Friday, 24 May 2024
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    Just War

    by Peter O’Brien

    In an early version of his 2nd Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln wrote of the Civil War that that: “…each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong.”

    In his eloquent, spare style Lincoln reduced Just War theory down to a single line.

    There are currently two wars ongoing in the world that seem to have grabbed all the headlines, in Gaza, and in Ukraine. There are other wars going on, as well – Yemen, Syria, several spots across Northern Africa, from Somalia to the Ivory Coast, a civil war in Ethiopia (currently mostly quiet)), the Rohingya genocide in Burma, etc. Most of these rarely receive any news coverage as the press plays “little kids soccer,” following the “ball” rather than covering their part of the field. In fact, the press seems to have a hard time covering both Ukraine and Gaza, and at the same time, the coverage of Gaza has been, for the most part, sophomoric. 

    All of these wars are producing casualties. The fighting in Burma, for example, has produced more than 10,000 killed so far this year, the Tigray civil war has “only” resulted in perhaps 3,000 killed this year, but since it started in 2018 has resulted in perhaps 500,000 killed. 

    One of the curious features of the two most prominent wars is how the bulk of the media have seemingly changed their tunes, supporting Ukraine and insisting Ukraine by right and necessity should keep fighting, but then switching to peaceniks in the next breath, almost immediately calling for a truce in Gaza.

    Both were attacked, both have seen their citizens become the victims of atrocious, evil behavior. Ukraine saw more than 600 people tortured, raped and killed in Bucha, Israel more than 1,000 at the festival and kibbutzim in the Negev. As a matter of scale, though attaching scales to atrocities is treacherous ground – evil is evil, Israel with between 1/3rd and 1/4th the population of Ukraine, has the worst of it. 

    Both people are also the victims of much greater atrocities during the 20th century, 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, between 5 and 10 million Ukrainians killed in the Holodomor – Ukrainian for “kill by hunger” – Stalin’s effort to wipe out any independence movement in Ukraine during the early 1930s. Of course, neither holds a candle to Communist China for sheer butchery, but who can?

    Both nations found themselves pushed into war; in the modern understanding of Just War, both were responding to an attack and were justified in responding to the attack. 

    But, what about now, now that they are engaged in the war?

    There are multiple criteria that must be met when trying to assess that any war, as it is being waged, is just. But, perhaps the two most important are these: 

    1) Is it reasonable to presume that the war, as it is being waged, is going to lead to some better outcome? The outcome does not need to be “victory,” but whatever it is, further fighting will lead to an improved situation – a better peace, a safer world, etc.

    And 2) is continued fighting evil or not evil? That is, does continuing the war mean less total evil than the evil that is being fought?

    It is immediately obvious that both of these are subjective evaluations. There is no universal yardstick that can be applied that shows that one course of action garners 9.5 goodness points and the other only 9.0 points. Opposing sides are always going to come up with different assessments as to “better results,” better ends. As Lincoln implies, both sides will claim God is on their side, though, clearly God cannot be on both sides.

    As for weighing different evils, that is, if anything more difficult.

    And more to the point, what does that have to do with the US?

    Well, that is what the US State Department should be doing in Gaza. And in Kiev. Honestly, that’s its job. As the representative of the US, and as the US is the major power in the region, the US is the one party that has standing to weigh in with Israel as to the right time to stop. That is an appropriate position for the US, as the major power in the region and as Israel’s ally, to hold that discussion with Israel. Note, if the US doesn’t want to be a major power in the region, then it needs to leave. But right now it is the major power, and it is Israel’s ally. Both come with real responsibilities.

    At the same time, and the State Department and DOD need to remember that they  are supposed to be pursuing US interests, not Israeli interests.

    Thing is, the US should be doing the exact same thing with Ukraine. Yet we have been told again and again, that the US will not do any such thing. The White House and the State Department and the Pentagon (and a number of other department secretaries) have all said that it’s up to Ukraine to determine when the war should stop.

    But such an argument misses both of the above elements of Just War. It is the responsibility of the senior figures in the administration to evaluate whether the Ukrainian effort, as with the Israeli effort, should be throttled back or not, and the criteria are readily provided: is their a chance of success, and is the end more or less evil.

    It is, nevertheless, interesting that we’re seeking to restrain the Israelis even as they appear to be making headway, while we seemingly give Ukraine a carte blanche as the war stagnates. Shashank Joshi, formerly a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, and now the senior military columnist with the Economist, suggests that for the next offensive to succeed, as the one that started last June did not, the Ukrainian army has to provide more training to combat forces, which means more units will need to be pulled off the line, for longer period, which translates into 2024 will need to be a year on the defensive, looking forward to a second, more capable offensive in 2025. And he notes that even with additional training and adequate amounts of ammunition advanced weaponry, such an offensive will probably not liberate Crimea.

    Said differently, an effort to hold an offensive in 2024 will probably fail, and may fail badly.

    And given that during the 18 month period between now and that next offensive, Russia would continue to “have a vote” on what happens on the battlefield, as well as what else might happen around the world, is it reasonable to assume that continuing the fight in Ukraine is going to lead to a clearly better result? If cold, clear analysis clearly says yes, and it serves US interests, fine. But, if not?

    HISTORICAL WORDS OF WISDOM