(Latin : Bellum iustum)
As an amateur philosopher (in addition to being an amateur economist and amateur political theorist), few things bother me more than when people take historical arguments and reconstruct them to fit their own thinking. Today, I’m going to argue a bit around the Christian doctrine of “Just war”. Now, it is easy for libertarians to simply say “there are no just wars”, but this implies complete pacifism, and no acceptance of violence in selfdefence. I will fully support the argument that there is no justification for State Wars, but we should remember that historically (before the onset of the idea of State-as-God), war was mainly something that nobles and princes carried out, with volountary mercenary armies. The inclusion of the civilian population is largely a modern fenomenon, although of course there are historic precedents (The Thirty Years War, for instance, which can be summed up as “Seven or so different armies taking turn raping the population of what is now Germany”). But I will argue more from the point of view where war is a method of conflict-solving, somewhat similar to police business, only spanning different judicial territories.
Now then, to the criticism. It is popular, even among certain Christians (the American self-identified Christian-Right) to argue that US involvement in World Wars I & II was somehow an instance of “Just War”, painting the usual simplified picture of the Axis as 100% evil, and the Allies as 100% good. A view which correct historical analysis will of course not support.
First then, we go to Rothbard:
A just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. A war is unjust, on the other hand, when a people try to impose domination on another people, or try to retain an already existing coercive rule over them.
All in all, quite simple. This is not the historical stance, rather what can be considered the libertarian stance. It is quite hard to argue with it. It does, however, only address the topic on a high level – and in certain conflicts views may differ on who is threatening coercive domination on whom. Let’s go to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy for some history :
The principles of the justice of war are commonly held to be: having just cause, being a last resort, being declared by a proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used.
We see here six principles :
- Just cause
- Only as a last resort – all other options must have been tried
- Declared by a proper authority, meaning one that is supported by the people it governs
- Possessing right intention, meaning it must be to right a severe wrong or evil
- Having a reasonable chance of success
- The ends being proportional to the means
To start off, we can immediately scratch any use of nuclear devices, since I cannot possibly see how the mass-slaughter of civilians can in any way be proportional to any evil. There is simply no evil great enough to justify such an action, since it is about as evil as it gets. Secondly, the mass-slaughter of civilians cannot possibly be done for any intention except extermination – the idea that it “weakens domestic support for the war” and that the population of the enemy territory will force their government to give up is, as history shows, erronous. Britain was strengthened by German bombings. And Japan was willing to give up before they were nuked (but you didn’t learn that in school, although half a century go most historians knew this).
Looking further to this principle, it is clear that more or less NO wars waged in the 20th century have even nearly fulfilled the criteria of being “just”. True – the head of the Catholic Church in the US declared that entering the First World War was “just” as Woodrow Wilson declared war, but it is also known that the majority of the US population were AGAINST entering WWI, which was such a large problem for the US government that they had to imprisone, and threat with heavy fines a cadre of war-criticizing journalists. They had to make it a crime to be against the war – something that should serve as an indication of how unpopular it was. Thus, the US entering WWI did NOT fulfill the criteria of being declared by a “proper authority”, since the leaders of the United States clearly did not act according to the will of those governed. Secondly, what was the “just cause” for the US entering WWI? Which was the great evil and wrong they attempted to undo? They didn’t like the Kaiser? And furthermore, when the US entered the war it had more or less come to a complete standstill, and it is widely argumented that had the US not entered, there would have been a three-party peace settlement, which would have avoided the Versailles Treaty. This couldn’t be known before, of course, but as the war was clearly progressing towards an inevitable cease-fire (because the nations involved were, as it were, broke) – what good would US involvement do except tilt the peace-treaties against Germany, and in favour of France and Britain? This, in itself, can hardly be seen as a just cause, nor possessing the right intention.
Moving on to the World War II, we can similarly find much to argue against US involvement. First, regarding Japan, Roosevelt wanted war. Instead of negotiating pro-actively for peace, he put the Japanese in a situation where war was the only way of securing oil imports. The choice to enter the war was Japanese, but when one side has actively tried to push their counterparty into war by politics, can it then be said that the war is “just”, simply because the other party attacked first? Is such a war waged for the “right intention”, when it could easily have been avoided? It seems to me that such is not the case. If the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would not have been a predictable consequence of trade blockades and power politics by the Roosevelt regime, then defense against them would clearly have constituted “just war” (although not the use of nuclear weapons).
Regarding the involvement of Britain and the US on the European front, a few things should be duly noted : Britain was dragged into the war due to having given a guarantee to protect Poland, a guarantee they knew when they gave it could not be fulfilled. Hitler, by his own declaration, had no interest in Poland except for getting back the city of Danzig which was taken by Poland in the WWI peace, and secondly negotiating the use of a corridor through Poland to wage war against the Russian bolschjeviks. Had the US and Britain entered the War to prevent the genocide of millions of Jews (something that didn’t start until well into the War), then it may well have been considered “just”. But this would necessitate predicting such an event – an event that MIGHT not have happened had the war only been fought between Germany and Russia. I am not denying the ongoing oppression of Jews in Germany before the start of the War – and one can well argue that such an oppression would too constitute the necessary pre-requisites for starting a just war against Germany – but this was not why Britain and the US went to war. In fact, anti-Jewish sentiment existed over large parts of Europe, not only in Germany.
Thus, the entering of Britain and the US into the second world war, as it was done, (not as it could have been done) may in fact not fulfill the criterias for just war. But try telling that to an American or Brit. Or anyone else, for that matter. I might get hanged just for saying it.
With the two major wars of the 20th century dealt with, I hasten to add that it takes little to no effort to prove that subsequent wars involving the United States can in no possible way be seen as just, be it Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan or the now institutionalized murdering of civilian children by drone airplanes. None of these wars have “just cause” or where done for the right reasons, they were not proportional, they had little chance of success (if we define success as creating a better outcome than would otherwise have occured) and they were hardly done as a “last resource”.
Thus, I will conclude my remarks as to whether or not the wars waged by the US in the 20th century have been “just”. Clearly not so – but that also goes for the majority of all other wars ever waged, so in that respect the United States is just about as lousy as everyone else, perhaps with the difference that they are much more apt at killing civilians. This was originally going to be a post about the fire-bombing of Dresden, but I think you can construct the arguments for why that wasn’t just yourself at this point. I’ll return to the topic in a follow-up post.