Is War Ever Justified?

This post is unusual in form, more answer-to-question than essay, but I found the process of working out the answer interesting and decided to post it.

In a recent discussion, a friend who was in Vietnam put the philosophical question thus: war is the greatest disaster humanity suffers. Is it ever justified? What about Rwanda or the Nazis? I don't have a simple answer to the question, so here's the complicated one.

In the modern world it appears to me that wars are about wealth and power almost all the time. John Keegan, in A History of Warfare, talks about what we call “primitive” societies where they stop the war for the day if someone actually gets killed. I take this to mean that warfare has always been about dominance, economic even more than military since, as Paul Kennedy says in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, economics is the driving factor. The stronger economy has more options, which of course improves its chances of winning the next war dramatically. And already we're into the circular.

As a conscientious objector I had to profess a belief that all war is wrong in every circumstance. This, in American society, is tantamount to a declaration of insanity, and is therefore not as threatening to power as the idea that I should be allowed to decide for myself whether to fight in a war. Suppose they gave a war…

I have to say that in theory a war effort could be justified. John McPhee wrote a great book about the Swiss Army (La Place de la Concorde Suisse); now there's a military I could identify with, which was a weird feeling at the time I read it, though no longer. I can imagine wanting to defend something I thought of as mine if I could.

But I can't really imagine feeling that way about a nation-state, I'm not really that caught up in this institution. I think nation-states are on their way out, as a matter of fact, as power moves its seat from government to corporations, which have no obligation to be accountable.

I certainly would not be involved in something I thought of as an imperialist war. It seems to me that, since Chalmers Johnson has shown that the United States is an empire whose economy depends on war, every American war will be an imperialist war.

I don't think most Americans would choose to be soldiers for the empire, which is why we need the Mighty Wurlitzer, to convince young people that freedom or some associate is at stake. I don't think Americans are particularly bad or stupid people, they're just very poorly educated, and subjected to the output of the greatest propaganda machine the world's ever known. And the propaganda is ever more pervasive, because it has to be: people are becoming more aware, more critical, and less trusting of leaders, a development for which I give President Bush a lot of credit.

Have you seen any of Gwynne Dyer's War series on PBS? He made it originally for Canadian public television, and it's dynamite, the best television I've ever seen on the subject of war. He films a room in a US training camp, I think it was Marines. The instructor was yelling at the top of his lungs to students no further from him than students normally are in a classroom. He was telling them about the viciousness and dishonesty of the enemy, and how to orient themselves to deal with this. Funny thing, at the time we were not fighting anyone; so how do we know that the enemy is vicious and dishonest? Then Dyer switches to a room in Russia, and the same scene is played out in Russian.

Essentially I see that pair of scenes as a microcosm. The powers that be, the Masters of Mankind who Adam Smith characterizes as saying “All for ourselves and nothing for others”, learned during the Roman Empire how to remain in charge without sitting on the throne, a dangerously exposed spot even with your back to the wall. But nowadays they can be assured that no one they know will ever be on a battlefield “in anger”. How many members of Congress have children in Iraq? One, as Michael Moore fans now know.

With regard to Rwanda, I certainly would have supported sending a peacekeeping force there, one strong enough to separate the sides and protect itself comfortably. I think that would have been a great thing. I don't think force is always wrong; it could no doubt have been used to stop violence in this case. I guess I would say that conflict is sometimes necessary in an imperfect world. But we're not likely to intervene in such situations because there's very little money to be made in stopping violence. When I say “We”, I mean the US, but even though we don't control the UN, we can certainly prevent it from intervening in military conflicts, so “US” and “UN” are kind of interchangeable in this instance.

I didn't support the bombing of the former Yugoslavia. There were, of course, as in Iraq, a few good things to come of the whole mess. A big one, I think, is the International Criminal Court, which got a boost from the drive to get a war crimes tribunal for the Balkans conflict. But we didn't establish the inefficacy of genocide, we established that you damn well better listen to the US government.

The Second World War is, I think, widely considered one of the best tests of true pacifism, the other one I hear a lot being the American Revolution. The Revolution's tricky, because it did in some ways lead to improvements, but also to devolutions as well. It was probably inevitable. But it was largely a war of the rich people on this continent against the rich people in Britain, and I never see my lot as being particularly close to that of either group.

World War II might be an exception, but what bothers me the most about it is this. Bertrand Russell (who, you'll remember, is my nominee, as against your Einstein, for the brightest human so far) opposed the entry of Britain into World War I. He didn't see a moral difference between the two sides, which position, along with comments about the US military's recent forays into strike-breaking, bought him six months in jail.

WWII was, as far as I can tell, a direct result of the inept treaty-making after WWI. After the first war, the winners hit the losers as hard as they could, in traditional fashion, causing another in a tradition of wars. You probably know about the French marshall, Foch, who walked out of the Versailles treaty negotiations, complaining that “This is not a peace, this is an armistice for twenty years.”

At least they did this part better on the second try; the Marshall Plan may have been mainly aimed at keeping the US economy afloat, but it did actually help Europe get back on its feet, and more importantly we made sure that Japan and Germany were not screwed to the point where they rebelled again. And perhaps more importantly, we made sure to have an American hand on their oil spigot.

Here's another interesting tidbit: one of my favorite historians, probably number three on my list, is A.J.P. Taylor, the famous, now-deceased British socialist who was speaking publicly against Hitler in 1933. Perhaps his most famous work was The Origins of the Second World War, in which he said:

In principle and doctrine, Hitler was no more wicked and unscrupulous than many other contemporary statesmen. In wicked acts he outdid them all... If Western morality seemed superior, this was largely because it was the morality of the status quo; Hitler's was the immorality of revision.

Again, I don't usually think of myself as being on the side of the status quo, though of course I have no interest in any of the “revisions” Hitler would have been comfortable with. That I know of.

Naturally, the question of participating in WWII should really be what one would have done with the knowledge available at the time. For instance, the American servicemen on their way across the Pacific had, and have, a big incentive to believe that Truman wasn't lying about his reasons for dropping the bomb. But of course he was lying, I think that's been well established by the documents and described by Gar Alperovitz. He could have ended the war sooner, and he let it drag on so he could drop the bomb, even after all the military brass advised against it.

It's hard for me to believe that I would have joined any queue at any time, but I might have felt differently in the days of Hitler hysteria. My thought patterns are so bound up with having learned in high school about US lies and obstruction in Vietnam that it's hard for me to imagine actually believing what the government told me. And even though I think he knew about Pearl Harbor as much as Bush knew about 9/11, I still pick FDR as, at a minimum, one of the two greatest Presidents, along with Lincoln. (Washington was hot shit, but as President he didn't face the level of difficulty these two did while in office; more of his difficulties came before the Presidency than during. Uncertainty, yes, but not modern mechanized warfare-type uncertainty.) It's possible that FDR would have convinced me, I don't really know.

So, to summarize, finally: I can't say that conflict is always wrong. Aleister Crowley talked about having the momentum of the Universe behind you if you're following your True Will. He didn't think conflict would come up very often if everyone was doing so, but he didn't rule it out. That makes a lot of sense to me: if we were all trying to make the world better (however we define that) instead of grabbing as much as possible for ourselves, we'd have disagreements but we could work them out. It's the lower forms of selfishness that cost us the most in humanity's current stage of development. Even enlightened self-interest, while not perfect, would be a big advance on where we are now.

William Faulkner wrote a story that was published under the title A Fable (he wanted to publish it without a title, but his editor persuaded him that this was not a good idea). It's about a WWI-like war and how it's brought to an end by soldiers on the two sides conspiring not to fight. It's a long (duh, it's Faulkner) and rather tendentious novel, surprising to me because I revere him.

He was really distressed at World War I, as were many intellectuals, most certainly including Bertrand Russell. After a kind of golden age lasting nearly seventy-five years in which no major war had erupted in Europe, and even the minor ones were over immediately, people had begun to think they were too civilized to have another war. (Of course, they ignored the primitive colonials in the western hemisphere with their Gatling guns, and thus once again the generals started out fighting the last war. And once again it didn't work.) Anyway, I took Faulkner's point to be that the only real way to stop war is for individuals not to fight.

Or as Jackson Browne put it:

But all my fine dreams and well-thought-out schemes to gain the Motherland have all eventually come down to waiting for Everyman.

In the end, I think we're more likely to reach the goal of peace by not having enough soldiers willing to fight, than by not having enough leaders willing to declare, the next war.

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