Friday, December 02, 2005

(Just?) War

As promised, today I discuss the subject of war. I will discuss this complex subject in the most logical and abstract way possible, making as few judgments about past or present wars as possible.

Usually I try to simplify things and clear them up so people can discuss the issue intelligently and re-examine their own beliefs. I still want you to re-examine your beliefs, but for once I hope this actually makes the issue less clear than it was before. So many people have black-and-white views on the subject. But the issue of war just isn’t that simple. There are far too many factors that can make a war more or less justified than it was before, and it comes down to things that good arguing (and lawyering) are all about: characterization of factual situations and line-drawing.

The most interesting concept when speaking about war is the concept of a just war. A just war is one that is justified, i.e. there are good reasons for the war. It will be useful to think about the reasons for going to war on a spectrum from 0 to 100:

Least Just 0_______50_______100 Most Just

There are few people, I think, that would argue that a war is never justified. For example, a defensive war is almost always just in most people’s eyes. When X Nation attacks Y Nation, there are only a few peacemongers out there who would say that Y Nation should not fight back. So we’ll put defensive war at the far right end of the spectrum (100). At the far left, we’ll put a war for the sole purpose of killing and destruction (0). I think most can agree on these placements.

Beyond this point is where it gets a little tricky. War for the purpose of training soldiers or testing weapons may be around 1-10, and war for resources/territory may be somewhere between 11-20. On the higher end of the spectrum we have war to defend a non-aggressing nation against an aggressor, somewhere between 90-99. Beyond that is where things get more difficult, but for the sake of argument let’s say that the middle ground is a war of retaliation/revenge for a previous war, somewhere in the 45-55 range.

What else is near the top end of the spectrum? Well, let’s think of other things that are similar to military aggression between nations. One that comes to mind is government oppression. If Z Nation treats its people very poorly (tortures them without reason, starves them, etc.) then that is at least similar to X Nation’s unjustified attack on Y Nation. So let’s put that in the 80-89 range.

At this point we can already identify three areas where reasonable minds can differ.

1. No doubt some think that war for resources is more just than war for retaliation. And some people think that it’s all black-and-white, but surely that can’t be true. You may want to mess with the scale I’ve set up in all kinds of ways. There is no easy way to decide what makes a war more/less just.
2. Where do you draw the line? In other words, at what point on the scale do you go from saying “This war is unjust” to saying “This war is just”? Is it at 100? Surely that’s unreasonable. Or maybe 90? 75? 50? 25? There must be a point at which a war becomes “just,” but where is that point?
3. And finally, in the real world, how do we decide where a particular situation lies on the spectrum? To take the Iraq war as an example, is it simply a war for oil (somewhere in the 11-20 range)? Is it a war of retaliation for 9/11 (45-55)? Is it a war against terrorism (60-69)? Is it a war to free the people of Iraq from oppression (80-89)? If the last one, is their oppression maybe not that bad, dropping it to the 70-79 range? Not only that, but surely most wars have more than one motive. Does it take on the ranking of the best motivation? Does it take on the ranking of the primary motivation? Or does it fall somewhere in between? The American Civil War was about slavery (80-89), wasn’t it?

Thus far, however, we have only discussed the motivations for war. But there is another factor: tactics. No matter how just your motivations are for going to war, if you target civilians your war becomes less just. Attacking only military targets is more just. Also, any tactics that reduce the total number of casualties (on both sides) are more just. But even these are just general statements. Imagine this hypothetical: three tactics are available. Each of them will result in the following casualties:
A. 1000 friendly, 1000 enemy, 0 civilian
B. 400 friendly, 400 enemy, 100 civilian
C. 100 friendly, 1000 enemy, 100 civilian
Tactic A results in 2000 total deaths, but none are civilian casualties. Tactic B results in 900 deaths, fewer than half of Tactic A, but 100 are civilian deaths. Which is more just? In other words, how many civilian lives is each soldier’s life worth? The exchange here is 12 soldiers for every 1 civilian. Is that worth the difference? And finally, Tactic C results in 1200 total deaths (300 more than Tactic B), but far more are enemy deaths. Surely no one would fault a nation for using a tactic that results in more enemy dead than friendly dead, but when the exchange is not 1-for-1, at what point does it become unjust? This is a 1-for-2 exchange. Is it just? What about 1-for-5? To illustrate, three more examples are in order:
D. 0 friendly, 50,000 enemy, 0 civilian
E. 0 friendly, 10,000 enemy, 50,000 civilian
F. 10 friendly, 100 enemy, 50,000 civilian
Tactic D would be an ideal war for the winner, wouldn’t it? Isn’t it great when none of “our boys” have to die? To compare it to Tactic A, it’s a 1-for-49 exchange, with no civilians dead. Is it worth it? What about when you throw in costs? Tactic D is obviously a very high-tech (and therefore expensive) war. If you agree that this is a fair tactic, given a perfect 100 motivation, would you still agree if it cost $1 trillion more than Tactic A?
Tactic E looks a lot like a nuclear strike. Sure, it doesn’t sound good, with the high total number of deaths and especially the high number of civilian deaths. In an absolute sense it doesn’t sound just. But that may change when you consider the alternatives. In WWII, for example, they estimated millions dead on both sides in a ground war if the U.S. were to invade Japan. Does it therefore become just?
And Tactic F looks a lot like a massive terrorist strike. Does any motivation ever justify this result? What alternatives would make it look better?

And what if the result isn’t what you expect? All these tactics look better if you assume that the war will be resolved at the end. But what if it triggers retaliation instead? Essentially, is that the only thing separating Nagasaki from the World Trade Center?

Now, to synthesize the motivation with the tactics. It’s a cost-benefit analysis. The tactics are the cost and the motivation is the benefit. As the costs of war increase, a better motivation is needed to go to war. Assume that in the year 2010 the number of deaths from a war will be 25,000. Let’s say that we can agree that a motivation of at point 80 on the scale will make that war just. In 2020 the number of deaths will reduce to 20,000, making a motivation of 75 just. Is there any point at which a motivation of 5 will be just? To make it more concrete: in the year 2100 we have the opportunity to gain all the world’s gold by killing only 10 enemy soldiers. Does a war become “just” when you can say that it’s “just” war, that is, that war is no longer all that bad? Or does the scale simply stop at some point, after which the costs are irrelevant? Is that even logical? Does that make the whole analysis fall apart?

Finally, what bearing does global overpopulation have on the issue?

And now my command: discuss.


  1. Fantastic breakdown! I've never seen the subject broken down like this. Thank you very much! I'm thinking. I'm thinking.

  2. Off topic, but what kind of dog is the new one?

  3. Hmmmmmm.... Thats a lot to take in and this be but an immediate response, but I think the big problem many people have is the "freeing from opression war". In this case I am thinking of Iraq, where realistically this is the only way one can justify the war (I still don't buy the idea that they thought they had WMD at the time... how come so many people thought otherwise? 'Cause we WERE right).

    First of all, let's not confuse this with peacekeeping, which is not exactly war, although it certainly is fighting. Peacekeeping is what should have happened in Rwanda, to control the millitia who murdered a million people. It's not about protecting civillians, essentially, although in some cases it can be about actively pacifying the country- ie sierra lione and the congo.

    So Iraq was different, as is any war where you have an oppressive regime. The main difference is options. You don't need to go to war to reduce the regime's opressive nature necessarily; diplomatic methods, including both the stick and the carrot, might well be more effective, and this, indeed, is probably the tact that we take on most opressive regimes (of which there are many, and most of them are really up there with Iraq. Iraq, after all, was a secular state with more rights for women and religious minorities than currently exist). So, if other options exist, this might well reduce the level of opression.

    Also, you have to consider whether the millitary option would in fact reduce opression. Especially in the case of Iraq, where for some reason known only to the millitary, they conducted a campaign as if their role was to reduce Iraq to the stone age, which added to the difficult task of rebuilding the country.

    All these factors can reduce the "justness" of war. One of the factors given in most definitions is that it is the last option, and while I don't necessarily agree (there might be alternatives, but they are not very effective) literally with that, something along those lines is important.

    Now, on to casualties. The question is how human life is valued. We weigh our troops lives highly. Do we weigh them more highly than civillians? I would argue that we do. If the millitary had seen casualties on the scale of what Iraq has suffered, we would not be in Iraq right now. Certainly our tactics, of bombing suggest that we value our soldiers lifes over those of civillians. Whether this is right is up to you, but I would argue that it is not. Human life is human life no matter where it lives. Of course when you get to this point you end up very cold and calculating so... I dunno.

    As per terrorism? Yeah, you caaaan justify it... for freedom fighting. That is, if your nation is occupied and you have no means of expresing your desire for freedom other than millitary. It must be noted that your goal should be to hurt millitary targets still, but inevitably that kind of warfare leaves civillian casualties.

    You may denounce that first off, but consider the french resistance against the Nazis. Few would deny their right to resistance, but they probably did kill "innocents", whatever that means...

    Heh, it's certainly an interesting subject.

  4. Excellent and thoughtful post. Though I haven't digested it all, I'll make a couple of preliminary comments.

    How "just" a war is depends on perspective. I would argue that even a defensive war is unjust, because its premise is victimization. Justice would require the aggressor to stop and make the victim whole again via reparations. Though I don't feel there is anything wrong with defending one's self in a war, I'm not sure I'd use the value-laden term "just" in explaining the conduct. Justified would probably abe more apropos.

    I like your rating system, but I would argue that there are some ambiguities and assumptions that underlie it which would probably rule out consensus as to each particular rating in each category. Perhaps majority rule would fix this, but then justice would be defined by a vote, which is necessarily relativistic, another problem in my view.

    I'll think about this some more and maybe come back later this weekend.


  5. fantastic post Kelly! I guess there will never be agreement over any war. What i find interesting from a humanist point of veiw is our natural inclination to war. War is horrible no doubt, but mankind can't seem to stop doing it. War from the beginning of history to sadly, I feel, the end. But, thoughtful insight like yours. And also compelling arguments from the Pacifists. Ex:
    Kurt Vonnegutt Jr.
    These debates must go on & maybe some day...
    Thanks for putting your time & effort into this issue.

  6. Kelly, I have nothing to say about this post.

    I wanted to tell you, though, that when it comes time for your Supreme Court nomination hearings, and the photos of you and your piercings and tattoos have found their way into the hands of the oppostion, I give you my word that I will make every effort to convince the world what a neat, neat guy you really are!

  7. Good comments everyone. I'll respond tersely, since studying for finals is priority one right now.

    SusieQ: thank you. I realized there must be a logical way to think about it, and I was somewhat inspired by an example given by my Constitutional Law professor in our discussion on Roe v. Wade. He set up a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being abortion is always legal and 10 being abortion is never legal, and asked where the Roe decision leaves things. Someone said 6. I thought that was patently ridiculous. It seems to me that 5.5, the middle of the scale, would be that it's entirely up to the states. Anything below that would be requiring it to be illegal in certain circumstances and anything above that would be requiring it to be legal in certain circumstances. So anyway, that inspired me.

    Big Brother: we were looking at a corgi mix, but I think we decided to wait until after the wedding.

    Mr. K: all good points. I don't claim to be expert on anything happening in Iraq, and surely there are worse regimes out there, but perhaps the cost-benefit analysis was right to go in there when we did? I don't know.
    And terrorism necessarily is not the term you use to describe any attack where the target is military. Terrorism necessarily denotes a civilian target. If the tactics are similar but the target is a military one, it's called guerrilla warfare, and the Native Americans, I believe, are the ones who used it at the earliest date, to be adopted later by the US Special Forces and brought into the world. So, in effect, the US brought terrorism into the world. Scary thought, huh?

    Trusty Getto: I think by "just" I meant justified, in this context. But really isn't it the same thing? They come from the same root word. I think your concept of "justice" may be prejudiced by the traditional American view of the justice system. It's certainly not the only way to go about things, and I would argue that quite often it does not achieve true justice, an ideal that is, in reality, impossible to achieve, but worth striving for.

    l>t: exactly my point. We will never have consensus on the issue.

    Todd: I don't think I'll ever get that job. I'm not political enough, and I don't intend to try to be the best in the field. But maybe someday I'll write a book, if all my material doesn't end up in the blog.

    Did I say I would respond tersely?

  8. You mention 3 factors:
    1) Motivation
    2) Justifiability
    3) Tactics

    With apologies for possibly splitting hairs, I would prefer to call 3 'Payoff' rather than 'Tactics'. It is basically a payoff chart, similar to those used in game theory. From what I can see, the connection to tactics that we might make rough inferences about the tactics that must have been employed to achieve a given payoff. Such an inference may bear on our estimation of justifiability over and above the immediate influence of the payoff on our estimation of justifiability.

    So, I might rewrite and summarize your logic as follows:

    The 2 primitive concepts are motivations for going war, and payoffs in the form of casualty charts.

    Justifiability may be a function of the motivations, a function of the (casualty) payoff itself, and may vary further with the belief that civilian casualties were the consequence of deliberate tactical choices.

    Okay, that said, what interests me the most is the notion of justifiability. It strikes me that, from the perspective of the layman, it's value is as an apparent measure of justness.

    The problem for the layman is that the attempt to come up with a clear measure of the justifiability of a war is often futile. In some cases, justifiability is a function of factors that are either subject to perception and speculation. In others, it is a function of factors that can vary over time.

    For example, there may be no clear casualty payoffs in a war for some time, but when they do occur, they will usually not happen all at once. Typically, they dribble in through the course of a prolonged war. Also, any inference as to the tactics used in deliberately allowing citizens to be targetted, may be purely guesswork.

    So, the notion of the justifiability is a fairly weak one. When I say it is weak, I don't mean to speak pejoratively. Rather, I am talking about it's truth value. It's difficult to come to a conclusion about it's truth value. It's still an important concept from a moral perspective.

    So far, we have been implicitly thinking from the layman's perspective. From that perspective, justifiability is a nebulous concept.

    But from another perspective -- from the perspective of those who manage wars -- what the layman calls justifiability might be recast as a matrix that describes the likelihoods that the population will support the war over time.

    When we take a look at how a population is likely to perceive a war to be justifiable -- perceptions that will vary over time -- that determines how popular support is likely to wax and wane over time.

    This notion of supportability is critical to the strategy of a war. Since it is dependent on, among other things, the public perception of the motivation, there must be a deliberate effort to only present such motivations as lead to those justifications that make the war supportable.

    We now see a further weakening in the fabric of justifiability.

    [Note: it's now 1:30 a.m. and I am having trouble wrapping this up, so let me just bring it to a halt...]

    All this to say: The first battlefield is your mind.

  9. Has some sharp-sighted person defined what justice is, by any chance? [Is anyone else thinking of Republic book I?]

    An issue with so much complexity cannot be tackled without having a metaphysical grid in which you have a view of nature, out of which you can define what a just nation is. Is a just nation one which can "achieve" a justifiable war, which could mean a supportable war? So perhaps, "A just nation is one which survives."

    Do you all think that knowing what a just nation is has pertinence to this idea of a justifiable war, or do you all think this is a crazy tangent that can be ignored :)?