The morality of war

The authority of Government, terrorism, and all that.

This essay arose from a brief exchange in a private Mensa forum I follow dedicated to World English. To understand the argument below, it is simplest to set out the preceding remarks, so I will. (I have tidied the typo errors in my forum postings.)


The discussion, around Easter 2008, was about the words for and origins of Easter and the digression away from language started with an aside from a correspondent in NZ, who wrote:

The Christian "Easter" was taken over from the pagan Ostara or Eostre, which was celebrated before Christianity came along, took over some of the pagan festivals, and renamed them in an attempt to convert the pagans to Christianity.
The Emperor Charlemagne had a sure-fire method -- at the point of a sword. <VBG>

Subsequent exchanges with another participant ran as follows.

Last night on BBC TV they aired a "drama-documentary" about Richard I with reminders of some 13th century crusader attitudes that resemble the Islamist terrorist beliefs nowadays — killing as many as possible of the other side was divine will etc.
So perhaps you could say that today's Islamic terrorists are simply running a few centuries behind, and that, in the name of multicultural understanding and in the probably reasonable expectation that eventually they'll mature out of it, we ought to be willing to make no loud protests over however many victims they choose to produce. Maybe it's a little like the anti-anti-drug argument: legalize it and it'll go away. Eventually. Maybe.
Except that in 13th century it was the authorities, the leaders of nations, who made war on each other; and now at least most nations don't; it is the Taliban — who aren't the Afghan government any more — and Al Qaeda — almost, we are told, the creature of a fanatical individual — plus miscellaneous extreme clerics and their followers. Even Iran isn't a nation bent on jihad, only one in the grip of a faction that talks of it a lot.
In the centuries before the crusades got started, the Arabs/Moors apparently were the ones who preserved western civilzation when the library at Alexandria was burnt, and christendom was in what are (for lack of information it seems) called the dark ages. So the middle east was centuries ahead then. But there's no reason now to put up with the modern jihadists being a few centuries behind. One can't legalize mass murder, and one can't let its perpetrators go free. But some historical understanding might temper or silence unhelpful Dubyah style rhetoric. One hopes that from 2009 the era of that will be over though electioneering seems to bring out the worst in American politicians when they should be on their best behaviour. I don't know whether this applies anywhere else.
DS (quoting first a line from the middle of my posting above):
> One can't legalize mass murder and one can't let its perpetrators go free.

Not if you call it "war"?

It was at this point that I realized I was going to want to set out my considered views on what over the last five years concerning both Iraq and Afghanistan, but chiefly the whole topic of George W. Bush's phrase "the war on terror" rather than on the specific political, moral, and tactical debates about Iraq (which I discuss in Iraq 2003).

For it has been a recurring theme in one school of more or less consistent criticism — a school thereof which I have always considered rather simplistic, and even in danger of seeming sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda — that Bush, and (in some of such criticism, anyway anyway) Blair, were as guilty as the Islamic terrorists and the others causing mayhem in Iraq for the deaths, because of the military campaign in Iraq — and perhaps because of the one in Afghanistan too.

So I launched into an analysis, beginning quite a long way back from the specifics of 2003..8, and when I saw how long it was going to be I stopped writing it as a posting to that forum and converted into this page.

Meanwhile this came from another contributor:

> On Mon, Mar 24, 2008 at 1:09 AM, David Smith <david@...> wrote:
>>> One can't legalize mass murder and one can't let its
>>> perpetrators go free.
>> Not if you call it "war"?
> "War" does seem to be tantamount to a license to kill, doesn't it. So
> how does that impact the "war on poverty"? or the "war on drugs"?
> Should Bush/Cheney be charged as war criminals? For waging war under
> false pretenses? For crimes against prisoners of war? For crimes
> against suspected, but unproven as terrorist civilians? Other reasons?
> Do we as a nation, have the courage to offer up one or more of our own
> to an international tribunal on war crimes? and to accept their
> decision? If we did, how would that affect the decision of any future
> leader inclined to wage war? Are we looking at an opportunity here to
> change the course of humanity?
> --

Gentlemen, before this goes from English to American political partisanship, let's look at the definition of the word "war":

From WordNet, sense 2:
war, warfare
        the waging of armed conflict against an enemy; "thousands of people were killed in the war"
Category Tree:
act; human action; human activity
group action
military action; action

That seems fairly self-explanatory: the purpose of war in that sense is to use arms in conflict (c.f.).

Sense 1, in case you’re interested, follows:
1     war
        a concerted campaign to end something that is injurious; "the war on poverty"; "the war against crime"
Category Tree:
act; human action; human activity
undertaking; project; task; labor
campaign; cause; crusade; drive; movement; effort

In that sense, toward the goal of ending something injurious, it makes logical sense that “ending” means destroying, and the better the weapons used the faster the injurious thing is ended. Killing whatever the object is is the goal, no matter what you call the action. Think about the war on witchcraft and the war against Christianity. Right now there’s a congressperson holding forth against “perjury in a court proceeding — a 15-year felony” -- and her former president, who flat-out lied to every American citizen (and shook his finger at us on TV) AND to the SCOTUS, never spent a moment even worrying about going to jail. How ironic. Irony seems to be nature’s most common teaching tool.

In my own not-so-humble opinion, Mensans everywhere need first to make war on politics and destroy partisanship. Only then can we ponder ending war — which, after all, is a human activity. Unless we can make humans’ nature change, we don’t stand a chance either way, so let’s not waste the great rhetoric.

No, Steve,  we don’t have the courage. And if we did, I would accept no tribunal’s decision if all of its members had not themselves waged war; and how fair and unbiased could the decision of all the little guys against the big one be?

I swear, all my sig quotes are random. This one merely seems more than usually apropos.

Blessed be,
Infidel, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian
religion; in Constantinople, one who does. -- Ambrose Bierce

Of course, Bierce was wrong about Constantinople; he should have written, Baghdad, or (far better) Mecca. In Instanbul (Constantinople), or Cairo, there were always Christians; but they were Greek orthodox or Coptic, not Roman Catholics or Protestants of the western tradition. Indeed the interdenominational, internecine war in Ireland was always between factions that were far closer to each other historically than either was to the Christians of the eastern Mediterranean. Ironically, however, it is the Protestants — the Calvinists, Quakers, any who insist constantly on going back to the text of their scripture — who are far closer to the spirit of Islam as it spread across the world in which every Imam goes tot he Koran and preaches his own ideas based on it than to the Greek or Russian Orthodox churches which are like Rome of an essentially tradition-based authoritarian frame of mind where each cleric teaches what his superiors tell him.

So let me go back to that last brief question from DS:

Not if you call it "war"?

This question implicitly conflates moral philosophy and a public policy point.

Let me begin by considering death not by natural causes in normal society. I consider the situation in Britain, as I understand it (I am not a lawyer).

In law, not every violent death is a murder. Assuming they hve caught and put on trial a perpetrator — or, more generally, an agent in the event of some kind — the court must determine whether thedeath was:

Now, if you apply this analysis to governments, in this modern age, you can see there could be a case for any given action that leads to any number (large or small) of deaths being placed (by moralists of the time, or by later historians, or by the rest of us), in any of these multiple categories. In each case, the single question to be answered is in which category to put it.

But there is something different about governments. It was generally accepted for a long time that when a properly constituted government of a nation of the world took action, it had de facto a legal and moral right to do it even if the action itself led to one or more deaths, the presumption being that it had taken all appropriate advice, and made the judgement in the best long term interest either of the nation it governed, or (in the post WW2 era, shall we say) of the world, and humanity at large, and world peace and good order.

At least this was accepted until, arguably, very recently, when some people (and originally only absolute pacificsts would have been in this category) have started volubly to disagree. Those may be the voices that now cry most loudly against the notion of a "war on terror".

This special position of legally constituted governments does rely on several factors. It is assumed to include democratically elected governments mandated in free and fair elections; it has historically also included governments that arose not quite in that modern advanced nation paradigm but according to some process historically approved as how things have been done in some other places. However, the results of bloody coups, by small groups and individuals subsequently considered dictators, tend not to be granted such recognition; though in some cases only when they not only abuse their own populations but when they cause trouble to ther nations.

It is on the borders of this trouble that we find Mugabe today, Saddam Hussein until his overthrow, and certain other individuals in recent history round the world.

Note that we have here two quite separate criteria of legitimacy being invoked: how a regime came to power, and the sorts of action it performs while in power. There might be a dictator who takes power in a bloodless coup but according neither to the existing constitution of the nation in question nor to any process generally considered democratic (that is, wihout aven any spontaneous popular acclaim), but who once in power treats the populace utterly benevolently, rules by a series of personal decrees that are nevertheless utterly humane and wise, perhaps abolishing cruel punishments and bad laws from the past! Indeed, some have argued that a perfectly benevolent dictatorship is the ideal form of government, because unlike democracy it never has to appeal to the mass of the people to remain in power, and thus is never in danger of appealing to the lowest common denominator, which (in the form of demagoguery) can itself lead to unjust victimization of minorities and other ills of popular demand.

Perhaps we can say, fairly safely, that at least when a regime has both failings — it both came to power undemocratically (and otherwise unconstitutionally) and commits acts of tyranny against its people and/or against other nations — it has no moral justification and indeed that other nations are justified in removing it.

This would appear to justify regime removal both in Afghanistan in 2002 and in Iraq in 2003 by forces of other nations. At this stage we do not want to get into the details of the specific cases, only to point to the general principle that a regime that kills hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, or that denies major categories of its own population the right to have an education, or to travel about the area where they live freely (the Taliban forbad schooling for girls and mutilated women caught driving cars) is behaving cruelly and unjustly under internationally recognized standards of human freedom, and has no moral right to remain in power.

Now we return to the original trigger question for this page: If a nation goes to war, and the action of going to war results in many deaths, can the government of the nation justly be accused of murder?

I say that this is the question because DS asked whether mass murder could be justified if one called it war.

The basis of this issue is how one defines the key terms, and is the reason why I began the moral analysis by looking at the range of legal conclusions that can be reached concernng a death caused by the action of an individual with a civilized state.

The simple answer to the question is that, if there has been a case of mass murder, one cannot justify it "by calling it war". That is to say, if an event is according to reasonable criteria identified as a case of mass murder, that is what it is; however if there is an event in which a large number of people die one might be able to conclude that it was not mass murder at all, for a number of reasons. And one of those reasons would indeed be that, even though the deaths resulted from events triggered by decision on a particular course of action made by a properly constituted government of a nation, the decision was a morally sound decision, a not blatantly unwise decision in the circumstances, the course of action was the best course available at the time in the circumstances.

The circumstances would need to be that the alternatives could be expected to have even worse outcomes either in the short term or in the longer term. Governments have to make rerrible decisions sometimes. Modern fiction is full of extreme examples, which (I find) set out admirably for the audeince, the wider public made up of people who may well not be given to dwelling very deeply on the most extreme dilemmas in moral philosophy. Just one example is in the movie The Rock (1996), in which Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery battle against a group of extremely disgruntled American soldiers led by a rogue general holed up in the abandoned prison on the eponymous island in San Francisco bay, Alcatraz. The group take several dozen hostages, and the President of the United States at one moment is faced with a decision to do nothing and allow a sports stadium full of (tens of thousands of) people to be blown to bits by a stolen guided missile fired from Alcatraz, or else to give the order actively to bomb Alcatraz and kill not only the rogue group of soldiers but also all those hostages, and the FBI agent on the spot (played by Cage). In the movie, the heroes prevent both events of mass death happening, but in real life governments might face such dilemmas; they do every time there is a mass hostage situation.

In the cases started in 2002 and 2003 in the wake of the 2001-09-11 event in Manhattan, one can perfectly reasonably argue that neither action by the Allies (the USA, the UK and other participating nations) is a war. The critics all cry: "There are bombings of cities from the air, missiles, tanks, shell bombardments, and street fighting with small arms; what else do you want to call it?

However, cleaving strictly to one's dictionary definitions, one can argue that if a war is, by definition, a conflict between two or more nations, and that a particular situation has no effective national government participating on one side, then that is not a war. Against that argument, it can however be said that a civil war is still a war, and that in a civil war, by definition, there are in principle at least two parties which want to be the government of a nation, but that in fact it might be that neither side has ever been the government or that one side has been, and perhaps still is, an effective government to some degree. Foreign governments, that is, of other perhaps neighbouring nations, might join in on one side or the other. There are examples of this in Africa now.

Is any of these the case in Iraq or Afghanistan? Yes, and no. In both countries, a regime was toppled and a new supposedly democratic government installed, which thereafter continued to be supported with massive continued military intervention by the outside nations and also massive civil and economic aid from those and other nations; and in both cases it is the continuing resistance to the new government, by armed groups called by their opponents terrorists or militias and dissident factions, that has resulted in most of the deaths over the five or more years since the things began.

Of course, in March 2008, everybody seems to be agreed that one of the excuses being used by these terrorists or militias in the publicity they manage to promulgate for their continued activity is the continued presence of the foreign armies. However, the fact that this claim is made in propaganda does not mean that it is true, or that if all foreign military presence was removed from both countries all would suddenly be peaceful; in Somalia and Darfur, by and large, there has been almost no foreign intervention. The people fighting in the streets and bombing crowded places in Baghdad and Kabul would not necessarily have killed significantly fewer of the local population if the foreigners had all got out mmediately the old regimes had fallen.

As for the questions of when a terrorist becomes a freedom fighter, and when war becomes government sponsored (or rather, perpetrated) terrorism, if ever, may be something only history can decide.

In the case of Al Qaeda, which (it seems to be agreed) existed from 1988, it was evidently established long before the current decade; it executed the two attacks on the World Trade Centre of which the second brought the total desruction thereof; and its agenda would not have been very different regarding the non-Islamic western world even in the issue of Israel and the Palestinians had not been there. Palestine was not the core cause of the militant Islamists in the world; that and the concept of jihad do date back centuries to the crusades, were present when the Mahdi was in Sudan in the days of General Gordon of Khartoum (though Britain's presence there, then, might have contributed to the historical anger in the overall picture); and there does seem to be something special about the motives driving the Islamists, including Al-Qaeda, that is not automatically common to every other independence movement on the planet.

That is, there is something different about them that is not the case with Sinn Fein and the IRA over Ulster, not the case with ETA over Basque separatism in Spain, and may be involved in the separatism against Russia in Chechnya, but then that is an Islamic-driven movement too.

In general, I resort in forming my opinions about all these conflicts in the world on the United Nations principle of the right to self-determination. This opposes (mostly retrospectively, unfortunately) all colonialism. It means that if the majority of a people in a territory want independence from some outside nation's government (outside that territory, that is), they should have it, unless there is some separate overwhelming reason why they should not. And hitorical hegemony, such as of China over Tibet or Russia over Chechnya, is not enough.

What would be enough might be some huge non-political problem which the putative new nation could not face, such that the best international scientific opinion is that the new nation could not cope, and that the population's view is genuinely felt by non-politicians expert in the situation to be what it is because they are refusing to grasp the technical reality. For example, if a tiny oceanic island and would-be nation is going to disappear under the sea (as is the case, apparently, with at least one of those communities that is in fact already an independent nation), one could argue that if the entire population is going to have to be evacuated and given homes somewhere else, then that nation which houses those people should be granted control of the evacuated territory if it sought it.

But that is an extreme example that rarely arises so far. Generally, the alleged justification is historical, the real reason the lust for maximum power (my judgement of motives in Beijing over Tibet and Moscow over Chechnya), and the UN legality problem the fact that loyalists to the bigger country have mgrated into the small country and now outnumber the historically native people, which is the case in Ulster (and is happening in Tibet). THis also happened (but not enough for Moscow) in the Baltic states; Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have large Russian minorities which pose social, ethnic, political problems for the native governments, but will fade over time either with their emigration back to Russia or of their eventual adoption of local languages and traditions.

In all of this, there will always be a need for the involved parties to balance a variety of different things, which include:

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, it can now be argued that the real underlying problems in those countries is not Al Qaeda, though that is for the time being a major (because militarily armed) nuisance; it is the tribalism, even in the respective capitals but especially away therefore n the more distant provinces. The tribal chefs have, by various very tough regimes in modern times that are now no longer, been held in check by continual pressure of force of arms, without ever having had diminished their own expectations of eventual return to dominance in their territories, and without the populations of those territories ever havng matured politically so as to refuse to recognize the more or less hereditary, even feudal, sway which these chieftains and their clans have always held. Incidentally, very much the same thing seems to hold sway in Palestine, even (or, perhaps, particularly) in Gaza.

A system of local government based on tribal chieftains, or quasi-feudal fiefdoms, featuring (as they do) family or clan militias which keep everybody else in a territory at the mercy of the whim of the chief of a dominant clan, is not acceptable to those of us who favour proper free democracy. at local as well as at national level in the societies in this world.

The cheftains and their fiefdoms are even less acceptable when we remember also that especially in Afghanistan these centres of local armed power behave like organized crime, and are essentally indistinguishable from gangsters, and just as bad a thing for their own natons and for the rest of the world as the Mafia in Italy, Sicilay and the USA, the Triads in China (including Hong Kong) and the Chinese emigré communities round the world, or the Yardies in Jamaica and beyond. These people in Afghanistan are responsible for just about all the opium trade in that country which now supplied justa bout all the heroin in the world narcotic trade; and that is a thoroughly bad thing for everyone.

So, where are we? Returning to the original point, I say that when a properly constituted government declares war, it does not help to indulge in such rhetoric as to call it terrorism when one is having a calm moral philosophical debate about the rights and wrongs of the case. If a rogue state sponsors (say) murderous attacks on the civilians of another nation, the phrase "state-sponsored terrorism" may or may not be a useful summary of one's judgement of the case, but the more important point is how sure one is — speaking forensically — of the said sponsorship; and if one is sure, whether the nations of the world ought to act and (if so) what they can do to alter the behaviour of that rogue state government, or alternatively to replace it (the famous phrase "regime change") in pursuit of better world order.

If a properly elected government, so placed in correctly held elections within the system of that natin, decides on a course of action in the world disapproved of by all other nations, there is a sort of world constitutional crisis to deal with; if that government is a superpower (the USA currently) it is difficult for other nations that usually want t remain friends with it to try to change things by statesmanship.

The fact that some people (in either that country or in any other countries) disagree with the decision on a particular course of action does not necessarily make them right. Whenever the alternative to such a course is doing nothing, which is obviously less likely to lead to deaths stensibly directly caused by the course of action, those opposed to the action tend to claim that the action is "war", or is "state terrorism", or to make other such lurid claims. However if to do nothing can arguably be expected to mean that some other party (that is, typically, the bad regime that the action will seek to remove) will continue to perpetrate acts causing death and other serious harm to large numbers within the regime's country or outside, to argue that to leave the regime in place on the logical basis "two wrongs don't make a right" or on the basis that if we don't do something the deaths occuring "isn't our fault" so we should leave well alone ... well, it is faulty logic.

If a man regularly beats his six small children half to death and the police attend and end up in a hostage situation with the father threatening to kill his children one at a time unless they go away and leave him be permanently, and the police break down the door to rush him, and the man kills one of the children before he is handcuffed and taken away, there will always be some who will argue that the police should not have broken down the door. The police should, those critics will argue, have done something else. "They should have negotiated," they will probably say.

But if in fact the man was known to be the sort of man who would never accept defeat, who would never willingly give himself up to go to prison, who would let all of his children (and his wife if she were on the scene) bleed to death or die simply from the gravity of the injuries he had inflicted on them all rather than conclude negotiations in any other way than the police breaking the doors down, the critics complaints must be groundless. We must dismiss them as having not a leg to stand on.

In the same way, if a nation decides to act in asny way against another nation in the world, to put an end to any kind of evil going on within that other nation or to other nations round about or elsewhere but affected by what is happening, it is always very easy to criticise the action of the intervening nation despite its good intentions, when the actual outcome is any less than ideal. That does not necessarily mean to the detached observer that the critics are right.

In the Afghanistan and Iraq cases, my detached judgement on the actions in 2002 and 2003 onwards is that the action was better than not to have acted at all. (Again, on the specific politics back home, see the other article.)

The topic of self-determination arose above, but not so far in the Afghanistan and Iraq cases. However the principle does apply, although it has not been addressed above or in Iraq 2003).

I discuss it instead in The Kurds).