Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Culture of War

OPINION: Politics & Society


In war, truth is the first casualty.
Aeschylus

It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.
Albert Einstein

Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose—and you allow him to make war at pleasure.
Abraham Lincoln

Oscar Wilde once said: "A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it." Yet, many soldiers in uniform do precisely that, go to war for nation's presumed honour, and return in a coffin draped in the national flag. What follows is as predictable as it is sad.

There's a military honour guard and a ceremony to mark the occasion. The families go home and wonder what happened. They might tell themselves their husband, father, brother, uncle died as a hero, serving their country. But feelings of emptiness, wonder and grief engulf them. Maybe also face feelings of doubt, questioning whether it was worth it. One cannot blame the soldier and the families that love them as much as the leaders that send them off to war.

Wars cause death to many, killing not only opposing soldiers, but civilians caught in the machinery of war, ordinary people living in the invaded country trying to live a normal life under unimaginable circumstances: going to work, going to the market, eating supper with their children. But war is not normal. War invades the normal and makes abnormal acceptable, even when the new normal of war and violence is bloody and leads to killing and death.

Nations give all kinds of reason to go to war, most of them sound good, believable and righteous, using heroic language and patriotism to justify the war and move the machine forward. It's wrapped up in maintaining "our way of live," or "liberating others." Yet, nations never really go to war for humanitarian reasons, despite the rhetoric and propaganda

For example, during the Second World War, the Allied Forces were not overly concerned about the victims perishing in Nazi death camps, even when informed about their inhumane purposes. (Personal disclosure: My father's entire family was killed in the Second World War.)  The reasons are always political, utilitarian, in the best interests of the warring nation, in other words, so-called realpolitik.

Three philosophical traditions of thought dominate the ethics of war and peace: Realism, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. The first two are well-understood, and do not need explanation here. The history behind Just War Theory is storied and more nuanced, says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
 If we have to “name names”, the founders of just war theory are probably the triad of Aristotle, Cicero and Augustine. Many of the rules developed by the just war tradition have since been codified into contemporary international laws governing armed conflict, such as The United Nations Charter and The Hague and Geneva Conventions. The tradition has thus been doubly influential, dominating both moral and legal discourse surrounding war. It sets the tone, and the parameters, for the great debate.
Just war theory can be meaningfully divided into three parts, which in the literature are referred to, for the sake of convenience, in Latin. These parts are: 1) jus ad bellum, which concerns the justice of resorting to war in the first place; 2) jus in bello, which concerns the justice of conduct within war, after it has begun; and 3) jus post bellum, which concerns the justice of peace agreements and the termination phase of war.
One of the major requirements in Just War Theory is as follows: The reason for going to war needs to be just and cannot therefore be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life.

Needless to say, the latest foreign war, the Iraqi War, has been horrible mess that has killed too many people, including tens of thousands of children. It is highly debatable whether anyone of conscience can call it a Just War.


Civilian Life During War: An Iraqi woman reads a book with child on her lap as U.S. Army Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team search the courtyard of her house during a cordon and search in Ameriyah, Iraq.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo, Sgt. Tierney Nowland, 2007.
Here are the sobering figures from the latest War, the Iraqi War, from Iraqi Body Count, a UK-based non-governmental organization that has been tracking and analyzing Iraqi civilian deaths from violence since the military intervention of 2003. The figures were published on October 23, 2010:
  • More than 150,000 people have been recorded killed in the Iraq war to date.
  • 80% of those killed were civilians
  • The Iraq War Logs record deaths of all types, including combatant deaths that fall outside the scope of IBC’s civilian deaths database. This means that they can also contribute to a broader accounting of the total number of persons killed in the war, civilian and combatant alike. Such a figure can be derived by combining the IBC database, the new logs (2004-2009), and other official information available on combatant deaths in 2003, 2010 and the two months missing from the logs (May 2004 and March 2009).
  • Combining these sources, the detailed calculation below provides a figure of total Iraqi deaths, both civilian and combatant, of 150,726. Adding figures on Coalition military deaths, which now stand at 4,744, brings the number up to 155,470. That is, given our analysis of the new logs, as combined with other previously reported deaths, we are now able to say that more than 150,000 people have been recorded killed in the Iraq war since 2003, of which around 80% were civilian.
Or, to put it another way, in the last seven years,120,000 civilians have died as a result of the Iraqi War. The amount of deaths grows each day, and includes many children. If you look at war photos, and see children maimed or killed, you can never feel the same way about war and death.  Never again. That boy or girl is someone's child. Is the death of an Afghani or Iraqi  child inferior to the death of an American, British, Canadian, or German citizen?

Which brings us to reality. The problem of large numbers confronts us. It is important to note, however, that these figures cited above are of real individuals, who died as a direct result of war. War in Iraq has resulted, as IBC says to,
excess deaths that can be associated directly with the military intervention and occupation of the country. In doing this, and via different paths, both studies have arrived at one conclusion which is not up for serious debate: the number of deaths from violence has skyrocketed since the war was launched.
War might be the most evil invention of humankind. War is a crime against humanity, since its powers to harm are phenomenally great. Its effects are immediate, long-term and universal. It touches the physical, social, emotional and psychological person in a way that exceeds our understanding. It wreaks misery on individuals and families. Its total costs are incalculable.

A leader, particularly of a powerful nation, ought to think gravely about such things before signing the executive order for war.  One would hope that he would also ask himself, with a clear and honest conscience: What will this war, for the most part, accomplish? If it is to bring unwanted death and misery to millions of people, he should consider other more humane options.