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The moral asymmetry of war and peace

February 25th, 2003

Alan Wood in today’s Oz has a piece that begins by mentioning a TV interview in which Costello showed himself totally unaware of Iraq’s population etc. He goes on to say

I doubt that any of Costello’s cabinet colleagues could have answered the question, or Martin until somebody looked it up for him. I would certainly like a dollar for all the anti-war marchers who couldn’t answer it.*

There’s an assumption of symmetry here which does not stand up to scrutiny. I don’t need to know the population of Kazakhstan, its political history, or even whether I’ve spelt it correctly, to know that I don’t support a war with that country. The fact that Australians in general, including Costello and Martin, know very little about Iraq is a good reason why we should not be fighting a war there.

The assumption that arguments for and against war should be assessed more or less symmetrically underlies a lot of blog discussion and is fundamentally unsound. Both international law and the experience of history provide a strong presumption against war, and in favor of seeking an early peace if war breaks out. Most wars turn out badly for all countries that choose to engage in them, and even in the case of defensive wars, most decisions to forgo the chance of a compromise peace based on the status quo ante have proved mistaken (Korea and Iran-Iraq are recent examples).

In these circumstances, the onus should be on the advocates of war to prove their case, as against the best available alternative which, in this case is the continuation of inspections.

As far as I can see the strongest case for war is that the current state of mobilisation is too costly to maintain, exactly the argument of the Austro-Hungarian empire when it launched its ‘war against terrorism’ in 1914.

* Wood doesn’t give a margin of error, so I’m not sure if he would have my dollar. The population estimate he gives is 24 million.

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