May 09, 2008

Why War is the Greater Evil...

I wrote this on a bulletin board yesterday, after someone picked up another comment of mine in the same forum that “every war is a defeat”. It grew into something of an essay, so I thought I’d share it with you…

Like most people, I think my attitudes to war in general were initially created by my upbringing. My father, grandfather, great grandfather, great great grandfather and great great great grandfather, were all military men at one time, and of one sort or another. Basically as far back as I can trace the male line of my family. Because of that, I was always brought up with a respect for the military brand of honour, sacrifice and duty, and to hold in high esteem people who followed this path.

But over time I've come to see another side of that whole equation: When I was young, I used to look down on pacifists and "lefties" who opposed war on principle. But, my attitude over the years has changed 180 degrees - because I've seen a little at least of what war looks like close up. I've had the surreal experience of being shot at. I've seen innocent victims face to face. I have seen from those affected what happens to someone's life when they are not killed but wounded, and in many cases how families suffer the loss of a father, brother, son or husband.

There is some virtue in respect and admiration for the people who make it their job, or who volunteer, to fight wars for their country. One cannot deny the hardships and danger that they accept in becoming men of war, or that many have the best motivations. But I think it's important to see that the very traditions of honour, bravery, loyalty and noble sacrifice that are instilled in any army, any soldier, in almost any country, are for a very practical reason: They exist to make beautiful something that is very ugly indeed. These traditions and values are designed, arguably of absolute necessity, to make ordinary rational people take what is at least on a personal scale, a most irrational decision: To kill, or be killed, on the orders of strangers.

I say "on a personal scale", because of course when taking that "irrational" decision, there is still a rationalisation: It normally runs something along the lines of "we are the good guys, our leaders are more reliable than the others’, and if I have to kill or die, it will be for a noble reason, and my people will love me for it". From an ethical perspective, one who engages in war will often justify it at “the lesser evil”. War is evil. But where there is a greater evil, it is sometimes the only path. I accept that as a principle, even though I believe that killing is a sin. If I kill someone who would otherwise kill my children, then there is a simple moral logic to that.

The danger with extending that simple "him or me" philosophy to broader conflict is that often the "or me" part is not a certainty. For instance, the reasons for the invasion of Iraq by a Coalition of more than forty countries in 2003, are often over-simplified, but essentially use the "him or me" justification. To paraphrase the actual US justification for example: First, Saddam once had terrible weapons and used them. We don't know for sure if they're gone. Saddam hates us and our friends. He has to go, because we fear what he might do at some unspecified time in the future. Second, the US has just been attacked for the first time in centuries. We have been murdered in our own homeland, and we are frightened. Saddam is not Al Qaeda, but he has supported other terrorist groups elsewhere. And they both hate us. So what if he tries to get us by giving AQ these nasty weapons, if he still has them? And he might! Thirdly, Saddam once invaded Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. If he ever succeeded he'd control a third of the World's oil supply, and could hurt us with it. That would be bad. He can't be allowed to try that again...what if? What if!

I am not making a case for or against the invasion of Iraq here, but it’s a good example of how justification for war has come to look. In each case the "or me" side of the simple "him or me" philosophy is neither immediate nor certain. It is no longer "if I don't kill him he will kill my children". It is now "he is in my house, perhaps with a weapon; perhaps if I don't kill him he will kill us all". And that is a very different argument, if often persuasive still: To me it is no longer a simple moral equation. It is now a rational "estimation" of which is the greater or lesser evil. But where you are beginning to "estimate" a potential threat rather than respond to an imminent one, that simple moral equation is no longer valid, and therefore the case for war is no longer obviously moral.

But if war goes ahead, I think it is extremely important how it is fought. As a Muslim, I believe that wars of aggression are never justified, that suing for peace is always the best option if hostilities can cease, and on this specific point, that there are rules for how a war can be fought honourably. Islamic law on this subject has its roots in the unambiguous words of the divine revelation through the Holy Qur'An: It is illegal to kill women and children. It is illegal to destroy the environment, crops and means of sustenance. It is illegal to murder men of religion. And it is obligatory to seek peace at every opportunity. 

There are many different sets of rules that have been devised over time: The chivalrous traditions of mediaeval Europe, many of which continued in some form up until at least the 19th century. The Geneva Convention in the 20th century. National military doctrines, or even shared doctrines of groups of allies, like NATO. And finally, or I would hope in many cases foremost, there is personal morality. My personal morality on acceptable means of warfare, is in line with the rules laid down in the Holy Qur'An, paraphrased above. But that brings up two more important points about how wars are fought now:

There was once a time when to fight a war was a huge undertaking. Rulers would become indebted to other nations or to their elite classes, in order to finance a war. They would take months, even years, to prepare before even launching the campaign. And most of all, they would have to persuade men to fight. 

Modern wars still cost money - a lot - and perhaps leaders, or rather the state, still becomes indebted to its social elite in some way or another. But modern industrialised countries are often capable now of fighting a war without risking total economic collapse. And they also have comparatively vast standing armies of trained professional fighters, ready-equipped, available immediately, who have already sworn their allegiance to the Nation and to fight in whatever war their leaders demand of them. Going to war now for a leader is perhaps still not easy. But it is certainly easier. 

The Second World War was the last time the US was attacked on its own sovereign soil. The "Cold War" lasted decades, but no actual battles were fought between the two superpowers. Yet despite six decades without being under territorial threat, the US has during that time sent its forces into direct military operations on a dozen occasions. And of course, supported proxy wars numbering in the tens, through material and financial resources, and covert personnel. The US is a good example. It is by no means the only one: The Soviet Union (and later Russian Federation), the United Kingdom, and France, have similar distinctions.

Countries now feel able to launch war based on an "estimated" threat, and without immediate or even potential threat to their own sovereign territory. War is far more often fought now over a potential threat to perceived interests, rather than through fear of invasion, let alone an actual threat that the homeland will be lost. 

My second point about modern wars is of course the means used to fight them. Underhand tactics, assassinations, political intrigue, and even human rights abuses against civilians, are as old as war itself. But what makes modern war so very different - and perhaps even contributes to why it has become "easier", is the availability of modern weapons. Nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological weapons are obvious examples. But even in WWII when the first large scale bombing raids took place, or back in the late Middle Ages when artillery and even firearms were first used, the morality of war took a whole new dimension: How can one choose whether or not to kill civilians, when dropping a 1000lb bomb in a crowded area? Or fighting street to street in a city even with just "small arms"?

Modern warfare is unable, or unwilling, to make the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. For all the political rhetoric about "taking every care to minimise civilian casualties", the dehumanising term "collateral damage" has now become an accepted reality of war for most countries (and even terrorist groups). Dropping a massive explosion into a city will kill non-combatants. Firing a modern (I say modern, any time from 1950s onwards fits) high velocity automatic rifle, whether it's made by Armalite or Kalashnikov, will eventually catch an innocent in the crossfire. 

It is not only what we now call "weapons of mass destruction" that have outgrown any idea of morality in war. A man, woman or child hit with a rifle shot from an AK-47, will die, or almost as often, lose a limb. When we talk about a "lesser evil", it seems to me that the "lesser" is not analysed in any great depth. To do so in any moral way would be to set an equal value on life, regardless of whose, and rank all civilian life above that of any soldier, sailor, airman, or piece of machinery - simply because the latter have chosen to fight and die. When a choice is made to drop a bomb in a city to kill "the bad guy", and allow perhaps a few, even tens, scores of innocents to be killed, that moral line has been crossed: If the choice is risking the lives of fifty daring soldiers to seek out and fight the "bad guy", or to risk - no, not risk, sacrifice, because there is no doubt it will happen - the lives of innocents by dropping a bomb, then surely any "honourable", "noble" or "brave" military establishment would always choose the former?

For me, yes it would have been better to see hundreds of thousands more soldiers killed in WWII than to annihilate the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs, or to burn and suffocate the people of Dresden in the "Thousand Bomber Raids". Politicians, generals, even ordinary patriotic people who just want to see "the good guys" come through, often talk about honour and righteousness in war, despite its terrible sacrifices. But when those sacrifices are no longer those of the brave soldier, when they are of the unwitting and terrified civilian, honour and righteousness are gone. That is why I believe that in the age of modern weapons and pre-emptive (speculative?) aggression, war itself is always the greater evil.