War: justifiable or simply catastrophic?

The global phenomenon of war distorts our ongoing attempts to build peace in conflict after conflict and in many different ways. Diana Francis looks at some of the evidence and asks if war can be justified

Diana Francis
21 January 2010
from War to Peace logo

Wars are averted by people’s courage, skill and volition. This was the case in 2008 in Kenya, where civil war was averted largely through the efforts of a team of local peacemakers.  Even when wars have taken place and have destroyed relationships and lives, there are those who retrieve something from the ashes for the survivors, rebuild infrastructure and livelihoods, and do what they can to repair relationships.

Yet so many wars do break out (as in Georgia recently), so many prove intractable in spite of constant efforts to end them (as in DRC/Congo) and so many recur (as is currently threatened in Sudan), that it is hard for conflict transformers, who know at first hand the suffering and destruction, not to feel discouraged.

Many of us are citizens of ‘civilised’ countries that have been engaged in wars in recent decades. We are used to news of ‘the courage of our boys’ who are ‘fighting for our security’. We are familiar with the language of deterrence. Our taxes, even at times of financial crisis, are directed towards war and the capacity for it. Like it or not, we too are involved in it, albeit indirectly.

The impoverishment of populations and underdevelopment of societies is the seedbed for both local violence and resentment against wealthier countries. Yet global expenditure on the preparation and conduct of war far exceeds spending to address the needs of the poor – who, by Western standards, constitute the vast majority of the world’s population. The recent Copenhagen talks foundered because rich countries lacked the will to meet the requests of poor countries to do more to help them meet the costs of carbon reduction and global warming. Instead ‘the haves’ will spend more on military preparations to ‘defend their resource interests’ against the ‘have nots’, as pressure on scarce resources increases.

It seems that money is no object for war. Military spending rose in 2008 to almost 1.5 trillion dollars, as arms proliferate and new weapons are developed. As Kavita Ramdas and Paul Rogers argue so eloquently, this use of resources makes us ever less safe, as resource scarcity and climate change intensify and inequality widens and instability grows.  The resources available for conflict transformation are pitiful by comparison: a tiny fraction of ‘defence’ and foreign affairs budgets and small in relation to those of development departments.

The fact that governments are nonetheless the largest donors makes the larger NGOs heavily dependent on them. Since the values and actions of some of the biggest of these donors are at odds with those of conflict transformation, this financial control can be limiting and compromising.  For instance, a vast amount of funding goes into ‘peacebuilding’ after invasion and during occupation. In Kosovo after the NATO action, I was torn between keeping faith with colleagues there and the discomfort of working within such a project of peace-through-war, the imposition of a new regime, rather than real peacebuilding.  

How can those who make war in order to impose their will on others ever be seen as promoting cooperative, nonviolent and democratic processes? It is hard to see. As I have argued and Paul Clifford has illustrated, peace can only be built by local people. Those who wish to rebuild their country in cooperation with occupying forces are liable to be seen as traitors. War is – to say the least – not a good entry point for peacebuilding, which should rather be a means of preventing war. Once war has happened, someone has to pick up the pieces, but a glance at current realities in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan will show what an uphill struggle that is.  The half life of violence is very long.


Can war be justified?

For those who spend their lives working to prevent and end wars, whether and how war itself can be justified must be an urgent question. Of course, war’s justification is an ancient tradition. Bizarrely, Just War theory was formulated within the Christian church, whose founder chose a donkey instead of a war horse and taught his followers to overcome evil with good. Not only is the theory still mainstream among churches but, as Dan Smith, head of an important NGO working for conflict transformation who has written recently on the theory, argues - not only is the theory still mainstream among churches: it has become and remains influential in political and military circles. His exposition and discussion of it is thoughtful and nuanced. He acknowledges that its name is a misnomer and that it can be argued that war is never just, being full of injustices. He says that its criteria are hard to apply, given the uncertainties of warfare and that some may seem to be met while others are not. He clearly sympathises with President Obama’s predicament in ‘facing the world as it is’. On balance, he feels Obama has yet to win the argument that the war in Afghanistan is just.

The fact that such a thoughtful writer argues that assessing this is a balancing act indicates, at the very least, the elasticity of the criteria employed. Dan argues that there was ‘just cause’ for the war against Afghanistan’s then government, as well as al-Qaeda, on account of ‘the 9/11 attacks and the explicit threat of more to come’.  But do we address the cause by punishing the attacks or curing the threat? And how could a war that would inevitably kill many civilians as well as destroying so much in an already desperately poor country, be justified for either reason? Even the capital punishment of those directly responsible for the bombings would not be allowable in most democratic countries, by way of punishment. 

The implication that the war was undertaken to guard US citizens against the recurrence of such a threat suggests that the deaths of Afghans and of US and other soldiers are less important than those of putative future victims in the US. Beyond that moral caveat, such a strategy seems irrational. The attacks of 9.11 were launched from within the United States and the attackers were Arabs, mostly Saudis, not Afghans. Al Qaeda is a loose network confined to no particular country. Yemen is the latest focus of anxiety and attention. The Afghan war has created greater and more widespread hostility to the US and its allies and terrorist attacks carried out by Al Qaeda sympathisers of members have taken place in various countries. A war against a state was unlikely to succeed in crushing terrorism: rather it seemed calculated to feed hatred and multiply likely sources of attack against the West. This was foreseeable. 

The criterion of ‘discrimination’, the selective killing of military personnel, without harm to civilians, cannot be achieved in modern warfare. To achieve any end through war, one must win it. To do so, it is necessary to use all the lethal power available. Thus it is still common to hear the justification of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the ‘conventional’ assaults on Dresden and Hamburg. If all can be justified, the criteria lose their meaning. Arguments of dual effect and unintended consequences have been stretched so thin that these criteria must be fundamentally questioned. The laws of war, enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, create (when observed) small decencies in the midst of barbarity and are therefore to be valued; but they are no more than a welcome anomaly.

Pathetically, even the use of all the weapons available, with massive superiority of fire-power, cannot guarantee either military victory or a good outcome (which is quite a different thing). Witness the tragedy of Vietnam. The killing and maiming of so many was not only a massive crime but futile even in its own terms. Its memory echoes in the present. 

Wars must have at least two sides and it is hard to see how both could have ‘just cause’, rather than a quarrel. If one begins a war, the other will always claim the right to defend itself. But even with a just cause, something important needing to be achieved, who could imagine that alternatives are ever exhausted?

In Kosovo (to take a more popular war), the plight of the Albanian population was ignored for a decade and their popular resistance went unsupported. Shortly before the NATO action, monitors were sent in and even in a team a fraction of its agreed size did a great deal to bring the violence under control; yet they were rapidly withdrawn so that Milosevic could be humiliated in such a way at Rambouillet that the talks broke down and provided the pretext for invasion. It was the first NATO attacks that triggered the upsurge in violence against Albanian Kosovars and led to the mass exodus  we saw on our TV screens. And what is the outcome of all that violence? An ‘ethnically cleansed’ and divided entity whose statehood remains contested, a legacy of bitterness and the reinforcement of the culture of violence and counter-violence. Significantly, the other legacy is the US bases established in a position pivotal for US geo-political interests.

Even if the progress and outcome of a war could be predicted, how could it ever be acceptable to estimate the number of people who could properly be sacrificed – atomised, mutilated, traumatised, bereaved – for the sake of some supposedly good purpose? Would those people volunteer themselves if they knew they were the ones who would suffer in these ways? If it were possible, would it be acceptable to select them, even by lottery? Does the randomness of war take away the moral responsibility for what will be done?

If, in spite of all the excuses for its use, we have outlawed torture; if we uphold human rights as inalienable and see murder as everywhere and always a crime, we cannot, merely by declaration that rules have been suspended, morally justify dismemberment by explosion or machete, whether those so dismembered are non-combatants (as most war victims are) or fighting on ‘the other side’.  The idea of ‘our soldiers good, their soldiers bad’ is simply childish. Most soldiers have people who love or need them.  Soldiers usually fight for ‘their own’, whoever their own may be. They do so out of loyalty, belief, or the need for an income.


Destroying or creating

What war does well is destruction: of people, of homes and habitats, of infrastructure, resources and livelihoods, and of relationships. It can never create tolerance, prosperity or harmony; and even if it has made some of its survivors safer, it cannot bring back the dead, who never agreed to be sacrificed and whose right to life was enshrined in the UN declaration of human rights. War is not the proof of civilisation but its contradiction. It is licensed barbarity that very largely destroys what it seeks to uphold. 

Beyond last-ditch efforts to avert war, do we ever take seriously enough the need to build serious, honest, cooperative relationships with other countries, behaving consistently, openly and fairly and applying the same principles to ourselves as to others? Do we give full weight to international institutions, even when they are likely to find against us, putting the common good beyond our own? If we do not do these things, we are not exhausting the alternatives to war but rather sitting more or less comfortably with war as a system.

What underlies war’s continuing widespread acceptance? One fundamental cause is our fear of the human condition, which is one of vulnerability: to each other, to natural forces and, ultimately and inevitably, to death.  The metaphor of the ‘magic or silver bullet’ is a telling one. We cling to the deeply seated myth that war can fix what nothing else can. It is easier to believe in war than to face our insecurity. But it makes us more rather than less secure. 

Then there is the legitimate desire to stand up for good, guard our liberty and protect each other. We are habituated to seeing war as the means to do this, for many reasons I want to address in future articles. Amongst these is the myth of war’s glory and its relationship to gender, in particular to constructions of masculinity. This, and its relationship to violence against women, will be the theme of my next article.

The patient work of conflict transformation is dwarfed by the machinery of war, and its progress is frequently swept aside by the action of the most heavily armed nations. That is a good reason for people committed to conflict transformation to take a stand against militarism as such. In the meantime, I look forward to your comments.


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