Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Lost in the 'Logic of War'

By David DeCosse

The war with Iraq that may start, literally, at any moment is unjust. The president, who is a good and honorable man, is in this case flat-out wrong. I say this as an American citizen and as a Catholic theologian. I say this because war now to remove Saddam Hussein from power without the approval of the United Nations is an unjustified, disproportionate, and reckless response to Saddam's violations of justice. It is impossible to believe that an effective consensus at the U.N. could not have been achieved. I say this war is unjust also in light of the fear that the language and logic of war have in the last years insidiously seeped into American culture day by day and are sapping the real, intelligent strength of American minds and hearts.

Just war theory offers a moral calculus by which to determine when it is justified to begin a war and whether the conduct of a war is justified. I would like to focus on two aspects of this theory — aspects that I think show most clearly why this war with Iraq is unjust. The first aspect pertains to the notion of "just cause." The second aspect pertains to the just war concept of "proportionality."

First, then, just cause. It is essential to note at the outset a series of obvious facts: Saddam Hussein is a dictator and has done many evil things; it will hardly be shocking if American troops discover large stashes of chemical or biological weapons; and it will be no surprise at all if many Iraqi people welcome American troops with open arms. All of these given or likely facts, however, do not constitute a just cause for going to war apart from the United Nations. Just war theory requires us to move beyond moral platitudes, the mere existence of disturbing weapons, and the pull of powerful sentiment. This theory requires us to think hard in two general ways. First, always to remember that we are talking about going to war — the most serious moral and physical action that human beings can take. Second, always to remember that we are obliged to connect the dots but not to do more than connect the dots. In other words, just war theory may permit war. But the theory only permits it with enormous regret and with a realism that never fails to recognize the enormous moral and physical toll that war always brings. Thus the theory obliges us never to rush beyond the evidence — never to use the absolutely fearsome tool of war on the basis of a purely speculative guess about what might happen years down the road. This, however, is what the Bush Administration is doing.

In his televised address on March 17, the president stated that the chief cause of going to war now with Iraq was the possibility that Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of terrorists and result in a devastating attack on the United States. Thus, the president reasoned, the United States has just cause to launch an invasion to remove Saddam from power apart from U.N. approval. It cannot be stated clearly enough what a radical departure this basis for war represents from past American practices and from the requirements of just-war theory. Many of the president's supporters have called the invasion of Iraq a justified pre-emptive war — in other words, a war that would pre-empt or render null a threat that the country is facing. But the classic categories of just war theory state that a pre-emptive war can only be undertaken if there is the threat of an "imminent attack of a grave nature." And however malevolent Saddam is, the Bush Administration has never been able to prove the certainty or immediacy of this Saddam-terrorist nexus threat. No one has yet shown that we are anywhere near a situation, as the President said last night, of "blackmail." Therefore, this is not a pre-emptive war. Instead, this is what is called in just war theory a "preventive war" — a war launched to nullify a hypothetical threat far over the horizon. And it is important to note what distinguished just-war theorist Michael Walzer has said of such arguments for preventive wars: "International lawyers and just-war theorists have never looked on this argument with favor because the danger to which it alludes is not only distant but speculative, whereas the costs of a preventive war are near, certain, and usually terrible."

This mention of the costs of war brings us to the just war concept of what is called "proportionality." In other words, for a war to be just there has to be a proportion or correspondence between the injustice that gives rise to the possibility of war and the likely costs that may arise in addressing this injustice. In the case of Iraq, the principle of proportionality requires us to acknowledge Saddam's violations of United Nations resolutions and dictatorial practices but nevertheless to ask what are the likely costs of going to war to redress those injustices. And we must be hard-headed about acknowledging those costs: What will the ferocity of war do to many poor Iraqis who will not be able to evade the inevitably errant and incredibly powerful smart bombs — no matter how careful our military is in targeting? Is it absolutely worth it to risk the lives of the American men and women in the military now poised in Kuwait and elsewhere to attack? What will be the economic costs of rebuilding Iraq — costs that we are likely to incur alone and at a time of profound economic difficulties at home? And what will be the short and long-term effect of this war on many other nations and peoples? In going to war, it is never right to consider only one's own country as if our fears and concerns necessarily trump everyone else's. In his March 17 address, President Bush attempted to rally the nation by saying: "War has no certainty except the certainty of sacrifice." But this is obviously wrong. The only certainty in war is death and destruction. Those costs may at times be worth incurring for a greater goal of justice. But death and destruction are the only certainties of war and they are the costs that the Bush Administration has studiously avoided facing.

I would like to close by returning to my earlier statement that I fear the insidious effect on you and me of the increasingly pervasive "language and logic of war." I am borrowing the phrase, "the logic of war," from Pope John Paul II, who has powerfully opposed this war every step of the way. There are many aspects to his case against war — and I invite you to consider them both as powerful moral arguments in themselves and as the statements of a man who has tasted the warring horrors of history and has, literally, given his life so that peoples may be reconciled to one another. What might he mean by calling on Americans and the world, as he has done in the last weeks, to reject the "logic of war"?

Here is how I understand what he is saying in the American context. We are being seduced by violence and war in the warp and woof of our lives. We feel too righteous in response to some real or perceived hurt; we hang on to resentments that we love to nurse. These are the emotional roots of unjust violence and today we are constantly being invited by the logic of war to cling to these distorting emotions, not to give them up. We can see this logic playing itself out in many aspects of our lives. There is the prison-stuffing overkill of the war on drugs. There is the instant recourse to violence on our city streets. There is the war on terrorism in which the justified response to the attacks of 9-11 has morphed into a conflict without definition and contemptuous at key points of legal restraint. And then there is this imminent war with Iraq toward which we have been careening — even, perversely, hoping — for months. In all of these situations, the simplicity and totality of war in all its fearful, self-deceiving logic is becoming our default response to actual or perceived threats. And this response is undermining our character. I am not a pacifist. There are times when there is nothing else to do but stand and fight. But when the United States chooses to do this, it should do so in the greatness of American character — a greatness characterized by practical, hard-headed rationality, enlightened self-interest, initiative and ingenuity at solving problems, skepticism for all moral platitudes — ours and others', slowness to anger, deep respect for law, and generosity of spirit. That character is hidden now behind the logic of war.

David DeCosse is director of campus ethics programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

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