I’m always looking for practical applications of philosophy, and when an illegal war to prolong an illegal occupation broke out across the water a few weeks back, I started re-reading Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars so that I might have a better framework to back up words like “illegal” and “massacre” and “a pretty clear pattern here, folks.”
I’ll touch on the Balfour Declaration and everything that came after in a few weeks or whenever I get through the book, but for now I’ll be typing up stuff that strikes me as I read. Right now, I’ve got a bit of a policy suggestion.
Walzer’s book is about just war theory and the war convention, the ways in which we judge the initiation of and conduct within wars.
Walzer refers to existing international law at times, but he’s up front in pointing out that iLaw as it stands is an incomplete tapestry, one that lacks coherence and sovereign enforcement. His argument, he says, is about moral law, the kind worked out by philosophers for millennia.
All of this is to say that sometimes Walzer begins what seems like a tangent into philosophical wordplay in order to illustrate a point of ‘moral law’ or a moral imperative. It was during one of those apparent digressions that I started thinking about this post.
He talks about how, for all that our perceptions of war have changed since just war theory was being codified five or six centuries ago, we still find it important that our soldiers do not “die in vain.”
What does it mean not to have died in vain? There must be purposes that are worth dying for, outcomes for which soldiers’ lives are not too high a price. The idea of a just war is one that it is morally urgent to win, and a soldier who dies in a just war does not die in vain (110).
I think a lot of what has plagued American thought through the war years of the last decade or so hinged on just this question: was it all in vain?
Not only in the sense of whether our original involvement had a purpose beyond borrowing money to give to Halliburton but now, as ISIS has taken a third of Iraq and Al-Qaeda is resurgent in Afghanistan, whether, regardless of the original morality, all that death served any purpose at all. It’s a preoccupation and a good one, maybe the first time when a majority of Americans probably feel some unease about what that was all about.
Now for Walzer, “nothing but aggression [of one nation against another] can justify a war.” That is, “there must have actually have been a wrong and it must actually have been received (or its receipt must be, as it were, minutes away.)” The minutes away bit is a little flip, but what he means is that for a pre-emptive act of war (like, say, our invasion of Iraq) to be just, the danger presented by the aggressor country (in the Administration’s logic, perversely, Iraq), must be imminent for the victim country (somehow the US) to strike. A better example of this, Walzer notes, was the Six-Day War between (principally) Israel and Egypt, when Egyptian maneuvering had not yet violated Israeli territory but had nonetheless broken UN accords and made the Israeli defensive position militarily untenable. No shots fired, but fairly arguably aggression.
There are also exemptions for humanitarian intervention and, like the chapter on pre-emption, they tend to boil down to “it’s a judgement call,” one, which, crucially, can be judged. That a given intervention was claimed to be humanitarian (as, in some of the muddled propaganda of 2002-2003, the invasion of Iraq was purported to be) does not mean that we cannot judge it to have been otherwise. Walzer lets us know time and again that without the firm ground of an enforced international law, moral judgement of war is not only permissible but in many cases the only restraint on action that we have—we should judge, before, after, and actively.
The question here is of moral responsibility; we are concerned with the blameworthiness of individuals, not their legal guilt or innocence. Much of the debate about aggression and war crimes, however, has focused on the latter issue, not the former…it often seems that what is being said is this: that if an individual is not legally liable for some particular act or omission but, as it were, merely immoral, not much can be said about his guilt…moral argument is especially important in wartime because—as I have said before, and as Bishop’s “brevity” makes clear—the laws of war are radically incomplete (288).
That’s important, because our postwar tendency has been to start conflicts that need to be judged and which have not lived up to their stated premises. Our excuses for entering Vietnam and for escalating when there, for the Tonkin Gulf Resultion, the Christmas bombings, the bombings and political meddling in Cambodia, the concentration camp programs, all were illegal (Walzer says of the American legalist explanation “Fortunately, it seems to be accepted by virtually no one…” p. 97) and on any terms morally dubious at best. As a country, we need a system of judgement, because flying without has given us sixty years of practically nonstop unjust warmaking.
The men of Athens, that mainstay of democratic political precedent, used to elect their generals. Since the voting requirements were largely the same used to define the body of men eligible for military service as a hoplite (the panoply of war being costly), the arrangement made sense. In the States, we’re all theoretically politically equal, but because of property and wealth requirements for the franchise in Athens, their voting public was, you know, more actually equal, and the selection of military leaders as the best of a body of peers had an intuitive value to it.truly awful disasters, they could condemn him to punishment unto death.
The beauty of the system of judgement was that it was bottom-up or at least sideways through the Assembly. Our President is meant to hold our general staff accountable as they are their undergenerals, on down to the enlisted men. The thing is, though, that since every one of those men is also responsible for the conduct of the men under his command, it’s not in his interest to expose wrongdoing if he can either ignore it or punish it without publicity.
The same goes for the conduct of entrance-into-war, or jus ad bellum. No President, having initiated what was possibly an unjust war has any interest in exploring that justice or the culpability for the beginning of the conflict. The Congress hasn’t much power to punish Presidents according to moral laws, either, and has similarly little desire scrutinize when that body is also often swept up in war fever as it was in 2002.
Our lack of a judgmental structure is a problem. First because there are no wars in which both sides are just. “Someone must be responsible,” says Walzer, and if unprovoked entrance into war is just about the greatest crime man can commit against man, then it seems we’ve an interest in finding who’s responsible (59). Moreover, even if we as a people don’t seem too afraid of perpetrating unjust wars, we are afraid of our boys dying in vain. Causing them to do so (along with everyone else who managed to die along the way) is as clear a moral crime as we have. So it seems incredible that we lack some way to determine the vanity of their deaths and an imperative that we create one.
It’s impossible to institute such a system to prevent unjust wars. There’s a reason the Constitution turns the military over to the Executive—military action, just or unjust, must generally be decisive, and the logic and intelligence it rests on cannot always be divulged to the public. Fair enough. But it’s not impossible to institute a system of judgement which might discourage rash action in the future.
There is precedent elsewhere than Athens. We conducted the Nuremberg Trials even though most of the indicted were dead, their crimes committed and irreversible. We conducted them to establish our own precedent, to define right and wrong, to provide an accounting for all the world to see. Our mistake was to fail to bring that logic home.
As a people, we’re afraid of the theoretically power of the International Criminal Court to abridge our sovereignty, and that doesn’t look as if it’ll be swift to change. But we could form our own court, our own tribunal. At the cessation of hostilities, its duty would be to find the justice and the injustice, both in the entrance into war and the conduct of it, jus in bello.
The benefits would be enormous. What a disuasive force the knowledge of an accounting would be. Would McKinley and Teddy have permitted massacres during the occupation of the Philippines if they’d known they’d stand trial for them? Would Ike have assassinated Lumumba in the Congo, would Jack have headed so quickly into Vietnam, would LBJ have begun and Nixon have continued a bombing campaign that killed something between 150,000 and 500,000 Cambodian civilians?
Now, would I want a comission to look into Iraq and condemn W. and Dick and Rummy to death if they find that what we’ve gained (nothing) doesn’t outweigh the four and a half-thousand servicemen and 112,000-461,000 civilians who died gaining it? No, I oppose the death penalty. But I do think they ought to spend an appropriate term in a federal (or better yet, Iraqi) penitentiary.
We have a tendency to shout down people who question the value of the wars we’ve fought because we don’t want our young men to have died in vain. But if the blame of a war has to rest with those who started it, it seems like we should be shouting at the men who made sure it would be fought in vain, whatever we choose to say about it.