I 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.