Thursday, October 27, 2005

Just War

My previous blog entries may lead some people to believe that I am a member of the “anti-war” faction. I would like to set the record straight in that regard.

I actually consider the "no war, no way" crowd to be comparable to the individual who, when he hears the screaming of somebody being assaulted in the alley below his apartment, gets up to close to window.

To understand my views on war, imagine a village with approximately 200 families. Some families are wealthy; but most are poor. Some own huge tracks of land, while others own small apartments. Some families are large, while others are small.

All of them have children, we shall assume.

The Right of Interference

For the most part, each family should be permitted to decide for itself how to live its life and raise its children. People from one family can offer suggestions to the parents of another household, but there is no right to dictate policy. There is, then, a general moral obligation to leave others alone.

However, that obligation ends where there is evidence that the children in that family are suffering abuse and neglect. The violent death of a child, or forced labor under degrading or dangerous conditions, or failure to provide those children with food, medical care, and an education, obligate others to interfere on the behalf of those children.

There is no less of an obligation to rescue the abused child on the other side of the world, than there is to rescue the abused child next door. These are still human beings. It may be easier to turn one’s back on those made to suffer and die thousands of miles away, but ‘easier’ is not the same thing as ‘right’.

The only time we have in life is the time between the formation of our brain until it ceases to function in death. Some religious people may content themselves that the victims of torture, oppression, and death will have eternity in an afterlife to make up for it. However, there is no afterlife. The ten-year-old who dies of starvation or gets blown up by an errant bomb in this world has had all of the life he is going to have.

Who Gets to Decide?

Members of the anti-war crowd may protest that if we allow one country to interfere with another where the abuse and neglect are evident, that we risk war for superficial reasons. One neighbor, bent on conquest and political domination of another, may 'reinterpret' or even make up evidence to make an attack appear legitimate. The attacker could also assert that trivial reasons are actually serious enough to warrant an attack. The best way to avoid war is to simply say, "No war. No way. "

We face these same questions when determining whether to interfere with how a family raises its children. Yes, of course, our child-protection laws mean that, once in a while, one person will make false accusations against another in order to harm him. It means that some people will take trivial issues and try to categorize them as ‘abuse’ in order to force their will on others. It happens.

However, nobody argues that the efforts at child protection should be abandoned completely because of this. Instead, we establish safeguards to try to reduce these types of abuses.


(1) Presumed Innocent Until Proven Guilty. We give each family a strong presumption of innocence. The abuse and neglect has to be so obvious that there is no questioning it. "Being of a different religion" and "Having a different family structure" are not clear evidence of abuse or neglect.

(2) No Unilateral Interference. No family may make a unilateral decision to interfere with their neighbor. People are obligated to present their case to impartial, neutral parties and allow them to decide if there is sufficient evidence of abuse to warrant interference. Certainly, if a neighbor comes at an individual with an axe, that individual does not have to appeal to the community before shooting the axe-wielder. However, if there is no imminent threat, there is no moral permission to aggressively interfere in the neighbor's actions, then there is an obligation to present the case to a neutral third party and see if they find the accusation reasonable, or wishful thinking on the part of the (potential) attacker.

(3) Condemnation for Malicious Accusations: We treat those who make malicious accusations quite harshly. Their false and malicious statements weaken the institutions whose major purpose is to protect people. So, we take abuse of the system seriously, and harshly condemn those who try to abuse it.

The US and Iraq

On these standards, the United States defenders deserve a strong measure of moral condemnation for the way it handled the attack on Iraq. We allowed our government to level malicious charges that had no support. Plus, we acted unilaterally when we were not, in fact, under imminent threat. When confronting a state suspected to be guilty of the abuse and neglect of its citizens, we broke almost every moral rule that exists.

However, this does not mean that there was not a moral way to accomplish legitimate goals. Saddam was a brutal dictator, and the people of Iraq were suffering under his rule. Turning our back on them (as we had done for 10 years) only prolonged their suffering. There is no moral crime in wishing that the Iraq people had a culture and form of government under which they could live decent lives.

We should have worked to convince the international community that a regime change would be good for the people of Iraq, and gotten their support. The effort should have been truly an international operation so that nobody could even think to argue that this was a case of American aggression.

We should have anticipated the argument that we were in it for the oil and proved our good intentions at the outset by putting the oil out of our reach. We should have negotiated some sort of international body whose job it would be to ensure that Iraq's oil was used for the benefit of Iraq. We should have made this so transparent that only those who are prone to the most bizarre conspiracy theories could have doubted that we strove, not for oil or profit, but to provide Iraqi citizens with a better life.

This also means setting up a system that would prove that the administration was not looking for a way to funnel hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to major campaign contributors such as Halliburton and several oil companies. As it is, I have little doubt that those who lead us into war were seeking, to some extent, to profit themselves and their friends. If they were not seeking a profit, then why did they not take steps to make it obvious that they were not seeking a profit?

So, I am not saying that the Bush administration handled the situation admirably or even well. The Bush administration behaved in a morally repulsive manner. Yet, this is not the same as saying that a good person could not have supported and sought a just war to bring about regime change in Iraq.


Economists recognize that it is irrational to speak of what has already been spent in the past. They categorize this as “sunk costs”. The only rational question to ask and answer is “Where do we go from here?”

Expecting the Bush Administration to act rationally or morally is too much to ask for. We can only expect continuing incompetence and irrationality until replaced by a new set of leaders. However, there is no moral sense to binding those leaders to a policy of withdraw. That policy would be morally equivalent to abandoning a group of children to abuse and neglect, simply because we do not wish to be bothered enough to care.

Critics like to say that those who make this type of argument are "pro war." This is a rhetorical trick, as contemptible as those who call abortion-rights activists “pro abortion”. It’s a type of demagoguery favored by those who value personal attack above substantive debate.

Another example of this mindset are those who use the fallacy that somebody’s arguments can be dismissed if he is not in the military. This is a classic example of “argumentum ad hominem” (an attack on the person). It is a favorite tactic of Chaney, Rove, and the other members of the White House Iraq Group – to replace substantive debate with an attack on the person.

Yet, I would bet that those who use these rhetorical tricks would be the first to condemn those who use terminology like “pro abortion” and White House tactics of personal attack over substance. The word that best fits this type of person is “hypocrite”.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good article. I do have to say, I am a little troubled by a "just war" concept especially if we are using a moral stick that doesn't truly measure aftermath of a right action. For instance, a right action you point out would be to rid the nation of further experiencing dictatorship etc. But what if the right action imparts deadly "collateral" damage on civilians along the way. If we know that there's high probability of "collateral deaths", then can we still consider WAR a legitimate course of action. How do we rationalize this decision for the "would-be" victim. If we say that "Ends justify the means" then I believe we are threading on a very dangerous line of justifying murder, genocide etc.
Simply because we think we are more privileged or right (and history knows we were collectively wrong before) doesn't seem ethical.

Civilizations are expected to reform at their own pace. Interference I am afraid is simply unethical, and stifles growth of civil societies.