Just War

Thursday March 20, 2008

Barbed Wire

Five years on…
Yesterday George Bush attempted to rally a flagging nation behind the war in Iraq, claiming that that war is noble, necessary and just, despite some eighty-five thousand Iraqi civilians dead (source), and a bill that is beginning to be reckoned in trillions of dollars.
There is no doubt little that to be said about this tragedy that has not been said before. But how dispiriting is all this talk of necessity, nobility and justice! And how hollow it sounds!

There is of course a long tradition of Just War theory in Western philosophy, theory that seeks to justify the use of military means on ethical grounds; yet the idea of a just war is a troubling one. After all, I can think of few acts of violence that are not based upon the logic of justification. Almost every single act of political or personal violence that is committed in the world is preceded by the attempt to justify: you looked at me in a strange way, you deserved it, you are evil. Few wars are started on a whim. We all have our justifications. And this raises the question of what the purpose of justification is, for it seems to me that very often, we justify to legitimise our intention to harm, and that justification frequently seems to have no other purpose than this legitimisation of harm. But once one has legitimised harming others, then a terrible logic takes hold. Justification often functions as a kind of prior establishment of the principle that I may do what I like to attain my ends, even if those things are things that, prior to our attempts at justification, we might shrink from. Here I can’t help thinking of the shamefully crass brutality of the slogan emblazoned onto the back of Prince Harry’s hat when he was in Afghanistan: “We do bad things to bad people”. Why not, after all, if our cause is just? To whom are we accountable, having established the justice of our cause at the outset?

This raises the question of whether justification itself ever justified? And here I must confess that I do not know. I would not like to categorically state that it isn’t; but at the same time, I am far from being convinced that it is.

Nevertheless, even if we permit that certain wars can be just, there are further problems to be faced: for apparently just wars may, and inevitably do, occasion innumerable unjust acts. Is the bombing of this particular village just? The (accidental or otherwise) killing of this particular civilian or bystander? And, for that matter, what about the injustice done to those who are engaged in fighting? Here there are a number of serious questions about the brutalising effects of military training and combat, serious questions about the psychological and physical harms done to those who fight, questions that are continually quashed by the language of patriotism, duty, nobility and justice. Are these harms also just?

But finally – as I stated in my previous post – it always pays to attend to those things that our sages and leaders omit to mention, the language that we fail to use. The language of necessesity, nobility and justice is a hard language, a language with a very marked rhetorical and affective force. It may be possible to argue that the war in Iraq has been noble, necessary and just (although I am not convinced); but it is harder to argue that it has been wise, or that it has been kind.


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