The Myth of 'Just' War

When he refused to return to Iraq , claiming conscientious objector status, Sgt. Kevin Benderman helped intensify debate over America 's war in Iraq . Understandably, after Benderman and several others not only refused to return to Iraq , but rejected war entirely, many are wondering if America should continue its war there. After all, if the war is so horrible that some of its participants no longer accept war as a legitimate institution, something must be wrong. However, I contend that these people have missed Benderman's point. Benderman believes that we should ask ourselves whether war, for any reason, is ever justified. In this essay, I will answer this question, addressing the issues of whether constitutional authority justifies war, whether pacifists are obligated to join the military during wartime, preemptive war, utilitarian arguments for war, and humanitarian intervention.

Governments often argue that they have a right'indeed an obligation'to start wars to protect their people, and this is certainly true (though the question is whether they should exercise that right). Elected officials in most countries take oaths to defend their nation, and they therefore have a constitutional right to wage war. However, the duty to 'defend the country' allows politicians to rationalize even the most violent, aggressive actions. A politician who wants to see a threat from a particular nation will find evidence'however flimsy'to support his accusations. For example, numerous critics have offered convincing arguments that the Bush administration manipulated and exaggerated intelligence to formulate its case for invading Iraq . Just as individual soldiers salve their consciences by telling themselves they 'just followed orders' from politicians and officers, government leaders can'with clear consciences'order their militaries to commit mass murder for the sake of 'defending the country.' For this reason, I believe George W. Bush is sincere when he tells Americans the Iraq War was 'worth it' even if we never find any weapons of mass destruction. Even if the weapons did not exist, Bush believed they did, and he therefore can sleep at night despite having launched a brutal war under false pretenses.

Pacifists argue that soldiers, like state leaders, pretend they are not responsible for their actions during war. They rationalize behavior that, under normal circumstances, would land them in either prison or an asylum by convincing themselves that they were 'just following orders' from either their officers or political leaders. Governments encourage this, since someone who thinks he is not responsible for his own behavior will be less squeamish about killing.

To pacifists, then, war is a morally bankrupt enterprise in which everyone involved'politicians, soldiers, the public, etc.'can deny moral responsibility for their own actions, no matter how murderous. Soldiers blame officers and politicians for atrocities, the public blames soldiers and politicians, and governments always fall back on their duty to 'defend the country.' Why should we be surprised, then, at the inhumanity of war? When people operate under the illusion that they are not responsible for their behavior, they are capable of unimaginable atrocities.

Some argue that pacifists are 'free riders' since society as a whole benefits from war. Pacifists, in this view, 'do not carry their weight.' Initially, one would concede that this view has merit. After all, why should pacifists benefit from wars in which they do not fight? This argument, however, has several problems.

First, one must assume that the winning nation invariably benefits from war, and war brings out the worst in both society and government. When America entered World War I, it abandoned many of its core principles, such as freedom of speech. Thousands of dissenters were arrested for opposing the war. During World War II, Americans unquestioningly allowed their government to place thousands of Japanese-Americans in internment (read: 'concentration') camps. Franklin Roosevelt handed many innocent South Americans to Germany in exchange for Americans who had been in Germany when the war began. His administration even went through the trouble of telling the German government which detainees were Jewish. In short, history is filled with examples of leaders and nations who abandon their core moral principles during war.

Nor is it clear that war always makes the victor more secure. For example, most scholars argue that the aftermath of World War I guaranteed Hitler's rise, and therefore World War II. British historian Niall Ferguson exemplifies this view, writing that Hitler rose to power 'ultimately because of the war.' The conclusion of World War II produced great tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States that led to the Cold War. During the Cold War, the competing nations confronted each other in bloody proxy wars in places like Korea and Vietnam , and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.

Every war, pacifists argue, is accompanied by glorious rhetoric proclaiming that the latest adventure will bring lasting peace. Inevitably, however, one more war becomes necessary, usually because of some unforeseen consequence of the previous war. Just as violence begets more violence, war begets more war. Pacifists, then, are merely refusing to participate in a never-ending cycle of senseless violence.

Perhaps the most convincing argument against pacifism comes from those who argue that all Americans have a duty to defend their country when it comes under direct attack. After Pearl Harbor and September 11, they say, America had to retaliate. Otherwise, it would appear weak, encouraging future attacks. This argument, however, ignores the origins of most 'direct attacks.' Leaders often manufacture, provoke or exaggerate aggression in order to justify wars they have already decided to wage. For example, even Franklin Roosevelt's admirers admit he maneuvered America into World War II, following policies he knew would cause the Japanese to attack. To start the Mexican War, President Polk placed American troops in disputed territory, knowing the Mexicans would fire at them and provide an excuse for war.

Some may concede this point, but argue that September 11 changed everything. Al Qaeda is not a nation, like Japan , but an international organization capable of acquiring weapons of mass destruction; therefore, we must launch wars to topple al Qaeda and governments that support it. Unfortunately, these people ignore the origins of September 11. Although some believe al Qaeda hates America because of its freedoms, it is clear that al Qaeda despises America because of its participation in and support for violence in the Middle East . Countless experts have shown that support for Israel 's oppression of the Palestinians, corrupt and brutal regimes like Saudi Arabia , and frequent military interventions in the region have led many Arabs to join terrorist groups. If violence contributed to September 11, how can we expect it to prevent another attack?

Still, we can envision some situations in which war would seem absolutely necessary, such as a direct invasion. If we have a military to deter foreign invasions, shouldn't everyone join it and fight if we are invaded? If pacifism were universal, wouldn't America be subject to attack from non-pacifist enemies? Most people, even those who oppose most wars, would answer 'yes' to these questions. After all, few can name a country that does not have a military.

But at least one exists. Costa Rica does not have a military, yet it is a prosperous, peaceful country, despite its location in a region ( Central America ) plagued by wars and revolutions. The lesson that violence begets violence applies here. Costa Rica has avoided war precisely because it has no military. Few, if any, countries would attack Costa Rica and receive international condemnation for invading a country that lacks a military. However, if Costa Rica had one, foreign observers would likely view an invasion as 'just another war,' and ignore it.

Joining the military in response to a direct attack would involve admitting that war is an acceptable, justifiable enterprise under at least some conditions. This would legitimate a system that treats human life as an expendable asset and teaches men to deny responsibility for their own actions. To accept war in any situation is to legitimize it as an institution, and war as an institution has brought humanity nothing but grief and more war. Pacifists believe it is time for the world to try something else.

Many concede that some wars are indeed unjust, pointless, and based on lies. However, they argue, we all have a duty to our country in wartime, even if we believe the war is unjust. Our leaders may be aware of threats they cannot tell us. Moreover, if we set a precedent of picking and choosing which wars we will fight, people may refuse to fight when war is truly necessary. Pacifists say this argument contradicts common sense. If we unquestioningly kill at government's behest, our leaders will have no incentive to stop launching wars.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said we must judge acts by their nature. This principle is important to consider when discussing pacifism, since many people believe pacifists are selfish cowards who refuse to serve their country. The pacifist refuses to take part in an enterprise he thinks denigrates human life, teaches men not to accept responsibility for their own actions, and will only lead to future violence. In contrast, the militarist blindly supports politicians who start wars, often knowing (but refusing to admit) that the cause is unjust. Pacifism is positive in nature, not cowardly; because they refuse to take part in war, pacifists endure harassment and death threats. Militarists, on the other hand, blindly support war, even when they doubt its motives (and receive little criticism from society). Who then, the pacifist asks, is the real coward?

Some offer utilitarian arguments to justify war, arguing that wars are just if they benefit humanity as a whole, and these arguments certainly have merit. World War II stopped the Holocaust, the Civil War ended slavery, and the Iraq War overthrew Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator who tortured his own people. Almost no one would say these were not good things. However, acts that benefit society as a whole are not automatically justified. For example, when Mike Tyson abused his wife, Robin Givens, he drew attention to the problem of domestic abuse and, as a result, many states either passed laws banning domestic violence or tightened enforcement of existing laws. Therefore, American society benefited from Tyson's actions; his much-publicized abuse highlighted one of America 's major social problems. Few, however, would argue that Tyson's actions were justified. Similarly, the benefits of war do not automatically justify the scores of atrocities it inevitably produces. World War II killed millions more than the Holocaust, and many of those killed were civilians, just as innocent as the Holocaust victims. Those who tout war's positive aspects frequently ignore its consequences, which are often worse.

Some agree with pacifists and say that war is evil; however, in a world with nuclear weapons, it is a necessary evil. In this view, pacifists are dangerously na've; rejecting war may have been possible before the atomic bomb, but not in a world of rogue states, terrorists, and weapons of mass destruction. War, even aggressive, preemptive war, must be an option. This argument certainly has merit; today's technology allows handfuls of terrorists to kill thousands of innocents. The risks of inaction seem to outweigh the costs of war. This conclusion, however, is flawed.

First, as has been demonstrated, government leaders will only see threats in places where, for one reason or another, they want to intervene. For example, George W. Bush launched a preemptive war to destroy Iraq 's weapons of mass destruction when most experts agreed that North Korea posed a bigger threat. Bush, however, had more incentive to see a threat from Iraq than North Korea . His probable incentives included the personal (Saddam Hussein tried to kill his father), the economic ( Iraq has vast oil reserves, while North Korea has few natural resources), and military calculations ( North Korea 's army would pose a bigger threat than Iraq 's). To allow leaders to launch preemptive wars is to give them a blank check to manufacture nonexistent threats.

Second, even if launched under just pretenses, preemptive wars may produce consequences far worse than the evils they are intended to destroy. To illustrate this point, consider the Iraq War. George W. Bush invaded to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime, but no illegal weapons have been found; therefore, thousands of soldiers and civilians may have died under false pretenses. Also, many experts believe Bush's preemptive war policy has actually encouraged other nations ( Iran and North Korea , for example) to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Bush's policy of waging war to keep nuclear weapons away from rogue regimes may ultimately produce a world with more nuclear weapons.

When I watched the movie Hotel Rwanda , the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Rwandan hotel manager who saved over one thousand people from death during Rwanda 's 1994 civil war, I noticed a potential inconsistency regarding pacifism. I wondered if utilizing violence to stop genocide would be justifiable. After all, if pacifists believe in the sanctity of human life, shouldn't they support violence to stop a crime against humanity? This question is difficult, but I believe it needs answering.

First, the fact that America did not intervene in Rwanda illustrates one of pacifism's key points: governments care little about crimes against humanity unless they can utilize them to justify an intervention for some other (less acceptable) reason. For example, during World War II, American leaders knew about the Holocaust, but did little to stop it, even when American troops were in Europe and could easily have done something. In the run-up to the Iraq War, George W. Bush repeatedly used humanitarian arguments to justify war, despite the fact that members of his administration supported Saddam Hussein during his worst atrocities. In short, when a government calls for a humanitarian intervention, it is safe to assume that its motives are less than humanitarian. Second, Rusesabagina, with bribes and quick thinking, saves hundreds of lives nonviolently. Hotel Rwanda shows us that people can persevere, even under the worst of circumstances, without violence.

Many question pacifism's relevance to today's world, believing we must learn to live in a world of war. However, I have concluded that pacifism is a realistic alternative to violence. War is an enterprise that denies the sanctity of human life, produces acts of extreme violence from men who believe they are not responsible for their actions, asks us to trust people who, throughout history, have lied to us about war, and, even when undertaken with the best of intentions, only leads to more violence. I believe it is time for the world to conclude that 'just war' is an oxymoron before it is too late.

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Andrew Young is a senior history major at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro, Kentucky, where he won the Powell Peace Award in 2004.