In the light of the new assault on Gaza, I find myself considering the Israeli government’s narrative of its actions as a justified war of self-defense, and considering the whole idea of a just war. I seem to disagree with most mainstream opinion on this topic, so in this post I’m going to explain my view of the essential problem of war, and in my next post I’m going to suggest some ways to mitigate it.
So, traditional just-war theory has discussed how wars should be waged, who should wage them, and when. The last of those is the most complex, but the various different criteria basically amount to “is war the best option?” That’s then dissected into 1) will something terrible happen without war? 2) have all other ways to prevent that thing been exhausted? 3) will war actually succeed in preventing that thing? 4) are we sure war won’t produce even worse things?
Those all make a lot of sense, of course, but in practice they’re largely irrelevant. Who gets to judge? These are all complex questions of what ‘would happen’ and there’s no unambiguous way to establish that. In practice, whoever gets to define ‘very bad thing’ and so forth, gets to decide whether to go to war.
Typically, in the modern world, the two most commonly accepted circumstances for war seem to be 1) ‘humanitarian’, to stop a government doing terrible things to its own citizens, such as genocide, and 2) ‘self-defense’, to respond to attacks or threats against one’s own country.
The question of who decides is thus important, and this has normally been defined quite boringly as ‘a legitimate government’. Depending on the theorist, different understandings of ‘legitimacy’ are of course used.
And the ‘how’ question, although it again involves lots of hard-to-pin-down stuff about ‘proportionality’, is most importantly embodied in the idea of ‘discrimination’: military targets and civilian targets must be differentiated from each other, and violence must only be directed at military targets.
Now as I said, I think there are a lot of flawed statist assumptions in most of this theory (which makes sense, because it’s states who do most war-fighting). I think they come out most obviously in the idea of ‘self-defence’. Person A (a soldier from Country X) attacks Person B (someone from Country Y), and in response Person C (a soldier from Country Y) attacks Person D (a different person in Country X). This is self-defence?
Of course, it relies on the idea of a practical identity between persons A and D and persons B and C, based on them coming from the same country.
And obviously some degree of practical identity can exist: groups of people can act and think as a single agent. But the degree of this identity is very variable, and depends on a lot of factors. The traditional idea of war between countries presupposes that this identity is given.
What happens when we abandon that presupposition? We see for a start, that some actions can reduce or increase the degree of unity between people. To speak in generalities, whatever encourages and enables people to trust each other, to care about each other, to depend on each other, to interact with each other, etc. increases this unity, this community. While things that encourage mistrust, indifference, and hostility reduce it.
And then we see the key issue. War, the systematic use of violence, is one of the best designed methods to reduce community. War brutalises, traumatises, isolates. We might express this by commenting on the idea of ‘discriminate’ violence: no violence is discriminate. All bullets, we might say, ricochet.
I shoot an enemy soldier in the face. His widow is so distraught she kills herself. Their son is then so enraged he plants a roadside bomb for one of my army’s trucks, and kills another soldier. That soldier’s best friend becomes so paranoid from the trauma that he shoots his commanding officer and forms a splinter group. The rest of my army then go after him and – well, you see where I’m going with this. I did my best to ‘target’ only one, military, person, but I still end up with 4 bodies as ‘collateral damage’.
But if war makes sense only presuming a strong and cohesive national community, but the realities of war work to undermine all community, then war is self-undermining, autodelegitimising. This is, I would say, the essence of why it is so horrible.
It has been said that fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity. I think that’s wrong (I also think it’s stupid – it seems to imply that shouting for silence never succeeds, which it clearly does). But I do think that war as it exists, as concrete institution, is rotten and mindless and hideous to the core.
The only legitimate function of violence, in my eyes, is to suppress violence. But war as it currently exists typically functions to inflame and strengthen violence. If we are to talk of a ‘just’ war, we need an understanding of ‘just’ wars as wars that counteract their own innate tendency to destroy community.
In my next post I will offer a positive proposal of what that might look like.