn from our mistakes. Violence involves a kind of smug self-certainty. It fails because it treats other human beings as animals and objects to be manipulated by physical force. But human beings are not persuaded by violence. We are motivated by pride and love, reason and morality.

Nonviolence is not always effective. But in the long run it is wiser to keep the lion in his cage. Nonviolence appeals to the better angels of our nature. It treats human beings with the care and respect we deserve.

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.

Coronavirus Pandemic is Not a War

Wash Hands Stay Home

A pandemic is not a war.

To call the pandemic a war shows a failure of imagination. 

President Trump claimed he is a wartime presidentThe Governor of North Carolina said, “This pandemic is a war, and we need the armor to fight it.”  Finance gurus want to issue coronavirus war bonds.  Foreign policy pundits are saying absurd things like, “We need to fight a holding action on the economic front.”  The Head of NATO said we are fighting “a common invisible enemy.”

This is nonsense.  Wars are intentional actions that deliberately kill human beings.  An enemy is a person serving a government.  War is a political act involving the conscious decisions of moral agents.

A virus is a force of nature.  It has no intentionality.  A pandemic has no political agenda.  There are no enemies here.  There is no one to negotiate with.  There will be no peace treaty. 

The war metaphor makes us think in nationalistic terms.  But a pandemic is a global problem.  Nationalism prevents cooperative action.  We don’t need a wartime president.  We need a global team of scientists and doctors.  

The war analogy creates a morbid fascination with body counts.  This leads to lame statistical analogies.  People have compared pandemic deaths to the numbers killed in wars.  The Surgeon General said this will be “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.”

These comparisons are uninformative.  Better comparisons would consider those killed by other infectious diseases, say AIDS or Ebola. 

This fascination with body counts implies that that we “win” when the count goes down.  But each death represents an infinite loss.  Dead people are not tally marks on some perverse scorecard.  Instead of counting body bags, let’s talk more about grief, mourning, and resilience.

The myths of war, as I have argued elsewhere, make it seems that a soldier’s death is vindicated by victory and the justice of the cause.  But in a pandemic, there is no justification or vindication. 

The rhetoric of war also gets infused with patriot and religious language that becomes propagandistic. 

When President Trump sent the Navy ship, Comfort, to New York,, he published a patriotic video and tweeted:With the courage of our doctors and nurses, with the skill of our scientists and innovators, with the determination of the American People, and with the grace of God, WE WILL WIN THIS WAR .”

Again, the idea of a war to be won is absurd.  Also absurd is the idea that the grace of God is involved in this, or in any battle.  Hurray for the doctors and scientists.  But the real work is about healing and mitigation, not about defeating an enemy.  This is an unglamorous effort, conducted one person at a time in sick beds and hospitals.  The American people don’t need to put on armor or steel themselves for battle.  We need to stay home, wash our hands, and wear masks in public.

Unfortunately, our imaginations are infected by militarism.  Patriotism is tightly woven around war.  We cheer on the war machine, despite morally problematic and endless wars.  If the “war” against coronavirus is like the war in Afghanistan, we are in trouble. 

Nor do we think enough about peace-building.  The pandemic calls for cooperative cosmopolitanism and creative community transformation.  Public health is not war.  It is peace-work. 

War rhetoric has led us astray before.  The “war on drugs” created a punitive system of mass incarceration, while thousands continue to die.  Drug overdoses killed 67,367 people in 2018.  The war on drugs failed because it should not have been a war. 

Instead of combat, we needed compassion.  People turn to drugs because of pain, depression, or a lack meaning and purpose.  The solution to the drug pandemic is a peaceful campaign of caring for those who suffer.

A similar rhetorical shift is needed for the coronavirus.  Let’s support the care-givers by giving them the equipment they need.  Let’s build inclusive infrastructure to support social-distancing in a time of economic turmoil.   Let’s provide compassionate care for those who suffer and grieve.  And let’s encourage the wartime president to stay out of the way of cosmopolitan science and the peaceful work of public health.