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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 5/14/16

Just War Lies

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"Enemy soldiers must be respected as human beings." Really? If you walked next door and killed your neighbor, and then went before a judge to explain how you respected your neighbor as a human being, what would you say? Either you have a career open to you as a "just war" theorist, or you've begun by now to recognize the absurdity of that enterprise.

"Prisoners of war are to be treated as noncombatants." I'm not aware of any war in which this has been fully met and am not sure how it can be without freeing the prisoners. Of course some parties in some wars have come much closer than others to meeting this criterion. But the United States has taken the recent lead in moving common practice further away from, rather than closer to, this ideal.

Beyond these sorts of problems with "just war" theory, Calhoun points out that treating a nation as if it were a person is endlessly problematic. The idea that soldiers sent to war are collectively defending themselves doesn't work because they could defend themselves by deserting. In fact they're putting themselves at risk to kill people who generally have nothing to do with whatever offense those people's leaders are accused of -- and doing so for a paycheck.

Calhoun does something else in her book, just in passing, that created such vicious attacks when Jane Addams tried it that the great peace activist was nearly beaten down and driven out of the field. Calhoun mentions that soldiers are medicated in preparation for battle. Addams said, in a speech in New York, during World War I, that in countries she'd visited in Europe, young soldiers had said that it was difficult to make a bayonet charge, to kill other young men up close, unless "stimulated," that the English were given rum, the Germans ether, and the French absinthe. That this was a hopeful indication that men weren't all natural murderers, and that it was accurate, were brushed aside in the attacks on Addams' "slander" of the sainted troops. In fact U.S. soldiers who participate in today's "just wars" die more from suicide than any other cause, and efforts to hold off their moral injury may have made them the most medicated killers in history.

Then there's the problem that the United States has made itself the top weapons supplier to all variety of war makers around the globe and often finds itself fighting against U.S. weapons, and even finds U.S.-armed and U.S.-trained troops fighting against each other, as right now in Syria. How can any entity claim just and defensive motivations while leading arms profiteering and proliferation?

While "just war" theory crumbles upon consideration of the existence of the arms trade, it does itself rather resemble the arms trade. The marketing and proliferation of "just war" rhetoric around the globe provides all sorts of war makers with the means to win over supporters of their evil deeds.

A while back, I heard from a blogger asking whether I knew if "just war" theory had every actually prevented a war on the grounds of its being unjust. Here's the resulting blog:

"In preparation for this article I wrote fifty people--pacifists and just warriors alike, academics-to-activists, who know something about the use of just war theory--asking if they could cite evidence of a potential war averted (or significantly altered) due to the constraints of just war criteria. More than half responded, and not a single one could name a case. What's more surprising is the number who considered my question a novel one. If the just war matrix is to be an honest broker of policy decisions, surely there must be verifiable metrics."

Here's what I had replied to the inquiry:

"It's an excellent question, because anybody can lists scores of wars defended using 'just war,' but the purpose has always seemed to be to defend those wars or parts of them or ideals of them, in contrast to other 'unjust wars,' not to actually prevent certain wars. Of course, with such an ancient and widespread doctrine, one could attribute any sort of restraint to it, any fair treatment of prisoners, any decision not to use nuclear weapons, Iran's decision not to use chemical weapons in retaliation against Iraq, etc. But one of the reasons I've never thought of 'just war' as a means of preventing or ending or limiting actual wars is that it really isn't empirical; it's all in the eye of the warmonger. Is a certain level of murder 'proportional' or 'necessary'? Who knows! There has never been any way to actually know. It's never in 1700 years been developed into a tool for actual use. It's a tool for rhetorical defense, not to be looked into too closely. If looked into closely now, we can hope, it will appear to many more people exactly as coherent as just slavery, just rape, and just child abuse."

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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