The case for war

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[1], 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[2] of the decision insofar as they could be foreseen[3]. 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.

19 thoughts on “The case for war

  1. Two other side effects:
    1. the brutalisation of your own side as it runs an army of occupation.
    2. the short circuiting of an indigenous resistance which could have created a politically functioning society afterwards.

    I personally think the Ba’athist regime was steadily creating a secular educated society which would have beaten him in the end.

  2. Some random comments on a rather large topic.

    Even in a war that we believe to be just, against Hitler, some actions were both wrong and also stupid, like the bombing of civilians which had no strategic justification and also incurred heavy losses of allied personnel.

    We need to apply the same moral standards to both sides and not play favorites.

    We need to make allowance for mistakes in the heat of battle, where apparent attrocities are quite different from those committed in cold blood.

    Assuming that free trade under the rule of law tends to promote peace, freedom and prosperity, we need to check what we are doing (by word and deed) to promote free trade under the rule of law as a worldwide preventive strategy.

    Actions on the home front need to be consistent with the rhetoric used to justify foreign involvement. The Vietnam war was lost because the use of conscription destroyed the moral and intellectual credibility of the US and Aust governments (conscription to fight for freedom!). Similarly, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have any credibility as suporters of freedom at home due to their bipartisan support for the War on Drugs and the draconian provisions of the Patriot Act.

  3. some of us from the right who opposed the war may well agree and some may not.

    People opposed the war for different reasons.

    On a biblical basis the case was never made by the leaders who called them selves christians.

    On a secular basis I found no-one who could present a cogent argument that Iraq posed a threat to any contry, had a colabotative relationship with AQ or had any idea of how one could fertilise democracy in Iraq.

    I often wonder now what reason is given to the families of those people who die in Iraq for why they have died.

  4. Unless you really believe that God is going to punish those complicit in fighting unjust wars, the entire topic has the feint odour of sanctimony.

    Unless there is any likelihood that nations and other institutions are going to punish the COW or reprehensible elements of the “insurgency” for prosecuting an unjust war, then prolonged consideration of the parameters of unjust war smacks a little of self-indulgence.

    US citizens, exercising their constitutional rights to oppose tyrannical tendencies of their own government, are best-placed to do punish the Bush administration for its duplicitous, illegal and hypocritical conduct.

    It’d be consoling to witness US citizens doing just that, and some will, I believe.

    But the Bush administration is more likely to be punished by its citizens not for its moral lapses, but for its stupidity.

    The Bush administration grossly underestimated the cost of the Iraq adventure. The US citizenry have a range of opinions about the appropriate cost for the benefits their nation is likely to accrue from success in Iraq. My reading of public opinion in the US is that Americans are reassessing downwards the price they are prepared to pay.

    This process results in a growing mismatch between Administration ends and the means the American people will be prepared to give them to achieve those ends.

  5. John,
    Doesn’t everyone believe that war should be a last resort? Supporters of the US’ action in invading Iraq believe it too, so they have to persuade themselves that it was indeed a last resort. Of course those of us with a clue and who can read and think know that they’re deluded (some wilfully so).

    You’re not suggesting (as it seems to me to read) that the options open to the US and the UN were only two – invade or not? That was a no-brainer to answer “not!” to at the time, but it did still leave to be addressed the issues of Saddam’s regime and the poor consequences to Iraqis of the sanctions and No_Fly enforcement zones. What was to be done? There was a world of possibilities open to sensible people of good will that should have been considered but, tragically, the US was not in such hands.

    The US’ actions were foolish and disgraceful, and flew in the face of what was the 20th century’s wealth of experience on the subject of war and bad regimes. There were even well tried and tested policies open to be pursued before resort to war, but consider just the least likely scenario of all, which may be that Saddam could have been led to see the error of his wicked ways and have begun to improve the behaviour of his regime, to good effect both internally and in Iraq’s international affairs (decreasing the militant and terrorist threat he posed). That’s unlikely.

    Now: how unlikely was it that a man (Gorbachev) would be promoted through the ranks of the soviet system to reach a position of power, then wield his power and influence to reform, and ultimately preside over the dissolution of, the USSR? Soeharto ruled with an iron fist in Indonesia – yet stepped down voluntarily. Marcos left the Philippines peaceably. Mandela was an “insurgent” once, and certainly not always a man of peace;today he’s seen as a saint.

    It’s futile to go on with a discussion of alternative scenarios like this, though, in a world ruled by America’s village idiots and supported by their fearsome warbloggers. Futile because we’re in fact being remorselessly moved away, by the US government and its acolytes, from any chance of applying the lessons of 20th century history to the challenges of the 21st century. More’s the shame, but before moving forward again we need to go back to those people who voted for jihad with Bush/Cheney in 2004, to find out how they were left behind in the education system, what can be done about it, and so on.

    There’s nothing to be done about the warbloggers except to resist them until they grow up and go away because, just as Stalin had his cheerleading leftist intellectuals, the demagogues of the Whitehouse have theirs; immune to reason or self-insight, only old age and forever being wrong will weary ’em.

  6. “One counter-argument here is likely to be that those who initiate an unjust war are responsible for everything they unleash.”

    I can’t believe Geras would seriously frame the issue this way, as if ‘responsibility’ is some fixed quantity to be allocated between all the agents on whose decsions an event was contingent. If I advise someone to walk at night through a park that I know is notorious for muggings, I’m responsible for the ensuing assault. The degree to which the muggers are at fault is entirely independent, and in no way reduced if I accept my own culpability.

  7. I can’t help thinking that everyone is missing the main point. The Iraqi ‘insurgency’ is not the equivalent of Dresden or Nagasaki or Hiroshima. It is not some entirely out of the ordinary atrocity. It is simply people fighting back with the weapons at hand. It was entirely foreseeable.

    The claim that the coalition forces are not responsible for the current state of Iraq is equivalent to the claim that Hitler was not responsible for the everyday acts of brutality of his armies in France, Russia etc. Obvious total nonsense.

  8. “Insurgency” is defined as armed rebellion against legitimate authority.

    Anyone using the term should be prepared to explain to the world why the Iraqis should consider the US, who illegally invaded, or their carpetbagging puppets to be a legitimate Iraqi government.

  9. No, insurgency is not defined as “armed rebellion against legitimate authority”. It just means “uprising”, a general gathering of forces that is not operated by the state. It can also be used by the state, it’s just that that has fallen into disuse in recent centuries, leaving only non-state forces – illegitimate or otherwise – using it. But the “general insurrection” was the standard method of calling Hungarians into the field, back when Hungary was debated territory between the legitimate power and the Turks, and of course “raising the King’s standard” was used by legitimate forces at the outbreak of the Civil War (at Nottingham), and also by the legitimate authorities when the American Colonists revolted (since the rebels controlled the area).

    It’s “rebel” that’s the term that this criticism should be directed at, not so much from the Iraqis not revolting against legitimate authority as from their not having made any commitment to it (legitimate or otherwise), a concept that does not intersect issues of states at all and indeed applied in feudal times. And we should remember that “legitimate” is itself a technical term, only tenuously connected to concepts of right and wrong; it’s covered rather well in Kissinger’s introduction to one of his books, though I’m afraid I don’t recall which one off hand. Perhaps some reader can remind me.

  10. Being a Quaker, and thereby following the teachings of Jesus, I believe all killing is wrong, always.

    no exceptions.

    The ones who start a war (and they all start with lies) is the one mainly responsible, but the resisters should use non-violent means to resist.

    Of course, it was easy to see (before this war started)that Iraq was a threat to no one, had no ties with al Qaeda, and installing freedom and democracy via bullets and bombs was insane.

    But the real reason I opposed the war was because I was convinced that the overall result of this war would be a one-way ticket to hell for the Iraqi people. And because it will lead to a regional war, if not a world war. The worst is yet to come. I knew Bush & company would totally mess up the after-war …. and that is because they don’t care one whit about the Iraqi people (they hardly care about Americans) and they are doing this war to make a big pile of money, and insure control of the area and the oil…. to continue to make a big pile of money.

    I do not believe, and have never believed that Bush follows the teachings of Jesus. Never!

    The book “The March of Folly” talks about other military adventures that were totally foolish… just like this war on Iraq.

    We lost this war in August 2003…. and the worst, by far, is yet to come.

  11. No, insurgency is not defined as “armed rebellion against legitimate authority”.

    According to at least two of the four dictionaries here ( ), it does. Note the use of the terms “recognised government” or “constituted government”.

    Don’t have any disagreement with teh substance of your post, of course.

  12. It sounds as though the dictionaries are bringing in only definitions in common current use (i.e. reflecting chnages in current practice), though I would have expected them to include historical stuff as well to bring out the full range. The problem I have with that definition is that it suggests “insurgency is …”, simply and exclusively, ruling out the other range of meaning that turns out to be more relevant to the Iraq business.

    On the Quakers, I and many other have often wondered how Nixon reconciled his belief system with his duties as a statesman. It could well be the internal tensions of his own personal denial that led him into such personal complexity and occasional odd choices.

  13. The problem I have with that definition is that it suggests “insurgency is …”, simply and exclusively, ruling out the other range of meaning that turns out to be more relevant to the Iraq business.

    The problem is that language regarding Iraq is a political battlefield in itself. The reason I object to “insurgency” is because, to my mind, it implicitly concedes the legitimacy of the American occupation and the puppet government.

  14. The current Iraqi government may be a puppet regime in fact, but its legal status is sanctioned by the UN, which appointed it.

  15. That’s begging the question. Has the UN that power (Palestinians certainly don’t think so)?

    But the main point is, legitimacy is not a question of international standing, of legal recognition. It’s the expectation of the ability to command consent or at least acquiescence among a large part of the governed. That becomes a self fulfilling prophecy and goes a long way towards not having to keep a lot of balls in the air at once. You don’t need to exert actual force so much, which makes it possible to stay in power even in borderline situations.

    As for “rebel” v “insurgent”, to me the former is the most presumptuous. The latter is neutral because the other meanings are also around, and nobody should read a presumption of rebellion into the term, at least not automatically regardless of context. So that’s why I took issue with “the definition is“, when at most that is just one of several possible meanings. But we don’t need to labour the point, although it would certainly be better if we could find a more clearly neutral term, since some term we must have.

  16. Good points on the nature of legitimate government, P.M. Presumably this means that you disapprove of the insurgents in Iraq, who seem to be trying to prevent an election which might provide some more legitimacy to whatever government emerges post-election.

  17. No, Alex, I wasn’t describing my personal attitudes at all, just the tools for thinking. As it happens, I do not approve of US aims, nor do I suppose that democratic elections would confer legitimact – democracy only confers legitimacy when the people themselves buy into that idea. Technically, it is a “myth” (which does not mean “false belief” but rather “energising belief”).

    I think I should make this into something for Weekend Reflections.

  18. Good point again, P.M. You might be interested in this link, in particular the first item in which an Iraqi journalist in Basra closes with the comment “There’s a lot of talk about the elections next month, but mostly people are very suspicious. I and many people in Basra just don’t trust or feel we know most of the candidates that are likely to stand. They don’t represent us. The main parties are all opposition parties from Saddam’s time who were outside the country. Unless something changes, I’m not going to vote because there is no one who I support.”

  19. A game of two halves
    I was going to speak directly about Norman Geras’s post that divides the Iraq war into four distinct smaller wars–a perfectly hideous methodology–but notice John Quiggin has already addressed the piece at length. Still, there are a few more points…

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