Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Culture of War

OPINION: Politics & Society

In war, truth is the first casualty.

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.


  1. Without getting into specific wars, it is nevertheless my (yet probably not very profoundly informed, thus admittedly humble) opinion that wars are unavoidable. Human have been at war since the very beginning of the first social groups, and it is likely that they will predictably continue to wage wars in the foreseeable future. The book "Guns, Germs, and Steel", by Jared Diamond, seems to describe this as an evolutionary competitiveness type struggle. Of course the (ongoing) consequences of wars are basically antihumane, on the other hand, if one does see them as unavoidable and tends to regard pacifism as an utopian ideal, and machiavellian type pragmatic realism as possibly callous, isn't it fair to at least try to classify them, as mentioned above, in just and unjust types of wars ? Now, of course, it will depend on the perspective of the judge...

    ...but since you mentioned Aristotle, the champion of virtue ethics...I think I kind of tend to give him, and thus subsequently a modern common or civil law judge who tries his utmost to be as ethically unbiased as humanely possible, the benefit of the doubt, and, at the same time, I kind of tend to distrust the more primitive (possibly instinctually rather rationally based) religious law types judges (like the ones of the Inquisition, or the ones one may still find nowadays in some Islamic totalitarian countries).

  2. Rudolph,

    Dear Rudolph

    That wars are unavoidable is true. The book you cited by Jared Diamond gives an evolutionary argument that not everyone would find confidence in, though he makes a strong case.

    That all wars are just, meaning that other means have been exhausted is not always the case. The American's invasion of Iraq might prove to be a case of an unjust war that achieved little other than death on both sides. I am not yet convinced, with strong evidence, that the reasons for going to war were met convincingly and justly. If you can provide me such evidence, or direct me to it, I will be more than happy to be persuaded.

  3. Part 1:

    I really had to think about this one because I am not so sure that one can explain whether the specific war in Iraq has been, or continues to be, a just one. I had to actually go back to remember how I personally felt after September 11, 2001, and why I felt that somehow, even if it didn't make any logical sense, and prudent analysis even demonstrated against this in some American newspapers, Irak was going to immediately be "on the list" after Afghanistan. In retrospect, it was partly an emotional decision, partly there were some older things to be "repaid" (revenge of some sorts), partly a Policing type strategical decision. And, both ideologically & strategically, it was also maybe some sort of "model local war" for the larger admittedly ideological "war against terrorism". And Irak WAS next on the "list", even though no one gave much thought back then to the almost impossible and extraordinarily costly (mostly in human lives) reconstruction.

    I must explain that I personally have always felt that the oil was a secondary issue, a bonus of sorts maybe, but always a secondary one.

    I cannot explain very well why I agreed back then with the going to war against Iraq decision. In my personal case, since I was very young, and the Old Cold War had been declared over, so only one functional "parent" seemed to remain visibly behind, on call, I think I looked up to America in the role of adult manager of the world which had been so badly shaken by the murderous callous terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. And that attack shook me, personally, and I personally felt momentarily unsafe, and I thus gave mom-cop America, whose democratic political system I had long held true respect & consideration for, the benefit of the doubt. I sort of also empathised with her. She had been attacked, she had the right to respond, as she so pleased and thought best.

  4. Part 2:

    I realise that this is a childish and emotionally based response, not evidence of anything. But this is how it went in my case...and I tried to put myself, if at all possible, in the shoes of America's politicians from back then, trying as best as I can to understand their role as called upon in a time of true crisis.

    Now living in Norway, especially after what happened here on July 22, this year, you can also understand why I am anxious to even mention the expression "ideological war", even if it is for the stated "just" cause, against terrorism. Bottom line, I consider what happenned in Norway a true pathological aberration.

    Also bottom line, I think that when it comes right down to it, when a healthy and non pathological human being with the executive power of the President of the United States of America has to make a deliberative decision to go to war, be him Democrat or Republican, he must take into consideration of the mood and the will of the American people. The American people back then was attacked, and the American people was shocked and quite fast very angry. The American people, IMHO, wanted to go to war to defend itself. The decision for Irak after Afghanistan was a strategical decision. The American people by and large agreed with it, and it was NOT lied to in an inordinate manner, and it was not inordinately manipulated into this. They waited for a strategic decision from the president and, IMHO, by and large, the American people were willing to go to war against Irak. (NATO members as well.) There was realistically not much real dissent against this war in the USA back then. There were a bit of really anemic opposition and urges to take into consideration the difficulties of the post-Saddam regime country reconstruction, which could realistically be envisioned as a possibly long drawn out bloody effort if one took into consideration the history of Irak, but the vast majority was not in the mood to listen to such analysis back then.

    I KNOW I am again speaking about moods (emotions), but I cannot help it, since ultimately we are humans, and we do have emotions. And decisions to go to war, and war itself is carried out by humans. Even the most unbiased, experienced, ethical, wise US Supreme Court Judge is a human, and has emotions and preferences, and a certain temperament, and a bottom line ideology.

    In general, on balance, I pay attention when the USA decides to go to war. And I tend to side with its decisions. Its democratic political system is still a "guide", a "mentor" in a way for me, if not a "parent", (as I am a little older now, plus I am not an American).

    I know no democracy can be perfect, most politicians certainly are not, (although one has to hand it to many professional American ones as some of the most talented actors of our modern world...!...I do actually take seriously the role of modern politicians, they have to actually perform that seemingly necessary "dirty", ingrate profession one must endure, as both performer and spectator, for having the benefit of a functional democracy here and there !)...but, nevertheless, I still, maybe somewhat still naively romantically, look at the American system as that "beacon of light" somewhere out there.

  5. Hi Rudolph,

    Of course emotions come into play in all human decisions. Even so, many political analysts have concluded that this one was ideological—to build a secular democratic state in Iraq, which would lead to a democratic Middle East. It hasn't gone as planned, chiefly because democracies need the will of the people and long-standing democratic institutions built by local representaives.

    Seymour Hersch, a thoughtful writer that warned early on of the consequences of an invasion of Iraq, wrote in 2003 for "The New Yorker:

    Former Senator Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been a strong supporter of the President’s decision to overthrow Saddam. “I do think building a democratic secular state in Iraq justifies everything we’ve done,” Kerrey, who is now president of New School University, in New York, told me. “But they’ve taken the intelligence on weapons and expanded it beyond what was justified.” Speaking of the hawks, he said, “It appeared that they understood that to get the American people on their side they needed to come up with something more to say than ‘We’ve liberated Iraq and got rid of a tyrant.’ So they had to find some ties to weapons of mass destruction and were willing to allow a majority of Americans to incorrectly conclude that the invasion of Iraq had something to do with the World Trade Center.

    Read more

  6. Part 1:

    Thank you. I have been a longtime reader of The New Yorker, and I especially admire Mr. Seymour Hersch ! In fact I admit I was actually surprised that some of the best & most thoughtful EARLY analysis of the war in Iraq came from a cultural publication ! But how many, including especially the political leadership, (not just Republican, but Democratic too !), are actually reading the New Yorker in the United States ?! Yes, for me personally, The New Yorker has been truly the much needed BALANCING factor that helped diminish my personal anxiety about that uncomfortable feeling I had in those early years after September 2001, when I realized that my previously held Candide-like stance, (that all was all right with the world !), was NOT going to realistically work or be as popular in the XXI-st century !

    You see, I knew on one hand that what The New Yorker wrote MADE SENSE. On the other, I also knew that no one was going to go about it rationally. I sort of tried to empathise with all sides, to put myself in the shoes of both Republicans & Democrats, in the shoes of real, regular American people, as well.

    I ended up sort of seeing things from the perspective of a parent who had brutally & unexpectedly lost a child due to s psychopathic attack, (I will always, in my mind, view terrorists as psychopaths, understood in the forensic sense). I actually ethically decided that one has to allow the possibility for a parent to become & behave emotionally & even irrationally driven when a parent loses a child. While a parent may be allowed to take time off from real world work in times of such momentous grief, America, (incl. political leadership, executive decision makers), did NOT have that luxury, nor that permission.

  7. Part 2:

    But in my heart, I was also glad, because of The New Yorker, that the press remained free & independent. The press is, IMHO, a yet authentically powerful balancing factor in the USA. In Europe, unfortunately, it seems to me that that role is mostly assumed by the tabloids, which kind' of diminishes its ethical reputation.

    I am actually curious how the press is, and how it is viewed in Canada ! I think I will try to read for a while some Canadian on-line newspapers, to get a sense about that ! (Unless you will be kind enough to spare me the effort, and give me a short summary about how you view the Canadian press yourself ! I think you may have actually touched on that a bit in that post of above, Politics is too important for partisan TV !)

  8. P.S. I sort of intuitively KNEW from the beginning that the evidence on WMD in Irak was pretty thin, and that even Mr. Tenet, (an American professional I have generally tended to look up to, as I was listening to many while I was growing up myself & trying to find various models of professionals from various fields), kind of fudged a bit about it. In my own mind, I will fully admit I decided to go along with it, again, rationalizing that it was for ethical reasons.

  9. Hi Rudolph:

    Thank you for your comments. Canadians are similar to Americans in that they are somewhat skeptical of the press, but still want to believe in it. As a writer and journalist I find this unfortunate but understandable in a democracy. There are a number of publications I would recommend to get some insight into Canadian thinking:

    1. The National Post:

    2. The Globe & Mail:

    3. Maclean's:

    Note that one of the long-standing Canadian preoccupations has been the issue of Quebec sovereignty. It still percolates now and then. that is extensively covered in the French press. Another issue is multi-culturalism. Canadians often define themselves in opposition to the U.S., e.g. what we're not. Canadians like to consider themselves more tolerant and pluralistic. Of course, such generalizations are just that, and persons tend to conform to their personal narratives and beliefs. But that's another topic.


This is a forum for all, and, as such comments are welcome. Keep comments brief and to the point.