We should never resign ourselves, almost as if war is inevitable. Pope John Paul II, Feb 2003
The US Council of Catholic Bishops produced an excellent document in November of 2002, raising exactly the questions I believe should be considered. I recommend reading its sincere, balanced perspective.
When I started the research and reasoning for this section, I thought this might well contain the moral questions where America in general and George Bush in particular did not meet the criteria for a Just War. The other possible objections could be overcome, some trivially easily despite their commonness in current discourse. But the questions of Comparative Justice, Last Resort, and Proportionality were less obvious. Disagreements from both directions, indeed many directions, cropped up immediately.
Different thinkers break up the category differently, but the underlying ideas remain the same. Is the proposed military response proportionate to the danger? Have you earnestly tried non-military solutions? Does your opponent have legitimate unaddressed grievances which may have driven him to endanger you? The US Council of Catholic Bishops believed that because the war was pre-emptive, it was necessarily aggression. Pope John Paul II, whose thoroughness I often admire, thought negotiation and nonmilitary interventions had not yet been exhausted, as in the quote above. He was far from the only one who thought that.
Rummaging through the historical record of nations which went to war with greater and lesser justifications I went looking for extremes – circumstances which clearly failed or clearly succeeded in meeting these more elusive standards. Can we find examples where other alternatives short of war had definitively been exhausted? Can we find examples where a nation had quite obviously overreacted? There are two narrow categories which provide clear examples. First, invasions by a single tyrannical figure or succession of rulers with the overt aim of extracting tribute or assuming political control. In these situations there is often not even an attempt to provide moral justifications as we know them. Mongol hordes and Barbary pirates simply wanted wealth. Gimme all yer dough, Mac. Darius the Mede and the Roman emperors wanted expanded power. I want to be in charge of that. A third category of aggressors, sometimes indistinguishable from the second, had a system or plan they wished to put in place, believing it would be better for people. It would be better if you did things our way. The followers of Marx and Mohammed fall into this category.
The opposite numbers of these invaders provide the best examples of the other extreme – nations whose justification for war seem quite obvious: they are fighting for their fields and families, against aggressors they wanted nothing to do with.
Most of history’s conflicts lie between these extremes, eluding our desire to apply strict principles and say “Of course.” There are few instances where we might legitimately say “Of course.” There are at least two sides, and often many more, to the actual conflicts. This should be fairly obvious, but it seems in short supply these days. There is a lot of of course floating around in our national debate. Rubbish. One might arrive at a judgment and stick by it, but anyone who claims that we obviously should or obviously shouldn’t have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq should be disregarded.
There is a second difficulty, where history can mislead us as much as enlighten us. What we know in retrospect is not what we knew at the time. Some measures might look disproportionate while they are occurring, yet turn out to have been inadequate when we look back It was all very easy to say in 2002 we should have overthrown Saddam in the first Gulf War. What looked harsh and aggressive in 1991 turned out to be inadequately firm. Our hard bargaining at Munich and Yalta turned out to be absurdly weak. We can be fooled in the opposing direction as well, though it is much harder to be sure. Perhaps Sherman didn’t actually need to burn Georgia, alienating Southerners for generations. We can be close to sure that we should not have interned Japanese-Americans during WWII.
So wisdom is a part of this equation, but we only have wisdom in retrospect.
Yes, it’s tricky. We could also point out with equal retrospective justice that WWII ended because of an atomic bomb being dropped on Japan. The sheer magnitude of death causes some to condemn that (ignoring the millions more who died more gradually and stood to die subsequently), but most, at least, would give that response at the end of the war the nod as being legitimate. But how if we had had an atomic bomb four years earlier? Four years isn’t so much across the face of history. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, the Americans respond by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Game over. Does that seem proportionate to you? Wouldn’t that have been condemned as a horrible overreaction? Yet in retrospect, look how many millions would have lived.
As Nassim Taleb points out, a prescient legislator on a transportation committee might have pushed in 2000 for impassable doors between airline passengers and cockpit, and a US Marshal on every flight. We would now regard such measures as cumbersome and unnecessary government interference in private industry and curse that legislator and all who went along with him, thinking that because there were no obvious situations in which they had been needed, they were useless. A president over the last few decades who decided to insist that we have evacuation drills for New Orleans and San Diego would use up all his political capital making people do something they found deeply unnecessary; expensive, inconvenient, and controlling. We are quick to conclude “this is unnecessarily strict.”
We always know in retrospect when we have not been firm enough. We seldom know when we have been too firm. That truth has been used to rationalize a thousand evils, but remains true nonetheless.
With those two complications in mind, let’s have a go at Afghanistan, Iraq, and the entire GWOT. What we know in retrospect weakens both sides of the argument. We were sure there were weapons of mass destruction. What we found was more than what liberals claim, but certainly far less than the Bush Administration predicted. On the other hand, we were told that sanctions were working. We now know that they were eroding far more than even the most ranting wingnuts claimed in 2002. We were quite certain that Al Qaeda was deeply involved in Iraq. We now know that most connection was indirect, though there was some direct involvement. (Same link) On the other hand, we were told that more working through the UN still might bear fruit. We now know that France and Russia would have vetoed any further involvement, not because they were unconvinced of the necessesity, but because of how deeply they were involved in Saddam’s economy.
We could go back and forth with this indefinitely, and get no further. Real events are seldom what we predicted. It was fashionable on the middle-left from 2004-2006 that they supported going into Afghanistan but not Iraq. This could only be because Afghanistan went quickly but Iraq went slowly. (And the evidence for that nasty accusation is…) Now that Iraq has turned around, but mistakes in our Afghanistan strategy are exposed, the middle left doesn’t say that so much anymore.
Terrorist or even warlike acts, loosely tied to a dozen middle-eastern governments but often with official sanction from none of them, had been going on for 30 years. This was low-level with occasional spikes, except in Africa, where it has been medium-intensity warfare with hellish spikes. After each of the spikes – Munich, Yom Kippur, Iran, Beirut, USS Cole, Nigeria, Kuwait, Bosnia, WTC ’93, the democracies of the west debated whether something else should be done.
This is precisely our response to medical epidemics. Cholera, influenza, and typhoid killed a few thousand every year, and tens of thousands paid doctors and hucksters for cures that didn’t work. When spikes come, and death comes quickly in a concentrated area, then societies feel moved to act. Syphillis goes on for decades with little official attention, even after antibiotics come on board. AIDS starts killing the young and healthy in a relatively short period of time and societies mobilize their resources.
However indirectly Iraq or a dozen other nations were involved with terrorism in general and 9-11 in specific, no nation attacked us that day. Many of the attackers were Saudis, but the Saudi government is (relatively) our ally in the ME. The Taliban sheltered the trainers of the attackers, but so did Pakistan. If we are to blame nations for tolerating the presence of terrorist groups, then not only a dozen Middle-eastern nations, but a dozen each in Africa and Europe – and the US itself – tolerated them at some level within its borders. One can frame a strict interpretation and say “no nation attacked us, no nation can be attacked.” As inconvenient as that is, it is a strong point. If we start ignoring simple facts like this, we can gradually begin to ignore anything. I think this may be what the Council of Bishops had in mind when they declared the war pre-emptive.* While it was not pre-emptive in any pure sense – we had been tussling with Saddam for over a decade, both his threats and his overt acts – it was an escalation to the national level. They also expressed concern for the predicted “humanitarian crisis” for the already beleaguered Iraqis. I had forgotten how much that worry was in the air in 2002 – and how little credit that the US has received that it did not happen. But it was a fair question, even if we know in retrospect that millions did not starve, as was projected.
But that may give them too much credit. I noted above a very excellent set-up to the questions of Just War But when the chips were down, they produced this, plus the quote from John Paul II, above. Negotiation will work. Go through the UN. It would be fair to ask, what would be enough negotiation, sanctions, inspections? When the Pope says “we should never resign ourselves,” does he mean never cease negotiations? It sounds very Christian to always have hope, but hope in what? Hope in negotiations? He likely did not mean that hope in negotiations is the same thing as Christian hope. But that is what he seems to have said, and what the bishops said. And at that point, for all their fine theorizing, we must say that the Vatican, and the World Council of Churches, and the National Council of Churches, and the many denominations which considered the war pre-emptive and issued statements to that effect, come in the end to say exactly what the European intellectuals at the UN say. As the Vatican is perhaps the foundation of European intellectualism, certainly more than they are given credit for, this is hardly surprising. The denominational leaders, academics all, come in the end to reason exactly like European intellectuals, rather than reasoning like their congregations.
They might still be right in this, of course. We hire theologians to do more than take polls. We ask them to think, and weigh issues in light of scripture. I am hesitant – very hesitant – to reject the authority of those many Christian thinkers charged with the responsibility of scrutinizing our actions and offering pronouncements. But what are we to do when they give opinions and we asks for their reasons, and they give us the same reasons we would expect from their tribe and class, rather than from their religion? Does not this in itself raise grave questions which music they are listening to? What real, rather than theoretical, action would they approve?
I can well understand that some will remain unconvinced by my declaration that the arguments against the war failed to meet Just War criteria at least as much as they claim the Bush administration failed to meet them. To those folks I would offer only the thought experiments: when terrorist groups operate with indirect assistance of governments, what would be a justified response? Is no war ever to be justified under such circumstances, regardless of escalation? Or similarly, which country would it have been acceptable to take military action against? Partial allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – would that be wise? Iran, more deeply involved in supporting terrorism but even less officially antagonistic at the governmental level? If no action is justified against nations without an overt, obvious act, then settle in for an intensification of governments in the ME supporting terrorists on the sly. The secret police and renegade military factions of every nation in the region would then train and supply terrorist groups with impunity.
*I stick with the Catholics on this one because the WCC, NCC, UCC, ECUSA, UMC, and other statements are even more pronounced in offering the reasoning of European socialists, rather than church history, in their statements. The Catholic Bishops produced the most clearly scriptural and theological of the documents – at first.