Thursday, May 06, 2004

A VERY Brief Primer on the Theory of Just War

The theory of just war is about a thousand years old. All the religious traditions in the West have them, and naturally contemporary philosophers have a lot to say about it. Most philosophers (and I have spoken with and read many) today start with the axiom that Bush is Evil, the US is an Evil Empire out to colonize the world, etc, and so anything Bush or the US ever did was wrong. So I am ignoring all of that. You should too.

Just war has two components, both of these have stupid Latin names which I won't burden you with.

First, you have wars that are fought for just causes, as opposed wars that are fought for unjust reasons. Intuitively, when the Allies fought the Axis in WWII, that was a war fought for a just cause. Hitler was the clear bad guy. Defeating him was a just and legitimate thing to do. Justice demanded that his war machine be stopped. Conversely, Hitler's war against Europe was unjust. Taking over other people's countries, for the purposes of genocide and world domination is an unjust cause. Then there are many that are somewhat more ambiguous. The US in Korea, for example. Was stopping the communist takeover of south Korea just? Various philosophers then try to come up with principles for deciding. Unfortunately, usually they just make up their minds about a particular war and then gerrymander their principles accordingly. With good philosophy, ideally, you get objective-sounding principles like a) Is there a good reason for fighting the war, ie, will it help people in some significant way? b) Just wars are fought after exhausting all the possible non-violent options. There are many other principles which are considered. All are controversial. For example, is c) a "legitimate authority" the only one who can wage a just war, or can anyone who is sufficiently able to redress the problems that the war will be fought over authorized to wage it? d) Is there a reasonable chance for the success of the war?

This first component answers the question: Should we initiate this war, or is prosecuting this war a bad thing. If the wrong decision is made here, the way to rectify it is to pull out of the war.

The second component in any discussion of a just war is the question of how the war is fought. There is far more agreement on how this ought to go. We have international conventions that adjudicate this. All armies in theory adhere to conventions such as the various Geneva Accords. Basically, you want to have a) a principle to protect the truly innocent, like civilians. You want to have an ethical position on b) what to do with prisoners of war. Basically you want to make sure that in the context of a war, which is by definition going to be rather unpleasant, you have reasonable rules to protect those who are not involved in the war. Intuitively, something like the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam was bad. Innocent civilians were killed for no reason. The Allies bombing of Dresdin was more controversial, and it is difficult to justify the British bombing of that city. Uses of smart bombs, targeted killings, and precision strikes that go along way toward hitting only the targets are a good step in the right direction for how one is to fight a war.

This second component answers the question: How should we fight this war? If the wrong decision is made here, the way to rectify it is to retrain the people who are fighting the war, punish those who made the wrong decisions, and make sure that the orders that come down are more carefully screened for injustice in their content.

It is very important to not confuse the two. As we have seen, it is possible to fight a just war in an unjust way. If the Allies in WWII was a just cause, it does not mean that anything done in that war is just. WWII may have been just, but it does not mean that the bombing of Dresdin was just. The opposite is possible too. You can fight a war in such a way that you only target soldiers and you treat your prisoners well, but still have it be an unjust war. Of course it is also possible to have a just war fought justly, and an unjust war fought unjustly. The first is the ideal, and the latter is twice as bad.

I write this because of the numerous comments I have heard confusing the two. Some seem to think that since innocent civilians have been killed, or that some of the soldiers have misbehaved in various ways, that it shows that the war is unjust. It clearly does not. It shows that there are bad soldiers, and perhaps bad superior officers. The soldiers ought to be punished. To show that the current war in Iraq is unjust requires one to show that the war violates general principles of a just war. (Ranting about oil or the evils of capitalism is nonsense.) One need to prove that a) when all is over Iraqis and Americans will be worse off. b) One needs to prove that there were non-violent ways to achieve the same ends. . . Naturally, the real burden of proof is on the one initiating the war. The initiator must offer reasons that justify their involvement in the war. They must in good faith explain how The US, Iraq, the Middle East, and perhaps the world will benefit from the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime, and replacing it with whatever we replace it with. They must explain how they tried to achieve the same goals without initiating the war against the Iraqi government.

If someone does not understand these two issues clearly then speaking about the justice or injustice involved in a war is just ranting.

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