Monday, January 5, 2009

A Cogent Comment On War

One of Andrew Sullivan's many surprisingly astute readers responds to the Gaza War with an interesting philosophical discussion:

The problem with the doctrine of Just War, I would submit, is that it can only be applied in retrospect. In prospect, it is at once too restrictive and overly permissive. It requires an unachievable degree of certainty. But when leaders or their population nevertheless convince themselves that a conflict meets its standards, even though it cannot, it tends to grant them a sense of moral absolution that leads to callous indifference to the loss of human life.

No, the Israeli assault on Gaza cannot be said to be Just. Declaring it to be so is a manifestation of moral cowardice, of an unwillingness to face up to its awful price. It is merely a war: a messy, dirty conflict that injures all who are involved. It will exact a terrible toll on soldiers, militants and civilians, and there is no possible set of justifications which should blind us to that fact.

But that does not necessarily mean it merits moral condemnation. It does not mean that Israel was necessarily wrong to launch it, nor wrong to finish it. Those judgments tend to become clear only with the virtue of hindsight.

Take Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon. In its first week, many saw that invasion as justified. By the time it ended, it was widely viewed as a catastrophic, destructive, and unnecessary fight. Now, after two years utterly devoid of violence along the northern border, some are more ambivalent. If the conflict resumes where it left off, it will reconfirm its futility. But if Hezbollah and Israel arrive at a modus vivendi, it will be seen as having been the necessary precursor to peace. How are you supposed to know such a thing before you commit to fight, when years after the last shot, the consequences of the conflict remain unclear? Think of it, if you will, as a morality of doubt.

I am equally suspicious of the rectitude of those who unequivocally support this conflict as I am of those who sweepingly condemn it. The future is uncertain. The four conditions of the Catechism each point us in the right direction, and correctly suggest that the burden of proof must always rest with those who would resort to force. But three of the four demand absolute certitude: that the damage be "certain"; that "all means" be shown to be ineffective; and that it "must not" produce greater evils. Anyone who pretends to be able to answer these questions in the affirmative in advance of conflict is either a liar or a fool. No damage is ever certain, all means are never exhausted, and we never know in advance what toll a conflict will exact.

You have eloquently expressed your skepticism that the Israeli assault on Hamas will be seen, in retrospect, to have crossed these thresholds. I continue to believe that, if it meets its objective of clearing the way for a renewed ceasefire that is viable over the long term, it may well prove to have been justified. But I would be the first to admit that I am uncertain. I simply do not know what will happen.

The rhetoric that you and I find most abhorrent is spouted by those who experience no doubt, who see no uncertainty. It is dangerous. It lowers the threshold to initiate conflict, and leads to brutality after its onset. But the answer is not to identify a standard that would endow us with certainty; it is to recognize that certainty is always elusive, and to humble ourselves before that conclusion.



This post has calmed me down in a strange way. The certitude beforehand, the knowledge of right and wrong, is what is objectionable.

My own moral guidance has come from a passage of Albert Camus' The Plague:

The narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to the praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy and the general rule. The narrator does not share this view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clearsightedness.


The IDF fancies it knows everything, and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. Hamas fancies it knows everything, and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.



The reason I bring this up is not so much to comment on Israel-Gaza, but rather to comment on how Bush's legacy may one day be restored by what happens in Iraq.

The way this standard examines responsibility for war (namely: its effects) may be kind to Bush. After all, now that we have this war, everyone is working their asses off to figure out how to salvage it. If, twenty years down the line, a mixture of our policy, international aid, and the hardwork of Iraqis manages to salvage the current levels of insanity, then President Bush will have been judged of having the foresight.

To a certain extent, you can argue that this is true. At the same time, you do need to judge the quality of the choice at the time. But I suppose President Bush is different than this, because even knowing what we knew at the time, we didn't have even a reasonable amount of evidence to go into war. And yet it was put forward with that same damaging certainty that the reader talks about.

It reminds me of why I told my suitemate I don't carry a gun for self-defense: because carrying a gun means you're going to make a choice at some point whether another person lives or dies. And I don't think I'll ever be that certain.

I've talked previously about the standards for war. The Powell Doctrine's strength, I believe, is that it gives an excellent benchmark to remain certain about war. After all, Clinton's interventions in Somalia and in Kosovo had roughly the same rationale--a few important practical elements were different, though, and that proved to be the difference between failure and success.

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