Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

No, Mr. President: it's not a just war

War and peace, Obama

Dear President Obama,

Reading your Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Wauwatosa, I understood the restrained response of the audience in Oslo. It is a lawyerly speech, well-crafted. But it doesn’t really address peace. Instead, it addresses the ideology of never ending war and leaves us with a sobering view of a life of constant struggle:

Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is, a soldier sees he's outgunned, but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school -- because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child's dreams.

Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that -- for that is the story of human progress; that's the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

This doesn’t exactly stir me, although it makes me grateful for the movements of history and accidents of fate that set me here in this place, in this position of relative safety and prosperity.

But I will follow your suggestion and look clear-eyed at what is. And Mr. President, this is not a just war. With clear eyes, I see that you have trimmed the definition of just war to suit the purposes of this war, limiting the list to “when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

Most of the long discussion about just war has come from Catholic theologians and philosophers. But I’ll use the clear-eyed, nonsectarian definitions of the BBC to point to the ways in which the war in Afghanistan cannot be called a just war:

Six conditions must be satisfied for a war to be considered just:
1.    The war must be for a just cause.
2.    The war must be lawfully declared by a lawful authority.
3.    The intention behind the war must be good.
4.    All other ways of resolving the problem should have been tried first.
5.    There must be a reasonable chance of success.
6.    The means used must be in proportion to the end that the war seeks to achieve.

Mr. President, when was there a lawful declaration of war against Afghanistan?

Have we really tried “all other ways” of resolving the problem? Have we clearly—and honestly—defined what the problem is? Is it really al Qaeda, or does it have more to do with military and industrial strategie?  Oil and pipelines? Afghanistan's location as an access point to present and future threats?

Do experts reasonably believe there is a chance of success, if success means victory? What would that look like?

What sense of proportion could there possibly be for war waged vaguely against the "evil that is in the world," global security, and “ better future for our children and grandchildren”?

You say that “modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.” But doesn’t it also allow a few countries with outsized resources or ambitions to do the same? You mention rather casually that more civilians die in wars today than in the past. From a 10% civilian casualty rate a century ago, we’ve now “achieved” over a 75% civilian casualty rate. That alone tells me this and all wars like it are unjust wars.

In your speech, you suggest that there are smart wars and dumb wars. I think it would be more honest, more clear-eyed, maybe smarter, to say this is a smart war that achieves certain pragmatic objectives. I wouldn’t like that any better, but it would be more logically defensible.

Not that I think logic is enough when it comes to justice and morality.

Yours in reason, not cynicism,

Christine McLaughlin


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