Just wars– and civilian casualties

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Gaddafi
Gaddafi

Because David Samel raises important issues, and has done so in a courteous but forthright manner, I will try to answer his queries and criticisms, in the same spirit. I have nothing further to add to the Ron Paul issue—I think by now everyone’s position on the matter is quite clear—so I will focus on the broader issues: noninterventionism, war and peace, civilian casualties, American exceptionalism, and the like.

Samel begins by asking:  “Is it really fair to characterize anyone who opposed US military action in Afghanistan, the first Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, Libya etc. as “simpleminded”? As Phil Weiss has acknowledged, he wrote the headline on my original post, not me, though it is also true that I did say that “Ron Paul is a simpleminded fool on 90% (at least) of the issues, domestic and foreign.”  So let me clarify my argument, making the necessary distinctions:

First, I believe that most of Ron Paul’s domestic positions are indeed simpleminded, and much worse, disastrous on both moral and consequential grounds.  That makes him a fool.

Second, he’s not as bad on foreign policy, but bad enough.  I would not characterize anyone’s opposition to the post-9/11 military action in Afghanistan, the first Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and Libya as  necessarily “simpleminded,” though it very well might be, depending on how it is argued.  Rather, I say that to the extent such opposition fails to deal with the arguments on both sides, it is, at a minimum, simplistic.  For that reason, Ron Paul—but not everyone reaching the same bottom line—is simplistic.  Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya are close calls, with substantial arguments on both sides.  However you come out on whether those military interventions were justified, if you don’t recognize the complexity of the cases and explain how you meet the legitimate counterarguments, you are simplistic, and your opinions are of no interest—and in a politician, especially a candidate for the presidency, potentially dangerous.

Samel continues:  “Slater’s perspective clearly assumes the awful premise of American exceptionalism, that the US is entitled to take actions that would be forbidden to other nations, because of our superior military capability, our superior morality, or both.” 

I assume no such thing.  Since Samel knows and acknowledges that I opposed the Vietnam War, the Iraq War of 2003 and its continuation through the present, the Afghanistan war after al-Qaeda was defeated,  and any attack on Iran, it is rather quaint of him to conclude that my view is that the US is morally entitled to do anything it wishes.  

I would have thought that my actual position would have been clear by now: all wars, including those initiated by the US, must be judged by the moral principles embodied in just war moral philosophy.  Some wars are justified by those criteria, most are not.  This has nothing whatever to do with “American exceptionalism,” unless I was arguing that the U.S, because of its superior morality and military power, should not be bound by just war principles.  I’m sure Samel, when he thinks it over, will concede that I make no such argument, that in fact it is the very opposite of what I believe and have repeatedly argued.

There’s yet another problem with the notion of American “exceptionalism.”  In several of the cases under discussion here–the US interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya—the interventions were far from unilateral.  On the contrary, they were not only supported by most western states, a number of them actively participated, and in the case of Libya, provided the main military forces.

Civilian casualties.  Samel writes: “Slater acknowledges that all wars cause civilian casualties. True, but isn’t that a reason to oppose almost all wars, with very very few exceptions for cases like WWII?”

I don’t “acknowledge” that all wars cause civilian casualties—that’s like acknowledging that the sun rises in the morning.  What I argue—rather, what just war moral philosophy argues—is that the existence of civilian casualties, by itself, does not necessarily demonstrate that no wars are justified.  Indeed, Samel picks the very worse case, given his position, to make his own argument:  World War II.  Why?  Because even Samel acknowledges, though in as backhanded a way as he can, that WWII was justified.  Yet, WWII without a doubt caused far more civilian casualties than any war since. 

And I don’t mean only German or Japanese civilian casualties.  The liberation of France has been estimated to have resulted in over 60,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries, not to mention immense destruction to civilian homes and infrastructures. Did most French people think the price was too high, and would they rather have continued under indefinite Nazi occupation?  Well, at least most of the French people who weren’t collaborating with Hitler.

I’ll repeat the point I’ve made a number of times: the notion that you can decide on whether a war is justified or not by asking the families of those killed takes you nowhere—unless you think, for example, that we should have asked the families of German civilians killed in WWII, including the families of the Nazis and the SS, if they thought the Allied war to liberate Europe and destroy Nazism war was justified–and then ended the war if they voted no. 

Or, take the case of Libya.  The western intervention undeniably caused civilian casualties.  Is there any serious doubt that the Libyan people enthusiastically welcomed the overthrow of Gaddafi?  Or that the price of nonintervention would have been far greater Libyan deaths and the continuation of Gaddafi’s tyranny?

In short, the existence of civilian casualties, per se, tells you nothing about the justice of the war.  Then, the complexities begin: In what cause?  How many civilian casualties?  Is there evidence that civilians were deliberately attacked, or was every effort made to minimize the casualties?  How many civilians would have died, or suffered indefinitely under tyranny (or a thousand year Nazi Reich) if there had been no military intervention?  Were the principles of last resort, proportionality, distinction, and the immunity of civilians from deliberate attack observed?  Could diplomacy have worked?   And more. 

Are you simplistic if you don’t understand the need to consider such issues in making moral judgments about wars?   Of course.

A last point.  Samel says “Slater goes so far as to say that Bush’s wars were fought with bad-intentioned imperialism, while Obama has more benign motives. But he cannot support a Democratic President’s right to military action without sanctioning a Republican’s right as well.”

Of course I can.  The issue is not which political party makes the decision, but a proper evaluation of the validity of the decision, on the merits and irrespective of partisan politics.  Bush started a war with Iraq for a number of bad reasons, lied about his true reasons (none of which could pass the just cause test), and despite the fact that his administration knew that the argument that Saddam was still seeking nuclear weapons was probably false.  Obama went to war in Libya for legitimate reasons.  And even though I think Obama should have gotten out of Afghanistan and Iraq a lot sooner, his failure to do so does not demonstrate “imperialist” motivations. 

Life is a lot more complicated than that.

A failure to recognize the many complexities and vexing issues inherent in war-and-peace issues is, indeed: “simplistic.”  Maybe even “simpleminded.”

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“Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya are close calls” Who facilitated the war in Yugoslavia in the first place? Who profited from it? By the time the Bosnia intervention came around the war had been going on for 4 years. Who wanted that war? Why did it have to be a war… Read more »

“the US interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya—the interventions were far from unilateral. On the contrary, they were not only supported by most western states, a number of them actively participated, and in the case of Libya, provided the main military forces.” You’re picking and choosing here, J. Slater. Before… Read more »

I would have thought that my actual position would have been clear by now: all wars, including those initiated by the US, must be judged by the moral principles embodied in just war moral philosophy. Principles usually don’t do the judging themselves. People do that. So who gets to judge?… Read more »

“Obama went to war in Libya for legitimate reasons. ”

Other than for the bogus reasons propagated by the Western and Arab press, what were those legitimate reasons? From the anti-war blog:

The Lies That Sold Our Fraudulent ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ In Libya

http://nomorewarplease.wordpress.com/2011/08/20/the-lies-that-sold-our-fraudulent-humanitarian-intervention-in-libya/

Just war theory more often than not is a branch of war propaganda and psychological operations. It specializes in pushing the masses into wars on behalf of financial elites while providing the masses with rationales to feel good about themselves. Feeling self-righteous about one’s cause improves morale and performance in… Read more »