A New Understanding of Just War, Part 2 of 2

So. Here goes:

The identity (of action, of belief, of feeling, of interests) between a military force and a civilian population is an empirical variable.


A prime requirement of justice in warfare is to target the opposing military force in opposition to the civilian population associated with it.


Justice in war demands that the required identity and non-identity of the civilian population be a real fact.

that is to say

A military force can only make war legitimately if the civilian population in the area it is fighting in is

a) reasonably believed to be in active united majority support of that military force;


b) reasonably believed to be in active united majority opposition to the opposing military force.

So in practice this would mean that, for instance, most defensive wars against invasion would be just (if they met all other criteria) because typically the population in the invaded areas would desire the expulsion of the invading force.

And likewise many secessionist wars would be just (if they met all other criteria) if the majority of the population in the area wished for separation.

And when the majority of a country’s people wished for the overthrow of its government, then war to overthrow that government would be just – if the force fighting to overthrow it could also show that it had popular support.

But conversely, opposition to all of these things would be typically be illegitimate: the invasion of another country, the suppression of a revolt, or using force to keep part of a country as part of that country.

Those examples, I suspect, are not all that surprising: it is hardly controversial to suggest that an unwanted invasion is illegitimate.

A consequence which I think it perhaps more unconventional is this: that if Country X is attacked by military forces from Country Y, and the attacking state has the support of its population, the forces of Country X should not launch assaults into Country Y (in retaliation, in ‘self-defence’).  Because of the popular support for the agressor government, an attack against it would amount to an attack against the civilian population of that country – and attacks against civilians are unjust.

The obvious topical reference is to both sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict. The Israeli bombardment (and soon, it seems, invasion) would be illegitimate because far from Israel having popular support in Gaza, it is widely despised, while Hamas has a democratic mandate and thus, as far as we can tell, has the general support of much of Gaza.

Of course, Israel’s attack violates several other just war principles as well: it has little prospect of success in preventing rocket launches, it isn’t the only available option, it is grossly disproportionate in that it has already killed ten times as many people in a few days as Hamas could in a month, and it uses a method (aerial bombardment) which is inherently indiscriminate. But let’s forget about that.

Similarly, Hamas, in launching rockets into Israel (and, in the past, suicide bombings) is deliberately and openly targetting the civilian population of Israel. Its third major technique though, that of kidnapping Israeli soldiers operating in Palestinian territory, may count as just – its target is military, it operates in areas where it can claim widespread support (if I haven’t made this clear, I think that war against a given opponent may be legitimate in one geographical area but not another), and so the question would come down to ‘have all non-violent methods been tried and failed’ and ‘is this likely to succeed’, questions I will not attempt to answer here.

A final note on the specifics of Israel and Hamas: there are further questions beyond ‘are their military methods just?’ There is for the example the question ‘are they fighting to end or to maintain oppression?’ – that is, the question of their position in the overall dynamic of the region. As I’ve said before: the violence of the oppressed and the violence of the oppressor are not equivalent. There is also the question of whether their internal character might be such as to set up further forms of oppression – is Hamas, for example, inevitably an enemy of Gazan women? (not that Israel isn’t, of course) Anyway, let’s leave that aside for now.

Now, it might be objected that this criterion is ‘nice in principle’ but is ‘too abstract’ or ‘irrelevant to practical reality’. Isn’t it ridiculous, after all, to moralise to a population under attack that they shouldn’t hit back?

On the contrary, this criterion, I believe, is pre-eminently practical. If it wasn’t, if principle and practice were at odds, then it would be a bit crap. But I think it is practical for the following reason: if the civilian population support an aggressing government, you have a political problem, not a military problem. And military force will not solve a political problem: it is illegitimate because it cannot succeed in its only legitimate aim of ending violence.

To return to the example of Gaza: if one person is happy to see Israeli children burn, you can dismiss them as an evil maniac. But if a million people are happy to see Israeli children burn, then they are not a million maniacs: there is a structural problem that must be addressed. In this case the structural problem is obvious: the Gazans have lived their whole lives under either occupation or siege. As long as this remains, military action against Hamas is beside the point.

To use another topical example, I think the Pakistani army is wrong to bomb and ransack tribal villages in the Taliban areas of north-western Pakistan. If the population in that area was itself opposed to the Taliban, then it would be fine for the army to work together with that population to drive the Taliban out. But the fact is that the Taliban has widespread support, and the Pakistani government is very weak. In this situation, military actions are inappropriate, even in the face of violent attacks from Islamists, because they simply miss the point and make things worse: the point is that the population of north-western Pakistan has a political greivance and as long as they have that greivance they will be a base from which Islamists can fight.

This also has consequences for the way that wars are fought: this popular support must be preserved and maintained, and this reinforces the requirement of discrimination. And one thing that would mean is no bombing. I do not believe that, by and large, bombardment tactics can be made discriminate: they are always prone to miss and blow up a road, a wedding, a block of flats. At the very least, no bombing anywhere near urban areas. And, as should go without saying, no terror, Red or White, no landmines, no cluster bombs, no chemical or biological weapons, etc.

It is often said, when US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan shoot an innocent person or blow up a bedroom, ‘well, they are operating in a very difficult situation, sometimes horrible actions are necessary’. This is true – which is why such situations should not be set up. The invasions were carried out without a clear mandate from the Iraqi or Afghan population, and in a manner than alienated that population. Every atrocity that occupation forces commit comes ultimately from this context: they are operating not with but against the general population. Their practical basis is force, not consent. The bloodbaths in both countries are in part consequences of this basic set-up.

As I said at the end of my last post: war destroys community, and lays the foundations for further violence. A just war would have to build and constantly rely on community – in particular, on the civilian community in enemy territory. It should be the restoration of control over that territory to its civilian population, not the seizure of control by the army. It’s strength should come from popular support, from strikes and civil resistance, mutual aid and development and reconstruction, not from ever-more-impressive technology that allows a man in a machine to kill greater and greater numbers of people without seeing their faces.

The vast majority of actual wars are not fought in order to suppress violence and enable peace. They are fought in order to establish or stabilise a desired social, political, or economic structure. This is because they are fought by states, and the nature of states is to use force to maintain social, political, and economic structures.

Inspiring slogan to finish!

4 Responses to “A New Understanding of Just War, Part 2 of 2”

  1. freethinker Says:

    Inspiring indeed. M.K.Gandhi said ‘the state represents Violence in concentrated form’.

    I haven’t read a lot of history, but I don’t think there has ever been a war that was just according to the principles you delineate here. Wars always exert and create hegemonies.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “I don’t think there has ever been a war that was just according to the principles you delineate here”

    Perhaps not. I do think there are things that approach more closely to it – in particular, resistance movements to invasion, like the French Resistance in WWII, of the Philippine Resistance to Japan. Indeed, it makes most sense when applied to the Maoist concept of ‘People’s War’, guerilla war aimed at building up a rival infrastructure and eventually overthrowing the power centre. But as you suggest, these movements have tended to expand naturally into aggressive or repressive forces when powerful enough, and often fight in ways that put a large cost on the civilian population.

    I know this is rather a standard cliche example, but I think the anti-militarist militancy of the Zapatistas is a good model in many respects.

  3. Can we get rid of the police? « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] abolishing this role of the police, I mean to affirm a principle I have argued for at more length elsewhere – no military solutions to political problems. If that many people are on the side of the […]

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