Many would agree or argue that war is barbaric and can never be justified, except perhaps in cases of self-defence such as defending a nation against an invading and oppressive army. Many conflicts that arise could be settled in a non-violent fashion and do not justify the suffering and loss of life that war brings.
What is war? Chambers defines war as: a state of conflict; a contest between states or between parties within a state (civil war) carried on by fighting; any long-continued struggle, often against or between impersonal forces. The Oxford adds: any kind of active hostility or contention between living beings or conflict between opposing forces or principles. As the word war is now often used in reference to a struggle that does not involve arms or physical violence some people refer to armed warfare to distinguish a war that does involve armaments.
Of interest in these definitions is the recognition that the war may be fought over principles or ideologies and that those engaging in an armed war will not personally know the individuals that they are fighting and killing. A war may be between states but it may also be fought by parties within a state as in a civil war, by a state against a minority within the state as in the case of an insurrection or by a state against a minority in another state as in the case of international terrorism.
Some people argue that war is always wrong and if we each refused to take part in a war there would be no war. This would be true if everybody could be persuaded not to take part but it is an idealistic position. Unfortunately historical examples show that this ideal situation is unlikely to be achieved. The next alternative is for one group or nation to refuse to take part in the hope that any harm that another party causes them will be limited. Historical examples show that this can be unwise. The Moriori of the Chatham Islands were pacifists and refused to defend their islands against the M㮲i invaders in the early 19th century. As a consequence they were enslaved, killed, and eaten, and all but exterminated. Some people show their abhorrence of war by individually refusing to take part but others argue that in doing so they rely on others sacrificing their lives to protect them and that they are little better than those who start wars and then conscript others to fight the war and risk their lives for them while they stay home and gain the spoils of victory. Others argue that violence will only bring more violence but examples such as the defeat of Germany and Japan in the Second World War made these countries much less likely to go to war than before.
At the other extreme we have the hawks who would make war at the least pretext. These are the people that we should be very wary of for it is these people who start the wars and bring suffering and loss of life to thousands or millions of people. In the past we had the hawks who glorified war and sought conquest and the spoils of war as well as glorification for acts of valour. Such hawks were often rewarded with political appointments, power, and prestige. Today we still have hawks ? those that would seek to achieve ideological objectives by making war on other countries, or groups of people. Sometimes these people are difficult to recognise as they argue for the defence of a country. The problem becomes acute when the protagonists of war argue that their group are the victims and that they must make war to defend themselves. Sometimes we see two groups involved in a long lasting struggle while each claims to be the victim of the other.
To compound the issue some people will take an anti-war stance for what may be either selfish or hawkish reasons, often if the war is between other countries or parties in the first instance. This may be to reduce their own personal risk of becoming involved in the war or because they support the ideology of one party involved in the war and seek to assist that party by keeping their government out of the war. Sometimes they are prepared to standby and watch millions being slaughtered as long as they or their country are not involved.
In the middle ground we have those who argue that war should be avoided but that in limited circumstances, such as self-defence, or the minimisation of harm, war might be justified. They consider that fighting a war might be justified if it meets certain criteria or a suitable combination of those criteria. Possibilities are:
Fighting a war might be justified if it minimises the long-term harm or minimises the loss of life over a period of years. For instance, if a war between two countries has already gone on for years and is costing 10,000 lives a year it will cost 100,000 lives in the next ten years. If a third nation steps in and brings the war to an end in 6 months at the cost of an additional 5,000 lives for that 6 months the net saving in life over 10 years will be 9,000 lives and the action of the third country could be considered justified.
If a third country is to intervene in a conflict it must avoid postmodernism and decide which party is right and which is wrong or fight both parties if both are in the wrong. Democracy, Human Rights, and the Humanist Manifestos are good starting points for a decision. A government that does not represent a majority of its people and acts against the basic Human Rights of its people or a democratically elected government that fails to protect minorities against harm or Human Rights abuses must be suspect.
Those who stand by while opposing armies fight in other countries and people are slaughtered should feel for the innocent people who are suffering and dying and not feel good because they are not involved or because they have prevented their governments from getting involved. Through their non-action they share the responsibility for those who die. The defeat of a militaristic regime that is making war to destroy human rights and open democracy generally leads to harm minimisation and there are some outstanding examples of this in the last century. War can have unintended consequences and violence can lead to more violence but the failure to act can also have long reaching consequences and lead to more violence and loss of life and suffering.
War should never be a first preference and if there are alternatives to war these should be pursued as far as reasonably possible. There is no doubt that in the future some people will hold the American involvement in Afghanistan against them but to do so will probably be to ignore the reasons that they became involved and the objectives that were achieved. The ongoing war in Afghanistan was costing many lives and there were many Human Rights abuses under the Taliban. Sanctions had already been applied to the Taliban with little effect ? you cannot destroy an economy that does not exist.r
An abridged version of this article was published inNew ZealandHumanist 152, December 2001
Afghanistn article issue 152