March 18, 2004

The Logic of Occupation

It was not so very long ago I first found myself considering the question of whether there can be any such thing as a "just" war. Very much to my surprise, I found that I think that there can: but with a serious number of caveats, several of which do not match the usual parameters identified by others.

Initially, I found I had to get away from absolutes such as "right", "wrong", "patriotism", and perhaps especially "self-defense" (the "he hit me back" of an earlier posting), as well as the entire concept of what constitutes "reasonable" or "practicable". Too many terrible things have already been done in the past in the name of "justice". Without some absolute parameters -- and a truly neutral global body to enforce them -- ideas of "self defense" and "reasonable" are effectively meaningless. I don't think most of us truly understand what is "reasonable", in and of ourselves, independently of whether we are the victim or the aggressor: so I do not trust the ability of most humans to be either objective or reasonable, especially when they personally are involved. Nor do I see any reason why an objective reasonableness should suddenly come into being simply because it is taken to be self-evident or made into the basis of a legal system. Any absolute abstract can too easily be turned to mean whatever is convenient. Saying something is undertaken in "self-defense" doesn't make it necessarily so in another's eyes. To verbalise is to translate, and translations are necessarily interpretations. In the absence of an absolute and common understanding (not definition!) as to precisely what degree of action can be sanctioned under "self-defense" (or any other rationalisation) -- or else an entirely different basis upon which to measure acceptable action -- no one person's beliefs are inherently any less valid than my own. (In fact, in a democracy, the beliefs of the majority should hold rather more validity by simple virtue of their having been defined by the majority ... independent of any other moral valuation.)

Thus the major focus of these points became, not so much to match a specific absolute concept ("right", "just", "self-defense") but to try to sidestep the absolute altogether by requiring specific conditions instead: the major one of which is not an abstract but very real, and very immediate.

Most important: for a just war, I feel that each and every one of these criteria must be fulfilled. It is a small point which in many ways seems antithetical to "progress" ... but of late, our progress in anything other than the technological sphere seems to have been sadly lacking.

First and foremost:

A just war cannot be waged with anything even vaguely resembling revenge, or anger, or pride, or patriotism. If it must be waged, it must be waged only with sorrow. In the context of that sorrow, it must also be waged so as to achieve its specific objective as quickly as possible -- so as to absolutely minimise the suffering entailed in any war.


A just war cannot be waged in the name of "right" -- for "right" too quickly is made to be whatever we need it to be. There can be only one purpose, ever, in waging the just war: and that is to remove a person or group of persons who have lost all sense of common humanity (except, sometimes, within that select group) and who have actively turned their hand against it. "All sense of common humanity" here is defined as a course of action which actively condones or encourages killing or endangering the lives of others; and "actively" in this sentence identifies the primary purpose of those policies as being such endangerment or death. Thus the free ownership of guns or tobacco use would not be such an active condoning or encouragement, because the primary purpose of these policies is not the death or endangerment of the country's residents; but a country's government standing passively by while over a million of its citizens are slaughtered by others of its citizens because they happen to be of different races certainly would be cause for just military intervention. (The death penalty and the degree of follow-up on vigilanteeism would be gray areas here -- I hesitate to be more specific with respect to "cause", because I have no idea how to word it.)

(I do not believe bin Laden to be such a one btw. Cause for diplomatic extradition, yes -- and it could have happened, given a true willingness to negotiate. War, no. Curiously, this point specifically might have allowed for a just war against the Taliban -- if fought under other circumstances, and for other reasons.)

It also follows from the first point that the suffering created by a just war can not be greater than that caused by the person or group of persons.


A just war cannot be waged from a distance -- either by those far-off who sign the orders or by those high above who drop the bombs. To wage a just war, one should be willing to know, personally, exactly what it is that the just war being endorsed entails. Yes, this is an argument against modern forms of "smart" warfare: for in making war a more efficient process for those possessing the technology, it has also been stripped of the reality of the suffering all wars cause. To wage a just war, one must be willing to understand personally the extent of that suffering, to allow oneself to be vulnerable to any consequences of waging war, and to accept direct and personal responsibility for waging that war. (It will never be stated by the person waging a just war that the opponent forced them to that action. Rather, the person waging a just war will recognise that they themself have chosen to respond to the opponent's actions in this specific manner, and that they themself bear responsibility for the consequences of their choice of action.) Only through such understanding by those forced to inflict it can the suffering created by any war truly be minimised.


It may be that one may need to kill -- but again one kills, always, in sorrow -- never in "justice" or "righteousness" or "revenge" or, God forbid, celebration or joy. One does what one must. One does the absolute minimum of what one must, because one must. One takes no joy in it, and certainly no pride.

The next two points are trickier than they seem on the surface, and they yet remain to be properly hammered out. They do, however, flow logically from the first point.


A just war should always be a last resort after having exhausted all other options, including all possibilities of negotiation with all affected groups: never as the only "practicable" means of stopping a threat. These negotiations should include the real possibility of compromise within the parameters of common humanity mentioned earlier. Thus, while ending an act of genocide would not be negotiable, the manner by which such ending is brought about may be -- so long as that manner of ending actually does end it.

Again, my wording is off: the idea here is that all wars cause suffering; and so the aim is not only to alleviate the initial suffering, but to avoid creating a situation in which more people end up suffering than was the case in the first place. The loose premise is that a just war should never bring about more suffering than it aims to alleviate. The internal caveat is that one should avoid making demands, since there may be more than one single way to achieve this goal, and demands both cut off all other considerations and have a habit of turning into widening ultimatums. A "just war" will often involve more than just two active parties: perhaps an effective compromise with the desired result can be achieved through a third party?

This does not entail "negotiating with terrorists", however. "All affected groups" are all groups affected by the actions of the person(s) who have lost all sense of humanity, as defined earlier. Since negotiations are to be held "within the parameters of common humanity" (ie. killing is unacceptable) and the very reason and need for considering these actions is that the person(s) in question have persistently taken actions which oppose this, it would be acceptable to assume that they cannot be reasoned with within these parameters. Great care should be taken, however, not to extrapolate the same assumption onto others.


The identification and attainment of the clear objective in a just war cannot be such as to leave the populace in a worse state than before the war began. Those who have taken upon themselves the responsibility for waging just war bear also the responsibility for seeing it through.

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