Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why "Just Wars" Suck

So everyone's favorite and least favorite sitting President accepted the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, in the middle of escalating a war. Can you say awk-waaaard? (That should be delivered in a falsetto, if you actually say it.) Forget the Obama had to deliver a speech accepting an award "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" only a week after announcing that he plans to send 30,000 more men with guns in order to kill some people. So he fell back on that old politician's friend, the idea of the “just war.”

As Obama noted in his speech, war has been around a long, long time and is not going anywhere any time soon, for a variety of reasons. Now, the people who advocate for wars are hardly ever the people who go to fight in them, because, duh, fighting in wars causes you to kill people, die, get maimed, acquire irreversible psychic damage—it's a no-win scenario for the participants. So the warmongers have to convince the would-be soldiers that it's a good idea to go and kill and die and so on, which is no easy task. God has been frequently invoked in the preparations for war (“It will please Him greatly if we take that hill!”), and money may also be brought into the mix (“Okay, how about a hundred bucks if you fire a gun in that direction?”). But holy wars are becoming less and less common, and not all that many people are willing to die just for the sake of a check, so more abstract reasoning for war had to be invented: “We aren't fighting for God, we're fighting to defend Democracy/Our Country/World Peace And Stability!”

Obama's ingredients for a “just war” are these:
“If it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”
Well, that sounds fine, right? Right?

One obvious problem is that wars are always said to be in self-defense or in last resort. Even Osama bin Laden's fatwah against America was couched in the logic of self-defense in his manifesto. We invaded Iraq because we had to stop them from attacking us, and Afghanistan because militants in their country already attacked us. And the rationale for the Vietnam war was that if Vietnam fell to communism, a whole lot of countries would fall to communism and the reds would be on our doorstep. Who's to say with any certainty what is and isn't self-defense?

And “proportional force” is vague too. What would be proportional for the 9/11 attacks? Or Pearl Harbor, for that matter? Did the Holocaust justify the Dresden bombings? Did Japan's brutality in China and Korea justify dropping the bomb on Hiroshima? And most importantly, does that mean that if one side uses atomic weapons, one side could use them too, in the name of “proportional force?”

Then again, atomic weapons would kill civilians, and Obama's unequivocally against that. Um, “whenever possible,” which sounds an awful lot like the generals' promise to avoid civilian casualties in Vietnam, and we know how that turned out.

Obama's speech was nuanced, but it wasn't new. Every leader of every country always desires peace, yet somehow there are always reasons peace is impossible. And Obama's plea for countries to unite against rogue states sounds somewhat familiar too: “Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one.” That sentiment isn't far from Henry Kissinger's “A sense of responsibility and accommodation must guide the behavior of all nations.” I don't want to compare Obama to a war criminal, I'm just saying Afghanistan is starting to sound like same song, second verse. (Maybe there's a reason that among all the wars Obama mentioned in the speech, Vietnam never comes up.)

Obama is right when he says that some wars are unavoidable. When confronted with totalitarianism and religious fanaticism, what else are we supposed to do but fight back? But the war in Afghanistan that Obama is now responsible for isn't as simple as World War Two, or even the Spanish Civil War. We aren't fighting a dictatorship, we're trying to build a country, something that I don't believe has ever been successfully done. The president of this fledgling country stole the election and pledged to fight corruption, which would be fine if it weren't little bit like Lil' Wayne telling kids not to do drugs. Then there's the small problem that the Taliban pays it's fighters more than we pay our Afghan fighters. And there's the difficult, mountainous terrain, Al Qaeda's fighters across the border in Pakistan, the opium trade that won't go away...when you look around for comparable war, Vietnam is the only one that comes to mind. I may not know a lot about foreign policy, but I know that this situation sucks. The problem is that instead of being a just war, Afghanistan is rapidly turning into just a war.

Obama's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (WSJ)

(Image at top stolen from an article in the Korea Times)

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