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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

27 thoughts on “Just War Theory Provides No Moral Guidance

  1. I agree with you that in practice the use of just war theory is to produce rationalizations. I don’t entirely agree that just war theory needs to be just rationalizations. Instead, we could explore just how high a moral bar must be jumped to justify an exercise certain to result in vast numbers of dead, atrocities against civilians, and all the other evils that come every time.

    We would find that in almost every single case (one possible exception: WWII from the point of view of the allies) there never was a just war. Shouldn’t we be showing why war is never just in any actual case? That its perpetrators are criminals who should go to prison for life?

    The conditions of just war are never met in practice. Does not make it useless. Frictionless planes, non-interacting gas molecules, and spherical cows also are never met in practice.

    Yes, people are not Vulcans. Let’s not give up on reason. Ask Dr. Chomsky!

    • RJ — There’s good reasons at times for the use of force. Vietnam stopped the Khmer Rouge when refugees started swarming across the border. Selfish reason, like all states use, but force helped save lives. I’m not up to speed on the Balkan wars but I’ve read that the UN helped stop killing there (again, not because it cared, but because the fallout would hurt richer Euro states.)

      WWII is an interesting example, since the war could have been prevented in many ways. Like not forcing Germans into harsh austerity measures to pay reparations. We didn’t make that mistake after the war.

      As for justifications — pretty much everybody knew the Holocaust was happening and didn’t care. The US turned back ocean liners full of Jewish refugees. It’s quite possible we didn’t enter the war to stop German crimes in Europe or Japanese crimes in Asia at all, but to prevent Russia from taking over too much territory. We wanted it. And the Russians won that war, no questions asked. We helped by selling them supplies, but they would have won it without us.

      So I can’t say that WWII was a just war. I think our involvement had positive outcomes. Western Europe became very liberal after that, and was much better off than Soviet-bloc states. Part of that’s because the Soviet states were poorer, but part is also because liberal democracy runs better than communism. In a sense we didn’t save the world from Hitler; we saved Scandinavia from being Romania.

      And then there’s the negative outcomes, like how we stopped Japanese aggression in SE Asia then proceeded to be way, way worse!

      I think I agree with your take on just war theory, actually. That if we used it sensibly, we could make the tough decisions about when violence is needed to stop worse violence.

      • You should write more about this kind of stuff.

        The problem is that countries don’t go to war because of concerns about justice. Most wars are resource wars. So there might be some academic saying, “This war the government wants to start is unjust.” But the government would just send out its “expert” to explain why the war was just. I really don’t see what a theory gets us.

        • Thanks but I’m no expert. Though I suppose Dr. Noam would say that too, and he is an expert. Read more, always read more. All we can do to get less dumb about stuff.

          If you had a functioning international body — not the UN with its damn useless House of Lords/Security Council — you could have just war theory/policy. Almost everyone agrees the Geneva Convention is good, just as everyone violates it when they want to, the most powerful nations most often.

          Is such a thing even possible? I dunno. We all know positive change is possible, we’ve seen it. It seems that negative change is much easier and faster. If you choose the quick and easy path, that way leads to the Dark Side, as the puppet martial-arts teacher said.

          • Who said anything about “expert”? But you have the right: an expert is just someone who’s read too much.

            The problem is that we have a handful of countries that are too powerful. They will never allow international law to constrain them. But it does have an effect on the little countries. This is just like the inequality within countries.

            • A little like the climate justice movement. There’s pretty good consensus among poor countries that they’d really like to switch to clean energy, and they really like it if the big carbon culprits at most assisted paying for it, or at least slowed down ransacking their countries for carbon. And it saves us all in the end, while helping clean up horrid pollution harming people right now. But nooooooo. How unthinkable. To the very few people in the very few industries in the very few countries who make profits from this.

              • Absolutely. This is also related to the how the IMF will only give loans to countries if they make “free market reforms,” but then it turns out that the big advanced economies got going through protectionism. There’s always a double standard. And that double standard is that the little countries should not act like the big countries, but rather how the big countries want them to act at any given time. Of course, we have to remember that global warming denial is pretty much just an American thing.

        • OK, but you don’t need to be an academic to understand these things. I’d like people to say, more widely, that wars are for resources. Ask people: do you want our government to kill children so that gas is cheaper at the pumps? Yes? No?

          • I agree with that. It’s hard when we live in a time where our government has gotten so good at selling wars. Implicit in those marketing campaigns is always that the war is “just.” But I’m certainly not against an effort to appraise the morality of different wars. There is a continuum. So I don’t necessarily have a problem saying that one war is more just than another. But especially given how we fight wars, it is hard to to say that any of them could be just. We throw around the “fog of war” and such to justify civilian deaths, but all that really does is take the charge down from murder to manslaughter. And I’m being kind with that.

          • You are totally right. It just requires mass movements to say these things. The media won’t. Academics and NSA analysts who do say them will be ignored. And incidentally, invading Iraq did not make gas cheaper for buy. Resource wars make profitable products, be they oil or labor, cheaper to get. That doesn’t affect consumer prices one iota — just makes gas more profitable for gas companies.

      • I always wondered if the theory that John Barry wrote in The Great Influenza was accurate about how the flu changed Wilson and made him less willing to be kind to the Germans after WWI. Because some of the people in the negotiations like Keynes knew exactly what was going to happen if we kept on that course. Yet, we did it anyway.

        When I found out as a youngster that FDR refused to let a lot of European Jews come to the US, I lost so much respect for him. I was like “We had Texas, why not?” Could you imagine the US if we had let in so many refugees and they all settled in Texas?

        • I feel the same way about refugees from our Iraq war. We should be taking almost all of them in. But you know no politician would suggest that today unless they were retiring tomorrow. And I’m sure it was the same in FDR’s day. Not that he had any political worries, but others in his party did. And FDR was pretty bad on minority rights in general, as you know.

          I think Jews in WWII or Muslims today would definitely improve Texas. However Texans would treat them pretty shabbily. No worse than Europeans, though. When I wrote “pretty much everyone” knew about the Holocaust, I meant politicians and politically aware news junkies. The public at large didn’t know, at least not the scale of it. Well they did by 1945. And yet nobody wanted to take Jewish survivors in! It’s one of the reasons Europe supported the Israeli state; let’s encourage them to go there. I agree with Michael Moore that displaced Jews should have gotten a state — carved out of Bavaria.

          • Since we have the ability to fix things a lot more than we did in the 1940s, why make them leave their homes when we could have instead done it right in the first place by not sending the entire Iraqi military home with their weapons and refused to do any of the nation building that needed to be done like putting in a new sewer system.

            I always thought of the Iraq war as the real life version of a Jerry Bruckheimer film. Lots of distracting explosions but little actual effort on the ground. Explosions play well on TV and keep people hyped up unlike having to rebuild a bridge. That is grunt work and the Bush Administration was never into grunt work.

            I know it would not have happened-the letting the Jews in and they would have been treated pretty badly but they would be alive and their descendants today would make the US a very different place. Or maybe not, considering Israel.

            • Jerry Bruckheimer film is a terrific analogy. Sadly I suspect some of the war planners thought of it this way. Rumsfeld, I’m almost sure he did. If he thought of anything at all besides “Rumsfeld’s Mighty Historic Legacy” which will thrill schoolchildren for centuries.

              I don’t think Israel would be as bad policy-wise if it wasn’t stuck in the mire of erasing native residents. The Jews who did come to America were major players in the labor/civil rights movements and some got killed for doing do.

              They would have improved Texas, or any other state (although Texas maybe needs a little more help . . .) As would Muslims today. They don’t drink, they don’t sleep around (although we should add the qualifier “much” to these), they’re big into going to church — it’s every fundamentalist’s dream profile for immigrants, besides different magic intonations.

              I honestly believe that despite our nation’s consistent racism, we’d do better taking in refugees than Europe will. I love Europe a lot, but a lot of their good politics are based on homogenity. The few asylum-seekers they’ve been taking in the last few decades have really spurred the crazy right-wing there.

              • Well…as a feminist, I know what happens to the young women in those refugee households. While eventually they assimilate to the broader new culture, there are plenty of old school reactionary dads who honor kill their daughters for doing things they disapprove of.

                As for the racism part-while our nation does have a huge problem with it, we also have a tradition of absorbing new people into our culture. Which makes things a little easier for those who already were inclined to treat their faith like a lot of Christians do-show up on Easter and Christmas or equivalent holidays but otherwise never bother.

                • Oh, there are reactionary dads, husbands — some grandmas. It can be bad, you’re right.

                  I’ve noted immigrant women from really awful sexist cultures (usually, the poorer it is, the more sexist it is) being really empowered by exposure to America. We’re a dang mess. Still, we’ve had people like feminists who fought hard for important victories and that can be terrific to others who’ve never seen that life can be different. We’re not great. We do have some decent stuff here. Not much, but some.

                  Exactly right on Easter/Christmas. Fundamentalists are a minority in every faith (except maybe American Protestantism.) Fundamentalism is hard work! Crazy and I don’t respect it much, but it’s hard, you have to devote as much as 5% of every day thinking if your actions are pleasing God or not.

                  Most refugees aren’t fundamentalists, and those who are can’t be scarier than the homegrown variety. But, you know, they might impose Sharia Law on Texas. Or the Kabbala. On only the businesses they owned. If I had to wait five minutes longer for a pizza with pork sausage to be delivered ‘cuz Semitic people were here, I’d probably lose my s**t.

                  • I had a book on the paradox of women who live in the US who were raised here, have very supportive of women’s decisions do whatever they want families and the fact that many of them seem to work a few years then go do child rearing. As opposed to immigrant or immigrant daughters who all go into school, get as much education as they can to obtain work in fields that are not traditionally women oriented and then do not leave even when they have children.
                    It was interesting because after all the fighting to get women into whatever they want to do, the implication was that American women then throw those opportunities away to just be stay at home moms.

                    However one great thing America has done is given the world examples in our media of how to treat women through our TV shows. A curious natural experiment happened in India where some communities got cable TV that showed American TV shows. Some did not. And the ones that did had better outcomes for women then the non-cable communities.

                    • Terrific post. It’s almost like our fantasy vision of America, delivered through media, makes our country better than real-life America does. Through attracting people who work hard to make real life more like the fantasy.

    • But the problem is that no one is working on just war theory in a vacuum. They always seem to take it for granted that some recent war (by “us” of course) must have been just. And given how sophisticated countries are, I don’t think it makes sense. As Chomsky pointed out, if a “defensive war” is justified, then the Japanese would have seen WWII as a defensive war against the US. As we all know, who started a war is always determined not by the facts but by when the clock starts ticking. Clearly, history did not start at Pearl Harbor. For the record, I’m not justifying the attack on Pearl Harbor. I’m simply noting that people don’t normally go to war thinking that they are the “baddies.”

  2. Wonderful. I suspect the philosophy teacher who gave the intro invited Dr. Noam. When I was at military school for a year, there was serious concern that graduates were very poor at communication skills, so a lot of the humanities teachers were quite good, and not at all angry if I wrote liberal-leaning papers.

    It made me curious how Dr. Noam ended up at West Point. I looked around for a few minutes and found nothing written by him on how it came about — but that teacher is still at West Point: http://www.usma.edu/dep/_layouts/wpFacultyBios/DisplayBio.aspx?ID=79477893-de26-4f20-9715-65e7b177d69d&List=bddc8345-59aa-40f0-ac0c-cd1782c21f3d

    Incidentally military school was the first place I had Internet access, and when I stumbled on Dr. Noam it made a huge impact on me. But then again I wasn’t liking regiment life very much. West Point’s pretty hard to get into, so most of those students are darn committed to the gig. And you can get in trouble for sassing off, so military school students are always polite to teachers/guests.

    Our military doesn’t want numbskulls in charge. But as our political branding has increasingly identified the military with right-wing cultural values, academy applicants are becoming more dumbly small-minded. I was in school when Clinton was president, and many student officers mentioned “commander-in-chief” with a sneer, as though if they had their way no Democrat would be allowed to order the military to do anything. And lots of snickering “don’t ask, don’t tell” jokes.

    I understand the Air Force Academy is notorious for pushing fundamentalist Christianity on students. I don’t know much about the others, but I got hooked up to some Naval Academy midshipmen who made LSD in the chem lab. It was FABULOUS! Here’s to whatever Walter White taught chemistry in Annapolis back then!

    • It is very interesting in the video. I suppose I expected the cadets to be polite. But for the ones actually listening, it must have been a mind blowing experience. It has to have been confusing. That’s especially true because he can speak their language: he knows everything they will ask about; and he knows far more. He’s not frothing at the mouth. He’s quiet and well reasoned. And the timing was good because this was in 2006 — right about the time that conservatives were finally figuring out that the Iraq War was a huge blunder. One of the saddest epiphanies is, “You mean they’ve been lying to me?!” Yes Grasshopper; they’ve been lying to you.

      • Yeah, probably most of them blocked it out to avoid that epiphany. Because it is soul-crushing. I was an anti-wealth liberal before I entered military school, but I considered myself a patriot, as most people do. I didn’t leave a patriot, or at least not believing that America always did good things with its military. I was lost in the mental wilderness for a few years after that, it was tough. The capitalist narrative was a lie, the patriotic narrative was a lie, what does that leave you? (Muddling a way through every day, as we all do eventually.)

        I remember passionate late-night conversations with military school kids over some of these things. So there is a minority that does think. Maybe everyone in that hall stayed in the military. But maybe a few of them were changed a little.

        Dr. Noam’s unflagging politeness is his best quality. He’s been criticized for how boring his presentations are. But he’s not a politician, he’s a teacher. He doesn’t give speeches. His smile at the end of that video where he unwraps his present is just sweet.

        Here’s something you didn’t know. That class was Philosophy 201, right? So, sophomore year. Well, sophomores in US service academies have a big choice to make. The academies are free, the government pays for tuition & books (you have to pay a little for supplies.) In return, you owe the government a term of service. They vary it from time to time, but it’s around 6 years after you leave. This kicks in once you start junior year. Up until then, you can quit anytime and walk away with free college transcripts. Starting junior year, whether you graduate or not, you owe the US government six years. They can actually put you in military jail if you won’t comply, although I’m sure this rarely happens.

        So that’s a great presentation to give to sophomores. Again, West Pointers are pretty motivated, so who knows if any had doubts. But I sure did. And get this — I didn’t find out about the six year thing until the end of my first/only year! It’s probably buried in the admission fine print somewhere, but I didn’t know it and nobody else did either. They sat us down at the end of the year and explained it in no uncertain terms. That’s when I knew I was probably not for that world.

        Free college credits, though, I kinda/sorta learned to swim, and had my brain changed forever. A bizarre experience, but one of the few in my life I wouldn’t undo.

        • I think there is great power in just demonstrating that there are reasonable people who have different opinions. One of the most dangerous things in politics is the tendency of dehumanize others.

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