Is War Defensible? Essay

Imagine if everyone had telepathic powers and could communicate with the dead, and it was possible to ask the victims of World War One, the Vietnam War or the Kosovo crisis if they felt they had died in a just or unjust manner. They would probably say, “what’s the difference!”, underscoring the absurdity of the moral proposition of the question.

Yet this is precisely the selective chivalry that constitutes just war theory, the idea that state-sponsored killing can be legally and morally rationalised, while similar acts perpetrated by non-state actors are illegal and intrinsically evil. Realism, the dominant paradigm of interstate relations, regards war as a legitimate political tool and takes no moral position. Just war ideas try to reconcile realism with a more ethical morality, but fail to do so for a number of reasons. Thus the only just and moral position possible is that war is not defensible under any circumstances.Just war theory attempts to defend the practice of war by morally specifying the conditions under which war may be justly conducted.

However the moral dissection of warfare is incompatible with the dominant realist paradigm, which regards war as an extension of diplomacy for states to use for survival in the hostile and anarchic international order1. According to realists, the lack of a central authority to ensure the rights of states at the global level blurs the distinction between power and force, obliging states to help themselves claim their rights by the threat or use of armed coercion2. This is the primary preoccupation of states’ foreign policies, because common good only enters into realist analysis as the national interest of the institution of the state3. War is purely a matter of national interest and requires no further justification, leading Robert Tucker (1960) to suppose that “modern war doctrines” are “scarcely distinguishable from mere ideologies, the purpose of which is to provide a spurious justification for almost any use of force”.The politics of state autonomy ensure that human equality breaks down at state borders, providing a ripe environment for conflict. The colonial/imperial experience generated an unjust displacement of the costs of the evolution of Western society to the Third World4. Attempts by Third World nations to redress this imbalance is reduced by realist analysis to the simple pursuit of their national interests at the cost of richer and more powerful western states, necessitating the intervention by effected Western states to remove this heinous threat5.

Hegemonic powers like Great Britain and then the USA “often found it impossible…to preserve their territorial and commercial empires without using military weapons”6. In the Middle East, both powers have kept the Arab world divided and relatively pacified by offering Arab ruling elites aid and political backing in exchange for military bases and the often violent suppression of excessive nationalism7.This manipulation has precipitated widespread unrest, featuring hatred towards the US and ruling groups “who have been willing to barter their people’s resources in return for maintenance of their own power and privilege”8.

This is representative of the wider colonial relationship between the central powers and Third World elites, which survives to this day as an antagonism for Third World peoples. Ninety percent of wars since 1945 have been fought in the Third World and conflict continues to escalate through constant retaliation as states and peoples protect their interests9. However the concept of combating violence with more violence is quite simply immature and not morally defensible.In the realist realm of statecraft, moralist hyperbole is not for justifying force but rather for legitimising the use of force to the public. “Moral rhetoric is the most powerful weapon of mass destruction available to leaders today”, mobilising ordinary people behind grand notions of the just battle between good and evil10. Following the attacks of September 11, US President George W Bush has waxed lyrical about the defence of democracy and freedom against faceless tyranny and aggression to legitimise an unwise and precipitous retaliatory “terrorist” campaign in Afghanistan11. Bush has assured the world of “the rightness of our cause” to destroy the “enemies of freedom” in the Muslim world12.Ever since the Cold War however, the American Government has been keen to portray Islam as a barely comprehensible monolithic evil, not governed by the same rules of civility or inhabiting the same moral universe as the West13.

With the demise of communism as the universal Satan, Islam was cultivated to provide a righteous pretext for any military intervention. Now ten years of incendiary rhetoric have confined the US to prosecuting a war in hostile lands against a poorly defined enemy. It is probable though that the destruction of people, property and social relations of America’s war against terrorism will negate any initial side benefits of communal solidarity that September 11’s attacks may have generated14.The United Nations Charter incorporates the just war principle of jus ad bellum by prohibiting the use or threat of force by states, except in circumstances that justify force as a last resort to pursuing a righteous cause. The right to unilateral or collective self-defence is the staple “just cause” and allows a state to defend itself, or an ally, from attack15.

Every Australian involvement in war falls under the expanded classification of self-defence, yet expansionist and militarily activist countries tend to be more creative in their interpretation of this definition. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights in the Six Day War (1967) takes self defence to include pre-emptive strikes, stretching just cause to its limits of credibility16. The UN Security Council is also authorised to use force on behalf of any UN member state, while regional defence organisations such as NATO are authorised to use force with Security Council approval17.

This is where “just cause” descends to more punitive interpretations, including “bringing about a return to the status quo after theft of goods or expropriation of territory”18. The UN Security Council and regional organisations tend to be forums for powerful states to exercise influence and can be co-opted to serve individual national interests. The 1991 Gulf War satisfies this definition, as Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait endangered Euro-American access to Middle Eastern oil19. The natural progression is to justify the punishment of “warmongers” like Saddam Hussein, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and the coercion of their “wrong-thinking followers”, because they are a disruption to the western-oriented international order20. Conversely other “warmongers” like Marcos in the Philippines, Ceausescu in Romania, Pinochet in Chile and Suharto in Indonesia were supported because they suppressed anti-western nationalism and preserved the international order21. These inconsistencies undermine the credibility of jus ad bellum and illustrate “the legal right of the state to go to war for any reason whatever to preserve the security or advance the interests of its society”22. Vague definitions of just cause can be used to rationalise any war and hardly constitute a regulated restraint on violent conflict.The right of individuals to wage war in self-defence is not the same as the state’s right to conduct a defensive war.

It “does not pertain to a private individual to wage war” and can only be done “unjustly, illegally and without right”23. This is right authority, although it seems irrelevant in places where public cynicism exists about state power. Revolutionary movements often enjoy greater popular legitimacy than their host states, yet they are condemned for lacking “right authority” to engage in a defensive war24. Legitimate power must be based on the consent of the people, but in many countries there is a huge difference between “right authority” and “legitimate authority”.

The preservation of grossly unfair social arrangements requires a high level of force; private individuals must either risk their lives without representation and redress, or wage war like the Chechens, Palestinians and Mayans in Chiapas, Mexico25. It is in this context that many groups are redefining social injustice as structural violence in order to justify defending themselves26. The difference between a “just” state war and non-state campaign of violence is a question of legal semantics, as both constitute war in the practical sense.The regulation of actual conduct in armed hostilities (jus in bello) relates to the appropriateness of the level and nature of force used in a given situation. Johnson (1984) believed that “weapons of modern war.

..are destructive out of all proportion to any values they might serve”, yet that’s the idea under the realist paradigm27. The threat of a disproportionate use of force becomes a political lever, which helps explain the build-up of nuclear weapons over the last fifty years and why the Israeli army fires live ammunition at stone-throwing Palestinian youths. Also critical to jus in bello is the concept of non-combatant discrimination, which is the moral responsibility to not target civilians in war28. Jus in bello, along with “right authority”, has been used to condemn terrorism, which is “any method of war that consists of intentionally attacking those who ought not be attacked”29.According to Jenny Teichman (1986) however, “terror is something that states can and do go in for” to coerce ‘wrong-thinking people’30. Examples abound, but particularly prominent were the CIA sponsored death squads of Central America, Russia’s pillage of the Ukraine in the 1930’s, Israel’s campaign against the Palestinians, and the TNI sponsored militias in East Timor31.

An obvious contradiction arises in that terrorism against states is illegal and unjust, yet state sponsored terrorism can be vindicated as self-defence. Civilians lose their non-combatant immunity and their lives in both cases, so the distinction is purely theoretical and certainly not morally defensible.The industrialisation of modern warfare makes a mockery of non-combatant immunity. As the productive system of militaristic states has become enmeshed with their military apparatus’, civilians working in factories and in other vital infrastructural roles have become increasingly exposed to the brutality of warfare32.

The aim of war is to annihilate the enemy’s armed forces, which in modern warfare can be done by destroying the enemy’s industrial capability, reducing their ability to produce armaments and support their military personnel33. In describing the allied air bombing of Italy in World War Two, Winston Churchill (1942) stated that “all the industrial centres should be attacked in an intense fashion, every effort being made to render them uninhabitable and to terrorise and paralyse the population”34.Churchill’s aim was to destroy the industrial capacity of Italy’s war machine and to destroy civilian morale, in the hope of eroding the Italian people’s support for the war and the legitimacy of Mussolini’s regime. Churchill’s description of industrial warfare closely resembles the definition of terrorism, further undermining the concept of just war. Recent American-led attacks on Baghdad and Belgrade also featured the widespread destruction of industrial and infrastructural targets with high “collateral damage”, translated in English as civilian deaths35. It is difficult to distinguish these events from the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11th, which featured similar strategic targeting of important economic and military facilities at high human cost. This leads to the conclusion that all modern warfare is terrorism, which for the realists is an amoral and necessary tool of statecraft, occasionally becoming a morally unacceptable waste of human life when the label has political utility.Killing in the name of narrow self-interest can never be morally rationalised, no matter what chivalrous intentions embody its conduct.

Just war theory is an attempt to add a moral dimension to the raw power politics of realist international relations. In spite of that there is no practical difference between “just” and “unjust” warfare, rendering baseless the moral argument for just war. War still remains a wholesale killing of human beings, regardless of who conducts it and the identity of its victims.The realist diplomacy of ‘wielding the bigger stick’ is an immature form of relationship between two entities, be they humans or states. A mature form of conflict resolution would involve continual dialogue with the ultimate goal of a mutually beneficial outcome, yet this appears impossible under a dominant paradigm whose modus operandi is self-interest in a hostile environment. Thus just war rhetoric superimposed with realist statecraft produces a flimsy, unconvincing and indefensible legitimisation of the violent maintenance of a grossly unequal world order, which adds momentum to the gyroscopic cycle of conflict that plagues mankind.References* Brown, C, International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches, Harvester, Great Britain, pp129-154* Bush, GW, 2001 State of the Union Address, 21/9/01, [online, accessed 23/9/01],* Calhoun, L, “The Injustice of ‘Just Wars'”, in Peace Review, September 2000, v12, i3, p449, [online, accessed 1/9/01], EBSCO Host Database* Chomsky, N, Deterring Democracy, 1992, Vintage Books, Great Britain, pp407-442* Donnelly, J, “Twentieth Century Realism: Realism & International Issues”, in Nardin, T ; Mapel, D (eds), Traditions of International Ethics, 1992, Cambridge University Press, pp85-163* Engler, R, The Politics of Oil: Private Power ; Democratic Directions, 1961, University of Chicago Press, USA, pp1-33, 65-131, 182-360* Gardner, L, LaFeber, W ; McCormick, T, Creation of American Empire: US Diplomatic History, 1973, Rand McNally, USA, pp1-267* Hinsley, F, “Peace & War in Modern Times”, in Varynen, R (ed), The Quest for Peace, 1987, Sage Publications, Great Britain, pp63-79* Johnson, J, Can Modern War be Just?, 1984, Yale University Press, USA, pp1-140, 174-190* Kegley, C ; Wittkopf, E, World Politics: Trend ; Transformation (7th ed.), 1999, St Martin’s Press, USA, pp21-42, 346-381* Kis, J, The Unity of Mankind & the Plurality of States, 1999, Central European University, pp1-24* McCormack, T, “The Use of Force”, in Blay, S, Piotrowicz, R & Tsamenyi, M (eds), Public International Law: An Australian Perspective, 1997, Oxford University Press, Australia, pp238-270* Pasklas, B & Dockrill, M, The Ethics of War, 1979, Duckworth, Great Britain, pp191-225, 254-285* Rapoport, A, “Conflict Escalation & Conflict Dynamics”, in Varynen, R (ed), The Quest for Peace, 1987, Sage Publications, Great Britain, pp163-178* Smith, D, The World at War – January 1/1/01, 2001, Center for Defence Information, [online, accessed 1/9/01], URL:* Smith, P, Bombing to Surrender: The Contribution of Air Power to the Collapse of Italy 1943, 1997, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, USA, [online, accessed 1/9/01], URL:* Suter, K, “From Boer War to Timor: Warfare in the Twentieth Century”, in Contemporary Review, December 1999, v275, i1607, p282, [online, accessed 23/8/00], Expanded Academic ASAP Database* Teichman, J, Pacifism & Just War, 1986, Blackwell, Great Britain, pp25-97URL:,4057,2906473%255E15574,00.html1 Kegley, C & Wittkopf, E, 1999, World Politics: Trend & Transformation, p27, 3462 Donnelly, J, 1992, “Twentieth Century Realism: Realism & International Issues, p893 Pasklas, B & Dockrill, M, 1979, The Ethics of War, p2824 Kis, J, 1999, The Unity of Mankind & the Plurality of States, p155 Donnelly, J, 1992, “Twentieth Century Realism: Realism & International Issues, p1026 Gardner, L, LaFeber, W & McCormick, T, 1973, Creation of the American Empire, p17 Engler, R, 1961, The Politics of Oil: Private Power & Democratic Directions, p4968 Engler, R, 1961, The Politics of Oil: Private Power & Democratic Directions, p4969 Kegley, C & Wittkopf, E, 1999, World Politics: Trend & Transformation, p27, 34810 Calhoun, L, 2000, “The Injustice of ‘Just Wars'”11 Bush, G, 2001 State of the Union Address, 21/9/0112 Bush, G, 2001 State of the Union Address, 21/9/0113 Brown, C, 1992, International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches, p14014 Brown, C, 1992, International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches, p13015 McCormick, T, 1997, “The Use of Force”, p23916 Chomsky, N, 1992, Deterring Democracy, p19017 McCormick, T, 1997, “The Use of Force”, p23918 Teichman, J, 1986, Pacifism & the Just War, p5519 Engler, R, 1961, The Politics of Oil: Private Power & Democratic Directions, p237Chomsky, N, 1992, Deterring Democracy, p40920 Teichman, J, 1986, Pacifism & the Just War, p5521 Chomsky, N, 1992, Deterring Democracy, p40722 Hinsley, F, 1987, “Peace & War in Modern Times”, p6623 Teichman, J, 1986, Pacifism & the Just War, p5324 Teichman, J, 1986, Pacifism & the Just War, p8925 Smith, D, 2001, The World at War: January 1, 200126 Teichman, J, 1986, Pacifism & the Just War, p2627 Johnson, J, 1984, Can Modern War Be Just?, p3028 Johnson, J, 1984, Can Modern War Be Just?, p2729 Teichman, J, 1986, Pacifism & the Just War, p2630 Teichman, J, 1986, Pacifism & the Just War, p9331 Suter, K, 1999, “From Boer War to Timor: Warfare in the Twentieth Century”32 Engler, R, 1961, The Politics of Oil: Private Power & Democratic Directions, p48733 Rapoport, A, 1987, “Conflict Escalation & Conflict Dynamics”, p16434 Smith, P, Bombing to Surrender: The Contribution of Air Power to the Collapse of Italy, 1943, p935 Suter, K, 1999, “From Boer War to Timor: Warfare in the Twentieth Century”


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