Just War Theory Provides No Moral Guidance

Noam ChomskyI just watched a short lecture that Noam Chomsky gave in support of his book Failed States at West Point. The talk is about Just War theory. I’ve never given the concept that much thought. I had always thought of it in the context of Catholic scholars like Augustine and Aquinas. But apparently, it dates back much further than that — at least to the Mahabharata, which was probably written about three thousand years ago, but only written down about 2,500 years ago. It’s not surprising that people have long thought about this. Everyone wants to believe that their wars are just.

Chomsky goes through a lot of discussion about what different scholars have had to say on the subject and he comes to a fairly obvious conclusion: what’s considered a “just” war is a reflection of the mores of the time and place. And it’s worse than that, because the scholars seem to all do the same thing: pick some war and define it as just. There is one point where a scholar picked the Afghanistan War, claiming that only hardcore pacifists and crazy people would think that wasn’t a Just War. But of course, the writer was just showing his own biases; there were huge numbers of people around the world who disagreed.

The main point is that it will always be this way. No one ever looks at the criteria objectively, determines that a war would be just, and then goes to war. Just War theory is a way to justify wars that are going on or ones that some group wants to start. And most of all, it is a way for military leaders to think that they are involved in a noble endeavor, even when they clearly aren’t. So it was interesting to see Chomsky at West Point in April 2006 — when the Iraq War was still fairly popular.

The most interesting part of the talk is the questions and answers. The cadets are very well behaved, but they clearly don’t agree with Chomsky. How could they? He’s telling them exactly the opposite of what they’ve been led to believe: that their cause is not just. But it’s quite clear that most of them didn’t understand what Chomsky’s main talk was about: Just War theory is nothing but rationalization. So we get a couple of questions about whether Chomsky doesn’t think this or that fact justifies this or that war on the basis of Just War theory.

I have no idea how the cadets take to his answers, but they are demolished. This is especially true with the last question. A cadet asks if the Iraq War isn’t justified because of Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses. Up to that point, Chomsky had stayed on point and focused on Just War theory, saying in effect, “We can argue about whether that ought to be done, but Just War theory gives us no guidance whatsoever.” But I think he’s a little annoyed by the last question because it shows such ignorance about the history of the United States and Iraq. Hussein was put to death for crimes he committed with our support. And now we are using those to justify going to war?!

I’ve always found the efforts of the government and the military to justify their wars as a pathetic exercise. I understand that the cadets really believe all this stuff. But the facts are clear. Every time a US president goes to war, we hear about how reluctant he is to do so. It’s such nonsense! It’s almost never necessary to go to war. It wasn’t necessary in Afghanastan — much less Iraq. But there will always be people around making the argument that war is necessary. I’d rather we were just honest about it. We want some resource or we just can’t help it or whatever. But I’ve been hearing how we go to war to protect democracy and for humanitarian reasons my whole life. And it is never true. It’s nice to think that Chomsky might have opened an eye or two at West Point. But I doubt it.

Should We Show the Results of Shooting Deaths?

Brian BeutlerBrian Beutler wrote a very interesting article, but because of the headline, I let it sit in my RSS queue for a while, Republicans Accept Mass Killings. That’s Why Gun Control Advocates Must Get Graphic. I knew at least part of what he was getting at. Ben Carson recently made a statement that he had treated many gunshot wounds, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” And I was afraid that Beutler might be calling for the gun control community to do what the anti-choice people do and show graphic, disgusting images. And that is more or less his argument, but it isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Before getting into it, let me counter what Carson said. His framing is wrong — I would say disingenuous, but he’s a seriously clueless guy. On the issue of guns, conservatives have gone far past the idea of a slippery slop and gone to a frictionless cliff. Implicit in what Carson is saying is that if we close the gun show loophole, private ownership of guns will be gone from the United States. It’s not surprising that he thinks this. The NRA has spent the last couple of decades arguing against any restrictions for this reason. If flamethrowers were legal, people would now be against doing anything to regulate them.

“I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” —Ben Carson

What Beutler pointed out is that there is another hidden assumption in Carson’s claims or the less obviously nutty claims of Jeb Bush. They look at the roughly 10,000 gun homicides and roughly 20,000 gun suicides each year. And they think that they are nothing. They are a minor issue that we should do absolutely nothing about because any measure to strengthen gun regulations is a much greater threat to us. It’s a curious argument, because pretty much every other peer country has far greater firearm regulation and they haven’t lost their liberty.

So Beutler thinks that we need to make this argument plain. He’s not suggesting that we march around with gruesome images of gun fatalities like the anti-choice groups do with large fake photos of abortion. But he is suggesting that we not hide the results of gun violence in reporting on it. When the results are not shown, just like in our wars since Vietnam, it has a propagandistic effect. It sanitizes it and makes it all about statistics. Note that in Ben Carson’s case, he was not treating people who had their heads exploded by a bullet; in the vast majority of cases, he was working on people who were wounded and not killed by bullets.

I’m not sure that I agree with Beutler that this would make any difference, however. The truth is that gun rights advocates will say the same thing that abortion rights advocates say: we all know the reality. Of course, look how different this is. In the case of abortion rights, we are talking about real people being negatively affected — in the case of late term abortions, we are talking about a matter of life and death. In the case of gun rights, we are talking about the idea that we can’t place any limits on gun ownership because (big assumption number one) it will lead to gun confiscation, which will lead to (big assumption number two) the end of liberty in America.

But maybe Americans do need to be reminded of the terror of a mass shooting. Beutler provided the following image from New York Daily News from the murder of television reporter Alison Parker. It isn’t graphic in the sense of showing blood and intestines. But I think it is quite graphic in the sense of showing the terror and pain caused by these shootings. Maybe such images would cause people who would normally stay at home to trudge down to the polling place and vote for reasonable gun control. It’s worth a try.

Murder of Alison Parker

Image of Alison Parker’s murder used under Fair Use.

Morning Music: Leo Kottke at the Bottom Line

Leo KottkeWell, it is the end of our Leo Kottke week. A week of music is very different for you than it is for me. I end up listening to far more music than I post. In this case, pretty much all of his first 12 albums. It’s kind of hard to believe, although his albums don’t tend to be that long. Regardless, it was very enjoyable. There are a lot of great technicians — especially on the guitar — who lose sight of making their music enjoyable. But that never happens to Kottke. He always makes really enjoyable music.

The following is a performance of his at the Bottom Line. It revisits a couple of tunes, and moves into some of his later work. It is well worth listening to. And then after you are done, check out the second part.

Anniversary Post: Double Tenth Incident

TortureOn this day in 1943 was the Double Tenth incident. This was during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. On 26 September 1943, an Australian military unit had carried out Operation Jaywick. It resulted in the sinking of seven ships. The Japanese were understandably not pleased. So on 10 October 1943, the Japanese Military Police arrested and tortured 57 Singapore civilians for taking part in the attack. Of course, none of them had anything to do with it — Operation Jaywick was a total outside job. Fifteen of the arrested civilians died in jail.

I’m pretty fond of the Japanese. But it all shows how any group of people can be just awful. It’s hard to imagine the Japanese doing that sort of thing any time in the next century. They’ve so internalized the lessons of World War II. But who can we image torturing again? The United States. That’s because we’ve never dealt with our past wrongs. We’ve treated our past the way we always have: by ignoring it like a dysfunctional family with a history of addiction and child abuse.

It is only through admission of our wrongs that we can grow. This is one of the big reasons that the United States is a dying empire.