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More on Iraq and the Just War Theory

October 11th, 2007 by Matt

A little while ago I posted up some thoughts I had about the war in Iraq. These thoughts did not come in a vacuum. At the time of the invasion I read several books on the morality of war. At the time of compiling this article had just read James Turner Johnson’s works on the issue and was reading the medieval ethicist Vitoria’s De Indus . This morning I discovered a discussion about my article at the Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society website . One correspondent Murray asks several questions about my post. These are good questions so I will clarify here.

Just War Theory is all very well, and sounds good. However, I would ask the following in respect to the 6 requirements needed to call a war “Just” by this theory:
1. Who decides what a “just cause” is? When religion is involved [especially] the word “just” is completely dependant upon your world view.

The question of what constitutes a just cause, is simply an extension of the more general question when is a person justified in using violence .In the Christian tradition, two answers are forthcoming, to defend innocent people from attack and to punish those guilty of crimes. Hence, in the writings of Theologians the two cases have generally been either to defend people from an attack upon their rights or to punish a person for an offence committed. My understanding is that Jewish and Islamic traditions do not differ greatly on these conclusions, and international law about war in fact is largely based on just war theorizing.

Murray seems to espouse a kind of relativism, whereby what’s right and wrong depends on what a person thinks. The problem is he does not seem to apply this consistently because he condemns the US invasion for violating principles he and the peace movement think is correct. If no one has a right to decide these questions then the peace movement doesn’t either.

2. When does any nation have a lawful authority to wage war, and whose law do we judge this right by?

OK here the answer is relatively straightforward. The right of a government to go to war is simply an extension of governments police powers. If a criminal attempts to rape or kill people within the geographical realm over which a government has authority then the government can use force to prevent this and also can use force to try and punish anyone who does hence the existence of a police force, courts and prisons. Just war theorists simply note that there seems no reason why this authority ceases to exist when the person committing the offence is a soldier from another country as opposed to a domestic criminal.

I have never heard anyone give an answer as to why this should make a difference. If the NZ government cannot use force against foreign soldiers who invade us why are they required to protect Greenpeace demonstrators on a peaceful march from violence? Or why are they allowed to protect children from violent parents and yet not allowed to protect those same children from bullets from a foreign army?

3. There is usually no such thing as a “last resort”, simply preferred resorts. If invading Iraq was a last resort what is a nuclear bomb? The resort after the last resort?

It’s hard to get exactly what Murray’s point is here. First, use of Nuclear weapons are almost always ruled out by a just war theory on the basis of principles of discrimination (only combatants can be targeted) and proportionality ( the force used must be the proportionate to the threat being repelled).

As to Murray’s other point, again the idea of a last resort is simply an extension of principles governing a resort to violence in other contexts. The basic idea is that if a conflict can be reasonably and realistically resolved without violence, then to use it is unnecessary and hence unjust.

In the case I wrote about. The the US wanted regime change. They wanted the Baathists out of power. Given the horrendous record of this government in violating the rights of its citizens and other citizens that was a perfectly reasonable request. One that Saddam could have granted, and was morally obligated to grant. (Did Saddam have a right to torture kill and massacre people?) He did not grant this request. Hence Iraq did not fight as a last resort.

On the other hand if Saddam had made reasonable concessions, if he had agreed to write a new constitution granting basic rights to Iraqi citizens, had set a date for free and open elections with international observers etc and organized a transition. Then the US should not have invaded or at least delayed the invasion until the sincerity of these concessions was apparent.

.4. Who is the judge of the “possibility of waging war with a reasonable chance of success”? What is success and who determines it, by what guidelines is success measured? Success is dependant upon the original aim. (in Iraq this was removal of WMD, then when that was found lacking it was changed to “regime change to bring democracy”. No,luck there, sow whats next, control of oil flow? well, I guess that has been almost achieved…). If we don’t know the aim of waging a war (i.e. we were told it was WMD in Iraq, but obviously was not as they are still there and no WMD found) then how can we possibly judge the likeliness of a successful war?

With any moral question the person who needs to answer the question is the person engaging in the action The role of being a moral agent is to ask oneself is what I am about to do the right thing? So in this case the government has the duty to ask, before it goes to war whether it’s likely the end for which they are fighting is one they are likely to achieve. This is determined by examining the factual information and making the best assessment one can *at the time of the decision*. (not on the basis of what was known after the event) Like all factual decisions it’s fallible. If this counts against making it then one should not make any factual decisions which involve life and death.

Murray’s response to some extent proves the point of my original post, because after dismissing the idea of doing so he inconsistently criticizes the US for not making this assessment adequately. However, as I noted its not just the US who have a duty to act justly so does Iraq, and it seems blatantly obvious that Saddam had good reasons for thinking that he could not successfully fight of a US invasion, hindsight confirms this to a far greater extent than it does with regards to the US belief that they could defeat Saddam. Yet Murray ignores this and applies the standard only to the US despite suggesting that the standard is meaningless.

It is precisely this kind of garbage that lead me to not support the peace movement.

5. To prevent evil we must agree on what evil is. One mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter.

Well this slogan is simply false. A terrorist is a person who targets non combatants for the purpose of striking terror into the population so as to achieve political ends. A freedom fighter is a person who engages in war for the purpose of liberating a people from oppression. It’s simply false to conflate these categories. A person can use terrorism to enslave people and a person can fight for freedom without using terrorism.

However again, Murray is also very inconsistent here, if what constitutes an unjust attack on another’s rights is simply relative. If what counts as an unjust act of war (terrorism) and what is justified (freedom fighting) is simply arbitrary and relative. Then on what basis does he condemn the US invasion. Its funny how, when dictators act unjustly we can’t condemn it because morality is relative, when the US uses force suddenly the standards the peace movement believe are correct apply to the US government even when it disagrees with them.

If one cannot make judgements that certain actions are evil, then one cannot judge George Bush’s actions as evil.

6. How is it possible to wage a war in a civilian area (e.g. a city) and at the same time use only “proportionate and discriminate” force? Any attempt at this would result in a quagmire within hours, which any invading army knows full well. Which is why Baghdad was bombed from the air. In that particular case “Just War” is surely an oxymoron.

I find this response surprising because just war theorists have frequently and repeatedly discussed this very issue.

The problem Murray points to is this. According to traditional just war theory a state can (in certain circumstances) use proportionate violence against enemy combatants but not against non-combatants. However, this requires the ability to distinguish between the two and to be able to attack one without attacking not the other. For this reason in addition to refraining from targeting combatants, there is also a duty to not use combatants as human shields (hence the traditional European method of meeting at a battlefield in Uniform).However, if enemy combatants dress like civilians, look like civilians, hide amongst civilians and attack from within civilians centres it becomes extremely difficult to repel them without hitting civilians in the cross fire.

There are really only two responses to this problem: The more sensible response is the one suggested by several just war theorists such as Donagan, Walzer Ramsey etc that in such cases, soldiers should take reasonable care to avoid hitting civilians, but if they cannot defend themselves from attack without killing some civilians then the responsibility for the deaths is not theirs, its rather the fault of the enemy who choose to attack from amongst them. This suggests that the duty to not kill non-combatants does not apply to human shields if there is no reasonable way of hitting the assailant without hitting them.

(This I think is a general point about self defence a F 16 would have been justified in shooting down one of the United Airliners heading for the world trade centre for the same reason and similarly a policeman could shoot a suicide bomber threatening to blow up a mall who was also carrying a baby )

Murray however takes a different option which I consider mistaken. He suggests that when the enemy fights from within a civilian area it is wrong to defend oneself against their attacks. This seems to lead to a conclusion that as long as I hide behind civilians and use them as human shields I gain protection from the morality, however if I don’t do this and refuse to use human shields I do not. This seems problematic if not outright perverse.

In a sense however Murray answers his own question he notes attacking a city would result in mass civilian causalities, he therefore notes that because of this an alternative method was used precisely to minimise these causalities. Exactly, that’s what a just belligerent tries to do in such cases, minimise civilian causalities. Would Saddam have made an effort to do this, I doubt it.

RELATED POSTS:
Iraq and the Just War Theory: Why I Choose not to Support the Anti-War Movement

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11 responses so far ↓

  • Hi Matt,
    I see you’ve picked up a few of my comments and tried (successfully at times) to take them to pieces. However, I feel you have opened up more discussion rather than closing the book with your responses.
    I wish I had more time to respond thoroughly, but alas at present I don’t and I’m also a slow typist to boot!

    A few points though:
    1. I was not trying to compare Saddam to the US, as you seem to do in response. Just because some action is OK by Saddam and other madmen should not mean it is also OK for the US/Bush regime.
    2. I don’t believe the civilian population of Baghdad chose to be human shields. This was forced upon them by both armies.
    3. I don’t believe The US army can claim “self defence” when they are the invading army in a foreign city. Their best defence would be to get out. I’m sure this comment will irk you! Sorry!
    4. Points of view; Suppose a foreign army which hates the USA should one day invade New York. They believe they are justified and that US foreign policy for example (or other reasons) makes the USA a “terrorist nation”. They hence believe invasion is justified with aim to change the US regime. However, the innocent civilians of US cities inadvertently become human shields as US soldiers fight back. The invading soldiers feel threatened so use force to “defend themselves” and in the crossfire thousands of innocents are killed.
    Is this acceptable? If if happened to “us” I very much doubt it.
    I think there is a mistaked feeling that we are the good guys and “they” are the bad guys, so we justify our actions accordingly. However, which side is good and which is bad is never so black and white.
    BTW, it was not long ago that Saddam was one the the US’s allies and partner in crime, and we all know you are only as good as the worst man you associate with.

    I must finish here, but I would like you to answer me a few questions if you would be so kind:

    When does a nation have the right to forcibly impose it beliefs on another nation, on that nations sovereign territory?
    How much evidence do they need to supply to support an invasion of a sovereign nation?
    Should the evidence later be found to be factually incorrect should the invader be made to pay compensation for damage?
    What to do really believe the US invaded Iraq? WMD? regime change? Oil? Middle East base? Other?
    Does the US now have a right to invade Iran? Iran would seem to be in the same boat as Iraq was a few years ago – possible WMD, regime “needing” change, “suppressed” people, “possible” role in 9/11, possible support of “terrorists” How about Saudi Arabia?
    Your definition of terrorism?
    Your definition of a terrorist?
    Your definition of a freedom fighter?
    Nice blog BTW. We see things a bit differently, but you make interesting points 🙂

  • It is FAR TOO EASY and TOO NARROW to use examples from the current Iraq-USA war.

    If you develop an idea of ‘just war’ based on Iraq you will conclude by
    prohibiting any military intervention anywhere at anytime!

    You wouldn’t consider intervention in Burma?
    In Ethiopia?
    In Somalia?
    In Rwanda?
    You ask, “does a nation have the right to forcibly impose it beliefs on another nation?”

    Would you send troops to Darfur? You ask what is, “Your definition of a freedom fighter?” Apparently that’s what Janjaweed are!!

    On what grounds would you oppose a successful megalomaniac like Hitler?
    What evidence of concentration camps would you require?

    You point to a very high certainty of evidential intelligence by rhetorically asking, “How much evidence do they need to supply to support an invasion of a sovereign nation?”

  • You didn’t answer the question(s).

  • Anon

    I intend to respond in a few days when I get more time ( I have had to write some exams for my students)

  • Before addressing ‘just-war’ a person should reflect on whether they are firstly ‘anti-Bush’, ‘anti-USA’, or ‘anti-west’, before continuing to answer…

    The very fact this debate is LIMITED TO IRAQ is outrageous! This conversation moves over the same old ground and never seems to introduce other situations such as Burma, Rwanda, Darfur, Somalia, fmr Yugoslavia, Solomons. These situations would be included in a sensible debate.
    That they are excluded shows that this IS NOT ABOUT JUST-WAR.

    Rather, the Iraq-Just War debate is a critique of American Imperialism, which is justified and VERY EASY to condemn. However, at the same time that does not inform your positions on non-US, non-Bush, non-oil matters such as Burma, Darfur, the Rhineland, former Yugoslavia, Solomons etc stated above.

    Anon/Murray.
    As I said above, the invasion of Iraq by the US is not a good example to derive a universal rule from.
    It is so fantastically easy to find failure in Iraq that if you apply your conclusions from there to ‘freedom-fighters’, ‘sovereign territory’, and ‘evidence’ in other situations you’d never intervene in Darfur, Yugoslavia, or occupied France either.

    Until this debate is widened to consider other matters apart from Iraq and George Bush it will go around in futile, self satisfied, circles.

  • Greg B, I agree with what you are trying to say, however the title of the this discussion is “Iraq and the Just War Theory”, which is why Iraq in particular has been the main focus of contributers.

    Once the discussion is widened to include Darfur etc (which would be nice at some stage) then it could spiral out of control. The sheer size of the discussion could prove it’s downfall. I’m not sure a discussion with such wider terms of reference can be successful on a blog format.

  • I wonder if those lads arrested in the BOP today could be classified as freedom fighters?
    ————–
    Hey Murray,
    yeah it would spiral. Yet as you appreciate I think that limitation to Iraq is not motivated by desire to investigate ‘just war’ but rather to impress those sipping chardonnay or darjeeling after church on Sunday with ones grasp of the trendy-cause-of-the-day.

    Note above the noble ‘freedom fighter’ argument. Works if limited to Iraq but not of you expand to address those militant nutters plotting in the BOP.

  • Actually I don’t mean to come across so sourly.
    I am cynical though that a lot of churchy media is stuffed full of earnest discussions on Iraq.
    As we know from politics, if the terms of reference for an inquiry are too narrow then biased conclusions arise.

    When it comes to Iraq the situation is so ridiculous I don’t think any practical rules about ‘just-war’ can be made.
    Afterall, there are many internecine slaughters that don’t make Time magazine, don’t have movies made about them, and don’t inspire street marches or bloggage. Those wars make very clear cases for ‘just’ interventions.
    Some good examples are Somalia, Yugoslav, Rwanda, and currrently Darfur.
    I wonder if we implicitly desire that the rescuing army receive NO reward? i.e. topple Sadam but leave the oil, oust Mugabe but refrain from doing business there.

    I would not like to see an isolationist US as existed prior to ww2. And lastly, Israel has a right to exist.

  • Murray (I take it its you)

    I address your points below.

    I agree with you on 1. Just because Saddam does something it does not mean Bush can, my point however is that by almost any sensible standard any criteria used to condemn Bush will probably lead to greater condemnation of Iraq’s defense. If we have to choose sides we should choose the lesser of two evils.

    2. My point about human shields applies to involuntary ones. I don’t think the fact that a person *forcibly* uses another as a shield suddenly gives that person immunity and enables that person to fire upon others without being shot at back. Rather I suggest others can shoot back and any civilian deaths are the shield users fault not the person who had to fire back to neutralize the threat.

    3. True, it’s not *self* defense but it can be claimed that the Iraqi people were enslaved by the Baathist regime and the US were defending these people from repeated and continual agression.

    4. For this example to work, it would have to be the case not only that the US have engaged in aggression against another nation, but that (i)the only way this aggression can be repelled is by invading the US and overthrowing the government,( as opposed to simply driving US forces out) and (ii) the aggression is serious enough to warrant a full scale invasion of the US and (iii) only way to do this is to capture New York city and (iv) There is no reasonable alternative way of taking New York which has less “collateral damage”, if these conditions and the others I mentioned in the original post were met then yes I think the action is acceptable. I doubt these conditions would be met in a realistic scenario.

    The difference with Iraq is that the Baathists are not engaging in aggression against *another* nation they are oppressing their own people. Hence one needs to remove the Government from Iraq to stop the aggression. When Iraq invaded a foreign nation (Kuwait) this was not necessary all that was necessary was to drive the Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

    5. I am inclined to think that the fact that Saddam used to be an ally of the US actually strengthens the case for a US invasion. The reason is this, the US government’s authority is limited to the United States, and hence it can be argued that the US does not have any duty to use force to defend the rights of citizens in Iraq. However, if the US aids and abets in the enslavement of Iraqi people by supporting a dictator then the US does acquire duties to these people, a person who enslaves another has a duty to liberate them.

    Oh and Greg, my post was not written to impress chardonnay drinkers on a Sunday morning. I wrote the original post several years ago after a stop the war in Iraq gathering hosted a speaker who informed me he believed that Palestinians were justified in using suicide bombs on Jews.

    Matt

  • OK Murray

    Re your questions

    1.When does a nation have the right to forcibly impose it beliefs on another nation, on that nations sovereign territory?

    When that nation is has or is threatening to engage in some aggression against another, the only way to redress (or repel) this aggression is by use of force, and the aggression is sufficiently grave as to be proportionate to such force. Then the state has a right to compel the nation to desist from such aggression.

    2.How much evidence do they need to supply to support an invasion of a sovereign nation?

    What ever is enough to make it reasonable to think that the situation above has occurred. This again is the normal criteria we use, for example the police can be justified in shooting a person who is pointing a fake gun at people if they do know it’s a fake.

    There could also be a kind of risk analysis involved as well. For example if the threat is really serious (say a nuclear strike) and the information is suggestive but not compelling. It may be better to risk engaging in a unjustified military action than risking a nuclear attack. But I would have to think this through a bit more. (I should add that just as you risk lives going to war, you can also risk lives by not going to war. For example suppose you are aware of a threat, are excessively cautious do not act and as a result thousands are killed in an attack. There is no way to escape these risks; you just do the best you can)

    3. Should the evidence later be found to be factually incorrect should the invader be made to pay compensation for damage?

    Depends on whether the mistake was reasonable in the circumstances, again considers the police shooting someone with a fake gun situation, should you be allowed to sue a police officer who shot someone wielding a fake gun, purely on the grounds that after the shooting it was discovered to be fake. I believe not. You would have to show that the policeman either knew this or should have known this in the circumstances.

    3.What to do really believe the US invaded Iraq? WMD? regime change? Oil? Middle East base? Other?

    I think they had several reasons which probably included all of the above. However, even if some of these reasons were mistaken, it does not follow that they all were. I find it hard to believe that the nature of the Baathist regime did not justify regime change.

    4.Does the US now have a right to invade Iran? Iran would seem to be in the same boat as Iraq was a few years ago – possible WMD, regime “needing” change, “suppressed” people, “possible” role in 9/11, possible support of “terrorists” How about Saudi Arabia?

    Would depend on the facts involved. If for example Iran is building nuclear weapons, and Iran has hostile intentions towards Isreal and supplies groups like Hezbollah with weapons, and Isreal can reasonably conclude these things hold. Then I think Israel do have a right to whatever force is necessary use force to neutralize this threat, provided the force used is proportionate to the threat (which would be considerable given the threat is nuclear) and it is only those who are issuing the threat ( the Iranian government and its agents the military) that is targeted and not innocent third parties( subject to the human shield qualification I mentioned previously)

    5. Your definition of terrorism?

    I don’t have a precise definition, it would be something like the deliberate targeting of non-combatants to strike terror into the population so as to force a government to yield to your terms.

    6.Your definition of a terrorist?

    Someone who engages in terrorism

    7.Your definition of a freedom fighter?

    Probably something like: a person who takes up arms for the purpose of liberating his people from oppression.

    The key point is that terrorism refers to a particular type of means used in warfare. Freedom fighter refers to a particular end warfare is engaged in for. A person can use terrorism for the purpose of liberation in which case a freedom fighter will be a terrorist. A person can fight for freedom without using terrorism in which case a freedom fighter will not be a terrorist. Finally a person can use terrorism for ends other than liberation.

  • It was not clear at first, but as time went by, it was clear that much of the reason for undermining George Bush was because he's (allegdedly, said so, portrayed as, may be) a Christian.