Norman Geras presents a central part of the argument for war, arguing that war can be justified even when it is predictable in advance that it will do more harm than good, and that even aggressors aren’t fully responsible for the consequences of the wars they start. Here’s the crucial bit
in sum, those in the anti-war camp often argue as if there wasn’t actually a war going on – the real conflict on the ground being displaced in their minds by the argument between themselves and supporters of the war. Everything is the fault of those who took the US and its allies into that war and, secondarily, those who supported or justified this.
Except it isn’t. As I said in the earlier post, the war has two sides. One counter-argument here is likely to be that those who initiate an unjust war are responsible for everything they unleash. But first, this begs the question. Much of the case for the war’s being unjust was that it would have bad consequences. Yet, many of those bad consequences are the responsibility of forces prosecuting a manifestly unjust war – in both its objectives and its methods – on the other side. Secondly, it’s simple casuistry in assessing the responsibilities of two sides in a military conflict to load everything on to one of the sides – even where the blame for having begun an unjust and aggressive war is uncontroversial. Were the Japanese themselves responsible for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Adolf Hitler was responsible for many terrible crimes during the Second World War. But the fire bombing of Dresden? This is all-or-nothing thinking.
To respond, I’ll begin by asking a question. Suppose those of us on the Left who opposed the Iraq war had prevailed. To what extent, if any, would we have been responsible for the crimes that Saddam would undoubtedly have committed while he remained in power?
Based on the above argument, Geras’ answer would have to be “not at all”. Opponents of the war did not (with a handful of exceptions) support Saddam’s regime or assist it in committing its various crimes. And it’s clear here that Geras requires absolute and direct complicity. When Hitler fire-bombed London, it was obvious that, if the British ever got the chance they would in Churchill’s memorable phrase “give it all back, in good measure, pressed down and running over”, as of course they did. But since the bombing of Dresden was an unjust action, Hitler was not, in Geras’ view, morally responsible for it.
There’s a sense in which this is right, but it’s not the relevant one in asking the question “Should we have opposed the war”. In deciding to oppose the war, it was necessary to take account of all the consequences of the decision insofar as they could be foreseen. Those consequences included Saddam’s continuation in power, which would have cost thousands of lives and caused a lot of misery. The alternative was the war which has cost tens of thousands of lives and caused even more misery, something which should have been predictable in advance and was in fact predicted. If you accept this assessment, leaving Saddam in power was the lesser of two evils.
Since there are a lot of unknowns here, reasonable people differed about the best course of action before the war. Some believed that the war would be short that the transition to democracy would be rapid, and therefore that the war should be supported. Some believed the Administration’s claims about WMDs and Saddam’s to al Qaeda, which implied that leaving Saddam alone would be very dangerous. Most people who reasoned in this way have conceded that, at least ex post they were mistaken. Belle’s post on this was one of the best. Here’s another from Michael Ignatieff. Some people are still trying to argue that the good consequences of the war will eventually outweigh the bad, but this is becoming less and less plausible.
If you accept Geras’ argument, though, there’s no need to abandon support for this or any just war, even if its consequences are more evil than good. The bad consequences in Iraq are due to the insurgents who are unjustly resisting the Americans. And more generally, it’s hard to imagine any war that can’t be justified, on both sides, by this kind of argument. If your cause is just (in your own eyes), and the rules by which you fight it are justified (in your own eyes), then the death and carnage of war is all due to the manifestly unjust actions of the other side.
Given this analysis, it’s not surprising while supporters of the war have quibbled with recent estimates of civilian casualties, infant mortality and so on, few have given any indication that there is some level at which their support for the war would be withdrawn. The argument now isn’t about support or opposition to this war but about support for or opposition to war in general.
fn1. I haven’t checked, but I don’t think Geras has been entirely consistent in this respect.
fn2. This argument may be made either with regard to a case-by-case assessment of particular decisions, or to the formulation of general rules.
fn3. In making a judgement of this kind, it’s worth remembering that, most of the time, wars have been far more bloody and brutal than was expected on either side at the start. It’s more or less self-evident that at least one side in war has underestimated the costs and overestimated the benefits, but more common that both sides have done so.