This essay was first published in the Palestine Chronicles 2004 12 22 and is copyright protected.
Not to be published without consent of the author.
This is the fifth in a series of articles that explores the rise to power of the fundamentalist Christian right within the government of the United States and its affects on perceptions and actions in the Middle East. The previous article looked at the neocon players in the Bush administration. This article focuses on the Just War arguments used to support American actions.
V Just War – Rationales for a ‘Moral’ War
It is much easier to discuss the peculiarities of the neocons as they represent living objects, with recorded statements of purposes and intentions, with public trails of associations and employments. It is much more diffficult to deal with moral philosophy, as the basis for it is established in belief statements and not in concrete, verifiable observations. I must, for the reader’s knowledge, state that I have not read the ‘great’ philosophers, and I have only read parts of the many religious texts, and therefore I am not an ‘expert’ on philosophical matters. Philosophy fills me with rhetoric and jargon and assumptions, frequently based on non-verifiable premises; and there is the assumption that ‘experts’ see and think more clearly and intelligently than the average citizen. This view is promulgated, naturally, by those with the esoteric learnings that the average person such as myself are not initiated into, but “to depend on great thinkers, authorities, and experts is, it seems to me, a violation of the spirit of democracy.”
My view is simple. While war may be ‘necessary’, while it may be ‘effective’, while it may be a requirement to fight back for one’s own survival, the actions involved in war can never be just. And I may be wrong. But the current positions on just war, most of which have arisen since the hysteria following 9/11, all appear invalid to literate common sense.
What follows is a critique of just war philosphy, but within that critique I also express its values. Even without a philosophy background, or maybe because of it, there are large flaws visible within ‘just war’ arguments. Just war arguments follow several distinct lines, repeated in different ways and with different emphasis according to the advocate. The first, and what should be the most obvious is that a ‘just’ war is possible. Secondly, they all turn to a particular set of western philosophies to support their views. The orientalist view of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ plays a rominent role in the discussions. ‘Rules of war’ are also used as validation as is the Modernist point of view of the reactionary tribalism of the opponents. Supporting these ideas is the assumption/belief that all humans are innately bad. Finally, in all cases there is no mention of possible alternatives, as if to say that war is inevitable.
The first and most unfortunate aspect of any argument that tries its hardest to validate a “just war” scenario is that if it is successful, it simply provides the justification, rhetoric, rationale, propaganda, call it what you will, to continue waging war. Anyone, anywhere, can take the arguments for a “just war” and convince themselves that their war is just, allowing once again the inevitable tragedy of brutality and horror that any war truly is. That is where most books take the reader. Certainly it all sounds good, the rhetoric is carefully written within the given premise, but it is full of contradictions and falls apart, as always, at the point of application: what you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you say. War is and always will be a means of achieving an objective, it is an action that once set in motion operates beyond the spin of any morality and becomes a vicious cycle of survival, with ‘non-combatants’ receiving the worst consequences. War may be necessary for survival, but it is never moral or just.
The premises of just war theory fall under several categories. First of all is the initial concept that war can be just, and is usually based on some, in this case Christian, religious perspective, although the argument remains secular rather than prophetic or sacred. (The contradiction of the “thou shall not kill” commandment is obvious.) If it were to be based on a scientific or reductionist basis, it would all come down to the idea that war is about killing and maiming and achieving one’s goals as quickly as possible and without much concern for the latest enemy apart from the rhetoric needed to propagandize the effort through the media. From the just war arguments, all wars, including all just wars, become religious wars, become crusades with ‘god on our side’.
The second premise of just war, or perhaps more correctly, another pillar of support for the idea, is that of the historical philosophies in ‘western’ thought from Thucydides, Augustine, to Aquinas, through to Hegel, Hobbes, and Clausewitz. It is bad enough that we repeat the mistakes of history that we should not stand on the shoulders of previous era’s ‘greats’ and shout out their righteousness, but that we should stand on their shoulders so that we can see beyond their errors. That we continue to rely on these tired philosophies only indicates how little of the lessons we have learned from history and are truly bound to repeat war’s cruelty. From the Christian perspective “When Augustine spoke of restoring peace, he meant the peace of God. Violence undertaken in the name of the Christian faith, therefore, was also implicitly just; and one unintended result of his theories was a rationalization for holy war by Christians against unbelievers.” Four hundred years later, the same phenomenon is still present.
Another aspect of just war theory is that it divides the antagonists into ‘good’ versus ‘evil’, and it is this particular aspect that is visible now with the U.S. war - crusade as we will see later – against whomever it chooses to have as the current ‘evil’, in this case, Islam. Good versus evil allows several things. First, if we are good, there is no need to examine our past or our actions, which, except for occasional recognized ‘aberrations’, must be good and just by definition. The corollary is that ‘they’ are evil and therefore must be destroyed, that any damage done to them is necessary to be rid of evil. Also if we are good and they are evil, there is no reason to wonder why they are behaving this way, with the possibility that maybe we had some role in developing the current situation. There is no need to look at our history as a factor in the question as everything that we do is just and good.
Following on this is that there are ‘rules’ of war - from all accounts that I have read this is a patently absurd idea – that once the fighting starts war becomes a do or die situation regardless of one’s initial beliefs about killing and warfare. Arguments are made for the sincerity of American intentions that “widely broadcast apologies” are made “for errant American bombs” in contrast to bin Laden’s glee at bombing the World Trade Center. Americans “understand that civilian deaths are to be avoided if at all possible” and that “each and very civilian death is an occasion for moral regret.” This of course is simply media spin, the “manufactured consent” described by Chomsky; it hides the reality of all wars that more civilians die than warriors. Current U.S. actions support this as more civilians have been killed in Iraq than soldiers, and as Madeleine Albright stated in 1996 as then Secretary of State and not totally out of context here, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price - we think the price is worth it," and certainly the Pentagon does not broadcast wide apologies or express much moral regret. Similarly, Israel bemoans the loss of every civilian from Palestinian raids but nothing is heard of Israeli military atrocities towards the citizens of occupied Palestine, certainly no ‘widely broadcast apologies’.
Modernity, as defined as the ‘liberal globalizing west’ and all its technology, against tribalism, the supposedly inferior and reactionary countries of the east, is another spin taken on validating a just war. It steps momentarily outside the religious aspect and indicates that the backward peoples need to be forcefully dragged into the ‘modern’ world in order to avoid repeats of the 9/11 style attacks, that “we must destroy them to advance our historic mission.” The aftermath of 9/11 brought about a large hue and cry justifying war against Islam, against terror, against evil.
Michael Ledeen, a neocon who does not fit in the previous categories because he is not actually employed by the government, is by far the most bombastic, jingoistic pretender of liberalism in support of the American Empire. In reaction to 9/11, he resorts to Machiavelli to support the war against terror, as “The important thing, indeed the only thing, is to win the war.” He revealingly argues “The United Sates is not going to wage war against Iran, Iraq, and Syria in order to turn them into American colonies…that, once liberated, the people of the Middle East will embrace our ideas and join with us.” Of course they will embrace our ideas, because of the fear factor, and although “we can lead by the force of high moral example…Fear is much more reliable and lasts longer.” Again the problem is encountered with the neocons – and just war theorists – of obvious contradictions built into their rhetoric.
Another pundit who resorts to Machiavelli for validation, for justification, is the overly quoted Michael Ignatieff who posits the idea that evil can be ‘lesser’ than itself. It is because “the evil that is characteristic of democracies usually results from the blindness of good intentions.” This of course serves as the apologetics for Vietnam, for the current debacle in Iraq, and derives again from the manufacturing of consent, ironically a process he sees quite well, and that can now be applied to the current Bush administration: “The capacity of a ruthless government, bent on abridging freedoms, must never be underestimated, especially not in an age in which government has such power to shape public perceptions and manufacture consent through the media.” He accepts evil and says, “Either we fight evil with evil or we succumb.” This introduces an omission from those trying to justify their wars, that there is no requisite to succumb if there are alternatives.
Once stuck inside the just war arguments, those involved apparently can see no way out of it, it becomes a necessity. But what are the alternatives? The alternatives are obvious, for those not caught up in the rhetoric of good and evil, modernity and tribalism. The main alternative is to criminalize terrorism globally, to have it come under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court so that the countries involved will not themselves necessarily be targeted for military action, that they could actually seek international help to locate and deal with the then suspected criminals. This obviously is not what the U.S. wants to happen as it has chosen its own unilateral path towards the colonization and control of countries that are even thought to possibly harbour terrorists - and it would of course open the U.S. itself to charges of criminality in many of its military pursuits.
And, if I am not mistaken and perhaps thinking entirely too naively and much too idealistically, the power to recognize one’s faults and to offer apologies and perhaps further to offer recompense of some kind, some kind of restitution, and offers of reconciliation and military withdrawal would probably stun the world with its simple effectiveness. Unfortunately I doubt that anyone in power at the moment has the ability to see their way this clearly to a solution, but what a sign of Christian humility and forgiveness it would demonstrate to the world. However, as will be seen later, the Christian right, and the Christian right influence on the White House, is not seeking alternatives, they, with their comrades in arms, are on the prophesied path that is leading them to their salvation.
My idealism of course “ignores the fall and the inheritance of sin and embraces an overly optimistic view of human nature…premised on free will.” But in apparent contradiction, the same author states that “all persons possess innate human dignity as a birthright.” I have tried but cannot reconcile ‘innate human dignity’ with the ‘inheritance of sin’ no matter what theological convolutions are presented. If in essence people are inherently bad – sinful - from a theological viewpoint, support comes from the secular side that “altruism is unnatural, human beings are rapacious, the struggle of every man against every other is the natural condition of humanity,” and “we would be foolish to assume an innate human goodness for which there is no historical evidence.” However, there is far too much evidence, from common human observation through to current socio-genetic studies that shows that human beings do have a very strong altruistic side to their nature, that they will assist and die for unrelated others as well as related others, without even considering war scenarios. And given the events of 9/11, the event that started most of the current round of just war arguments, the first initial responses of the people of New York were fully altruistic, from the firemen that entered the towers, to the everyday people, civilians of all creeds and professions, who helped and aided those in distress. It was the government that utilized the event to advocate the ‘good versus evil’, the ‘modern versus tribal’ and capitalized on the fear factor in order to construct their own intentions in the Middle East.
Just war arguments are based on arguments of modernity, of good versus evil, the rules and conventions of war, of the innate ‘badness’ of people in general, the very idea that war can be good in all its patriotic glory, of the apparent lack of alternatives, and, finally on arguments from philosophers picked for their support of the other arguments. The latter two can be combined quite easily for further rebuttal, that the philosophers against war are simply ignored, much in the manner Palestine is ignored, as an inconvenience.
Returning to the sixteenth century, the same era as Augustine, Erasmus “described war: “There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive, more deeply tenacious, more loathsome,” although it was “useful to governments, for it enabled them to enhance their power over their subjects; “…once war has been declared, then all the affairs of the State are at the mercy of the appetites of a few.” Returning to the current century, Einstein declared “one does not make war less likely by formulating rules of warfare…War cannot be humanized. It can only be abolished.” More common sense comes from an American icon of common sense, Samuel Clemens, who said, “it’s unjust and dishonorable and there is no need for war.” Of course a lot of common sense comes from people who have been involved in war, as many veterans remember and remind later generations that war, devoid of its shrouds of patriotism and glory, is not good, that we do not want to go there if at all possible. British Air Marshall Sir Robert Saundby summed it up effectively, saying, “It is not so much this or the other means of making war that is immoral or inhumane. What is immoral is war itself.”
Yes, wars will occur. Yes, people will fight to protect themselves against aggression, against occupation. The United States, in its current mode of thinking, with its current administration fully engaged with the Christian right and the Israeli right, has fully accepted the ‘just war’ philosophy in spite of its obvious flaws. Based on the concept of just war, it is not much of a reach to extend that to the fundamentalists’ view that the coming battles in the Middle East are the battles at the end of times, the apocalyptic views of Armageddon that are embraced by and welcomed by the Christian right. Yes, along with the desire for geopolitical control of oil resources and containment of other countries, this is a religious war. It is to that view that I finally turn.
 Zinn, Howard Passionate Declarations Essays on War and Justice Perennial (Harper/Collins) NY, 2003.
 Carr, Caleb. The Lessons of Terror – A History of Warfare Against Civilians. Random House, NY, 2002.
 Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Just War Against Terror The Burden of American Power in a Violent World. Basic Books, NY, 2003.
 Ledeen, Michael. The War Against the Terror Masters. Truman Talley Books. NY, 2002
 Ignatieff, Michael. The Lesser Evil - Political Thoughts in an Age of Terror. Princeton University Press, Princeton. 2004.
 Elshtain, ibid
 Kaplan, Robert. Warrior Politics – Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. Vintage/Random House. NY, 2002.
 Peters, Ralph. Beyond Terror. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA. 2002.
 All cited in Zinn, ibid.