The Epistemology of War

Many who supported the war with Iraq are now shocked'shocked!'to discover that they may have been misled about the existence of huge stockpiles of Iraqi WMD waiting to be unleashed on the American public. What is really shocking is that so many people were convinced this was true in the first place. Not to say that it might not be true, but what reason did we have to think it was true? How did we know that Iraq posed a threat?

After all, what evidence did any of us, the regular Joes and Janes, actually have for the claims being made by the administration and its fellow travelers in the media? Well, not much, actually. In fact, the hawks' arguments essentially boiled down to 'Trust us.' And yet so many of us went along.

This situation highlights a dilemma for the average citizen in the modern nation-state. Informed consent requires knowledge. But the decisions made by our rulers are often based on information that most of us don't have access to. And, they assure us, we can't have access to it because of its highly sensitive nature.

Add to this the fact that governments lie. Not just occasionally, but systematically. They lie, they spin, they manipulate, they distort. Not just the Republicans, but the Democrats too. Not just dictatorships but democracies.

Consider the fact that, prior to the war, almost 50% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. And now something like 41% believe that we have, in fact, found the dreaded WMD. Neither of these beliefs is true (so far as we know), and yet millions of our countrymen believe them. Why is this? Because they've been encouraged, in a million subtle and not-so-subtle ways, to believe them.

But if I am not in a position to know what evidence decisions are based on, how can I be expected to endorse those decisions? A plausible principle is that in the case of deciding whether or not to go to war, the burden of proof should be on those advocating war. After all, war is the equivalent of capital punishment on a national scale, and we'rightly'insist on proof beyond a reasonable doubt in capital cases.

Therefore, the bar of evidence in deciding whether to support a war ought to be particularly high. If one doesn't have sufficient evidence to 'convict,' then one shouldn't support the war. Since there was a distinct lack of overwhelming evidence in the case of Iraq , the prudent thing to do was not to support the war.

But the rejoinder is that we should trust our leaders to make the right decisions. They are good men and wouldn't commit the nation to war if they didn't have good reasons. However, this just pushes the problem back a step. What evidence do I have that the men making the decisions are men of good character? I don't know any of them personally. And what I do know is filtered through spin-doctors, image consultants, focus groups and a media that favors the trivial over the substantive.

So I can only conclude that, based on what I know, I am in no position to judge a) whether the available evidence justified war with Iraq or b) whether those who were in a position to judge are trustworthy men of good character.

But to conclude this is to conclude that I cannot support such a war. And, perhaps, could never support any war carried out under similar circumstances.

Remember what we're being asked to do in supporting a war. We're being asked to authorize people to kill and maim on our behalf. And yet, in doing so, we chronically ask for only the flimsiest of rationales. Moral integrity demands that we can only support a war, if ever, when we're convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that it's right and necessary. Can anyone deny that there was reasonable doubt in the case of Iraq ?

As George Washington said, 'Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is a force, like fire: a dangerous servant and a terrible master.' In advocating an action of the State, we are advocating the use of force, of violence, to secure certain ends. And war is the ultimate form of State violence. Why do so many require so little persuasion to support such violence?

It seems that many people, for a variety of reasons, wanted to believe that there was a case for invading. Some dreamt of a Pax Americana and others of wealth. Most average people were probably just scared, and in the wake of 9/11 will grasp at anything that gives them a sense of safety and control.

But fear, greed and the will to dominate are hardly noble motives. A free people should be willing to face reality head-on and to refuse to give their consent to unjustified violence carried out in their name. And this requires being realistic about what we can know and whom we can trust.

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Lee McCracken's picture
Columns on STR: 8

Lee McCracken lives in Philadelphia and works in publishing.  He has also written for