Monday, December 26, 2011

The Case For "Just" War

With the Iraq War having officially ended this month, I want to reflect on the concept of "just" war. Many of us have an elementary criteria that we apply in determining whether a war is justified or not. But what do we mean when we say that a particular war is "just" or "unjust"? Under what conditions would an act of war be justified? And if we could agree upon a set of standards to justify an act of war, then when applied down to a micro level of individual physical violence and aggression between people, with some exceptions it should be more or less the same.

Self defense is the most commonly agreed upon legitimate motive for a justified act of violence toward another person or persons. That is to say, one has the right to defend themselves against another person's physical aggression, and therefore the injuries incurred to the aggressor are justifiably so. And, if this is true for individuals, the same more or less applies to nations.

With retaliation things get a bit more complicated. Some agree that once one has been the victim of an act of violence or aggression that they could not stop, one then has the right to then retaliate against their attackers. If you agree with this, then revenge could be a "just" cause for violent retribution. And once again, if inflated to the macro level, nations and societies might be justified in their acts of retaliation against their victimizers. Others do not agree, and maintain that only self defensive violence can be reasonably just.

This brings us to to the idea of preemptive acts of violence or war. The invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies in 2003, was a preemptive strike against a rouge totalitarian State, in order to prevent it from being a more imminent, immediate and formidable threat later on. For some, preemptive foreign policy is never justified, and in the case of the Iraq War the supposed reasons for the preemptive strike in the first place, were either fabricated intentionally or the result of embarrassingly bad intelligence.


Christopher Hitchens made it no secret in regards to his support for the Iraq War. Disregarding any social and economic costs this might incur, and never being one to retreat from an unpopular position, Hitchens justified the invasion of Iraq by arguing that it met 4 standards under which a State may lose its sovereignty and be subject to outside intervention. Such a condition would apply to a State that:

1. Tries to invade or occupy a neighboring State.
2. Violates the genocide convention by engaging in or attempting to destroy an ethnic minority.
3. Violates a non proliferation treaty regarding the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and deliberately misleads information regarding it.
4. Is a harborer of international terrorism.

Hitchens argues quite eloquently that Iraq, under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, amply met all of these standards. Iraq invaded Iran and Kuwait; murdered thousands of ethnic Kurds with the intention of extermination; may not have had, but did posses weapons of mass destruction, which it used on the Kurds and during the Iran-Iraq War, and was actively attempting the acquire them through various documented means and routinely lied about this; had within Saddam's the Bath Party, terrorists like Abu Nidal who propogated Jihadist and anti-Semitic propaganda and who committed and supported terrorist acts. Confrontation with Iraq, according to Hithens, was inevitable, and having a preemptive sensibility in foreign affairs, such as war, is not just preventative of disaster, but is necessary to avoid defeat.

That being said, I have reconsidered my position on Iraq. I was for years before and after the invasion of Iraq, a typical anti war left leaning liberal. "The Bush Administration lied about the weapons of mass destruction", I protested, and "no blood for oil" were my justifications against the war. I remember hating George Bush so bad over Iraq, branding him a war criminal, and wishing him to be put on trial, Nuremberg-style, for war crimes. This was at a time when I of course had little information on the larger concepts surrounding the moral justifications for preemptive war.

I now struggle with the idea that the war in Iraq was a just war. If I were to agree with the standards outlined above, that would cause a State to violate its right to sovereignty, then I would therefore conclude that the Iraq War was justified, and that it was as justified as the U.S.'s entrance into World War II. Would this standard then commit the U.S. to other wars with States that violated it? And what if a State violates just one and not all of the standards? Is it then justified to invade that country in an act of war?

I am no expert on the rules of engagement, but from a moral standpoint, and from a philosophical standpoint, I do believe in just war. I believe war to be a horrible thing, perhaps even the worst aspect of our nature. But it is necessary in some cases to prevent worse atrocities and most of us can agree with at least this idea. The primary topic for argument here, is whether preemptive war is justified. If one can agree with the argument, that it is not necessary to wait until a State has committed genocide, or invaded or forcibly annexed another sovereign State, for it to be invaded, then preemptive war is just. For example, would it have been justified for the U.S. or its allies to have invaded Nazi Germany, before it invaded Poland on the onset of World War II? If reliable intelligence existed of the regime's plan to exterminate its ethnic Jewish and Gypsy populations, and was undertaking the initial steps of accomplishing such a feat, would we then be justified in invading? The UN Genocide Convention, drafted in the years following World War II, mandates such intervention by signed parties when a violation of it occurs.

There is no doubt that we will be arguing over the Iraq War and the moral precepts regarding just war for years to come. I want to end by asking you to think deeply about the arguments that I've discussed thus far. Almost all of my friends that I can think of are against the Iraq War, and it seems that a legitimate case can be made against the invasion. The military industrial complex is the most disturbing piece of criticism and I am well aware of the vulture capitalists who profit from war and its propagation. Profiting from war when it is unnecessary, that is to say, unjust, is one of the most abominable acts I can think of. The argument is made here that Iraq did meet criteria for invasion, even though it is clear that some people and corporations did profit immensely from the war, just as others profited from World War II. War is always profitable for the winners regardless of whether it was just or not. The spoils of war are blind to the motives behind the vindicators.

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