Opening debate remarks at the University of Pennsylvania on September 21, 2017, on the following proposition: “Are America’s wars in Syria and Afghanistan just and necessary or have we lost our way in the use of military force, including drone weaponry, in conducting US foreign policy?”
Wow, I’ve already gotten more applause than Trump got for his whole speech at the UN.
U.S. wars and bombings in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines, and threats to North Korea are unjust, unnecessary, immoral, illegal, extremely costly in several ways, and counterproductive on their own terms.
The idea of a just war comes down to us over some 1600 years from people whose worldview we share in almost no other way. Just war criteria come in three types: non-empirical, impossible, and amoral.
The Non-Empirical Criteria: A just war is supposed to have the right intention, a just cause, and proportionality. But these are devices of rhetoric. When your government says bombing a building where ISIS stashes money justifies killing up to 50 people, there’s no agreed upon, empirical means to reply No, only 49, or only 6, or up to 4,097 people can be justly killed. Identifying a government’s intention is far from simple, and attaching a just cause like ending slavery to a war doesn’t make that cause inherent to that war. Slavery can be ended in many ways, while no war has ever been fought for a single reason. If Myanmar had more oil we’d be hearing about genocide prevention as a just cause for invading, and no doubt worsening, the crisis.
The Impossible Criteria: A just war is supposed to be a last resort, have a reasonable prospect of success, keep noncombatants immune from attack, respect enemy soldiers as human beings, and treat prisoners of war as noncombatants. None of these things are even possible. To call something a “last resort” is in reality merely to claim it is the best idea you have, not the only idea you have. There are always other ideas that anyone can think of. Every time we urgently need to bomb Iran or we’re all going to die, and we don’t, and we don’t, the urgency of the next demand to bomb Iran loses a bit of its shine and the infinite options of other things to do become a little easier to see. If war really were the only idea you had, you wouldn’t be debating ethics, you’d be running for Congress.
What about respecting a person while trying to kill her or him? There are lots of ways to respect a person, but none of them can exist simultaneously with trying to kill that person. Remember that Just War theory began with people who believed killing someone was doing them a favor. Noncombatants are the majority of casualties in modern wars, so they cannot be kept safe, but they are not locked in cages, so prisoners cannot be treated like noncombatants while imprisoned.
The Amoral Criteria: Just wars are supposed to be publicly declared and waged by legitimate and competent authorities. These are not moral concerns. Even in a world where we had legitimate and competent authorities, they wouldn’t make a war any more or less just.
Now, we can examine any number of specific wars, and with most of them in a matter of minutes arrive at the conclusion that, well, this war isn’t just but some other war could be. The Afghan government was willing to turn Osama bin Laden over to a third country to be put on trial. The U.S. preferred a war. Most people in Afghanistan not only hadn’t had anything to do with 9/11 but still haven’t heard of it to this day. If planning 9/11 in Afghanistan was grounds for 16 years of destroying Afghanistan, why not even a little bombing of Europe? Why no bombing of Florida? Or of that hotel in Maryland near the NSA? There’s a popular myth that the UN authorized attacking Afghanistan. It didn’t. After 16 years of killing and torturing and destroying, Afghanistan is poorer and more violent, and the United States more hated.
Syria was on a list of governments to be overthrown by the U.S. for many years, and the U.S. working on that for the past decade. ISIS came out of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, which (along with wars on Yemen and Syria, and with many parties to blame) has to rank high on a list of crimes this century. ISIS allowed the U.S. to escalate its role in Syria, but on both sides of the same war. We’ve had Pentagon trained and armed troops fighting those trained and armed by the CIA. We’ve read in the New York Times that the Israeli government prefers neither side win. We’ve watched the U.S. reject numerous peace efforts over the years, preferring war. And beyond killing, injury, destruction, starvation, and disease epidemics what is there to show for it?
North Korea was willing to make agreements and abide by them 20 years ago, and, contrary to some U.S. reporting, is open to negotiations now. The people of South Korea are eager for the United States to agree to talks. One man burned himself to death on Tuesday in opposition to more U.S. weapons in South Korea. But the U.S. government has declared diplomacy impossible in order to threaten its preferred “last resort.” Trump told the UN on Tuesday that if North Korea misbehaved, “We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” — not just war but the total destruction of 25 million people. John McCain’s preferred word is “extermination.” Within 60 seconds, Trump went on to demand action against Iran on the grounds that Iran supposedly openly threatens mass murder.
Some wars won’t fit into these opening remarks. I’d like to be permitted at least 5 whole minutes on Rwanda, 10 on the American Revolution or Civil War, and 30 on World War II, which — in fairness — you have probably all consumed thousands of hours of propaganda on. Or, even better for us all, I could shut up and you could just read my books.
But once you’ve agreed that a lot of the wars are not just, once you know enough about how wars are carefully started and peace avoided at great effort so that you can laugh or perhaps cry at Ken Burns’ claim that what the Vietnamese call the American War was begun in “good faith,” it becomes harder to claim that any of the other wars are just, even the ones you start out thinking of that way. Here’s why.
War is an institution, the biggest, most costly one around. The U.S. puts about $1 trillion a year into war, roughly equal to the rest of the world combined — and most of the rest of the world is U.S. allies and weapons customers that the U.S. actively lobbies to spend more. Tens of billions could end starvation, the lack of clean water, or various diseases globally. Just the amount that Congress has just increased military spending this week could solve such global crises AND, as a bonus, make college free in the United States. Hundreds of billions could give us a fighting chance against climate change if redirected. The top way in which war kills is by diverting resources. War (and I use the term as shorthand for war and war preparations, with the latter being the most costly in many ways) is the biggest destroyer of the natural environment, the biggest cause of militarized police and eroded rights, a major generator of bigotry and justification for authoritarian and secret government. And with war spending come all the unjust wars.
So a just war, to justify the existence of the institution of war, would have to outweigh the damage of the diversion of resources away from good works, the further financial costs of lost opportunities, the trillions of dollars in property destruction resulting from wars, the unjustness of the unjust wars, the risk of nuclear apocalypse, the environmental damage, the governmental damage, and the societal damage of war culture. No war can be that just, certainly not wars fought by the war giant of the world. The United States could start a reverse arms race quite easily. By steps we could move toward a world in which people found it easier to recognize the meaning of nonviolent successes. The meaning of those successes is this: you do not need war to defend yourself. You can use the tools of nonviolent resistance, noncooperation, moral and economic and diplomatic and judicial and communication powers.
But the belief that you do need war, and that attacking oil-rich countries has something to do with protecting people goes a long way toward endangering you instead. Gallup polling finds the U.S. government believed by majorities around the world to be the top threat to peace on earth. For another country, let’s say Canada, to generate anti-Canadian terrorist networks on a U.S. scale, it would have to bomb and kill and occupy a lot of people. But once it did, the payoff would be huge, because it could point to those enemies of Canada as justification for more and bigger weapons and campaigns to generate yet more enemies, and so on. Those enemies would be real, and their actions really immoral, but keeping the vicious cycle spinning at a proper speed would depend on exaggerating their threat dramatically.
If the U.S. were to join international treaties, engage in disarmament, provide aid on a fraction of the scale at which it provides war making, and pursue diplomatic paths toward peace, the world would not be paradise tomorrow, but our speed toward the edge of the approaching cliff would slow considerably.
One of the many significant ways in which war hurts us is by hurting the rule of law. It is a carefully kept secret, but the world banned all war in 1928 in a treaty that was used to prosecute the losers of World War II and which is still on the books. The Kellogg-Briand Pact, as recently documented by Scott Shapiro and Oona Hathaway, transformed the world. War was legal in 1927. Both sides of a war were legal. Atrocities committed during wars were almost always legal. The conquest of territory was legal. Burning and looting and pillaging were legal. War was, in fact, not just legal; it was itself understood to be law enforcement. War could be used to attempt to right any perceived injustice. The seizing of other nations as colonies was legal. The motivation for colonies to try to free themselves was weak because they were likely to be seized by some other nation if they broke free from their current oppressor. The vast majority of conquests since 1928 have been undone based on 1928 boundaries. New smaller nations unafraid of conquest have multiplied. The UN Charter of 1945 re-legalized war if it was labeled defensive or UN-authorized. Current U.S. wars are not UN-authorized, and if any wars are not defensive then wars on impoverished small countries halfway around the globe must be in that category.
But, since 1945, war has generally been considered illegal unless the United States does it. Since World War II, during what many U.S. academics call an unprecedented golden age of peace, the United States military has killed some 20 million people, overthrown at least 36 governments, interfered in at least 82 foreign elections, attempted to assassinate over 50 foreign leaders, and dropped bombs on people in over 30 countries. With U.S. troops in 175 nations according to U.S. sports announcers, the U.S. president went to the UN on Tuesday and demanded respect for sovereign nations, blamed the UN for not achieving peace, threatened war in violation of the UN Charter, and mocked the UN for putting Saudi Arabia on its human rights council while clearly quite proud of the U.S. role in helping Saudi Arabia kill huge numbers of people in Yemen. Last year a debate moderator asked U.S. presidential candidates if they’d be willing to kill hundreds and thousands of innocent children as part of their basic duties. Other countries don’t ask that question and would be demonized if they did. So, we have a problem of double-standards, exactly what Robert Jackson claimed at Nuremberg would not be so.
No Congress or president has any power to make any war legal. A single nuclear bomb could kill us all through its climate impact, completely regardless of whether Congress authorizes it. U.S. wars violate the Peace Pact of 1928, the UN Charter, and the U.S. Constitution. A vague Authorization to Use Military Force also violates the Constitution. Yet when members of the House this year tried to vote un repealing an AUMF, the so-called leadership did not allow a vote. When the Senate held such a vote, just over a third of the Senate voted to repeal, and most of them because they wanted to create a new AUMF instead.
I haven’t said a lot about drones, because I think the essential problem of sanctioning murder is not a problem of technology. But what drones, and other technologies do, is make murder easier, easier to do in secret, easier to do quickly, easier to do in more locations. The pretense of President Obama and of military-backed propaganda films like Eye in the Sky that drones are only used to kill those who cannot be captured, those who are guilty of some kind of crime, those who are immediate threats to the US of A, those who can be killed with no risk of killing anyone else in the process — that’s all a demonstrable pack of lies. Most people targeted are not even identified by name, none of them have been charged with a crime, in no known case could they demonstrably not be captured, in many cases they could simply have been arrested quite easily, innocents have been slaughtered by the thousands, even Hollywood could not concoct a fictional immediate threat to the United States, and the drone wars are the height of counterproductive blowback creation. One does not hear Obama praising his successful drone war on Yemen very much these days.
But if we’re not going to pick men, women, and children on Tuesdays to murder with missiles from drones then what should we do instead?
NOT pick men, women, and children on Tuesdays to murder with missiles from drones.
Also, join and support international conventions on human rights, children’s rights, weapons bans, the new treaty banning the possession of nukes (only one nation that has nukes voted to start that treaty process, but you wouldn’t believe me if I named it), join the International Criminal Court, stop selling weapons to future enemies, stop selling weapons to dictatorships, stop giving weapons away, stop buying weapons that have no defensive purpose, transition to a more prosperous peaceful economy.
Examples of more peaceful approaches can be found everywhere, including in Pennsylvania. A friend of mine, John Reuwer, points to Pennsylvania as a model for others. Why? Because from 1683 to 1755 Pennsylvania’s European settlers had no major wars with the native nations, in stark contrasts with other British colonies. Pennsylvania had slavery, it had capital and other horrific punishments, it had individual violence. But it chose not to use war, not to take land without what was supposed to be just compensation, and not to push alcohol on the native people in the way that opium was later pushed on China and guns and planes are now pushed on nasty despots. In 1710, the Tuscaroras from North Carolina sent messengers to Pennsylvania asking for permission to settle there. All the money that would have been used for militias, forts, and armaments was available, for better or worse, to build Philadelphia (remember what its name means) and develop the colony. The colony had 4,000 people within 3 years, and by 1776 Philadelphia surpassed Boston and New York in size. So while the superpowers of the day were battling for control of the continent, one group of people rejected the idea that war is necessary, and prospered more rapidly than any of their neighbors who insisted it was.
Now, after 230 years of almost uninterrupted war making, and the establishment of the most expensive and widespread military ever seen, Trump tells the UN that the U.S. Constitution deserves credit for the creation of peace. Maybe if they’d let the Quakers write the thing that would have actually been true.