Saturday, September 10, 2005

Why the War was Wrong, Part the Third

Raimond Gaita knows what absolute morality is, and appeals to the long tradition- quoting Socrates and St. Paul- that weighing the consequences of what we do yields only a partial moral understanding of it. He could use this to rigorously define, on the basis of this tradition, a coherent philosophy that it is better to suffer evil than inflict it, and condemn all war. However, he is wise enough to realise that one may inflict evil by inaction, as well as action. “Almost everyone now agrees that our failure to intervene militarily in Rwanda shamed us all.”

He says something that I think is very true: “Memory of the forsaken Tutsis has haunted argument about whether the the world should have intervened on behalf of Saddam’s victims” – I think this has been an important psychological factor certainly in US foreign policy, and I think the interventions in Yugoslavia and East Timor, for instance, would have been less likely to happen without the example of Rwanda. Gaita works hard to draw a clear distinction between the cases of Iraq and Rwanda:

“Sometimes an obligation falls upon any decent nation to attack another sovereign nation for the sake of those against whom the latter commits crimes against humanity. But no one can sanely believe that we are morally bound to attack every nation guilty of that crime, nor even every nation guilty of genocide as defined in the United Nations Convention of 1948. ... In the context of anything that looks like the present state of international relations, a (moral) obligation to go to war exists when our refusal to do so for the sake of the persecuted is rightly seen by them as abandonment- when, in other words, they can justifiably claim that our refusal has wronged them. Rwanda satisfies that criterion. Zimbabwe does not. Neither, I believe, did Iraq.”
“If we go to war not because we are obliged to but in order to bring about a humanitarian benefit- to save more lives, for example, than we estimate would be lost at our hands because we have intervened- then we must answer the question: “Who do we think we are- what do we think we are- to have taken this upon ourselves?” We must answer this question even if, as is hardly ever the case, we can have reasonable confidence in the consequences of our intervention. What kind of reply can we make to our victims, or to those who mourn them? That it is all for the best? That, all things considered, it is worth it?

Obligations can take the form of necessity. When we are lucidly obliged to go to war we can justifiably say that we will go because it is necessary, a necessity whose moral character is best (if clumsily) expressed with a double negative we could not not go. Then, I believe, the question,’ With what right have we taken this upon ourselves?’ falls away and with it the language of justification that is characteristic of replies to it. If we are necessitated, we do not have to look at the corpses on one side and the joyfully liberated on the other, or find that the words ‘it was worth it’ stick to our tongues.”

The problem with this attempt to draw a distinction is that it is too subjective to be useful. What is the touchstone for deciding whether the victims can ‘justifiably claim that our refusal has wronged them’? According to the absolute morality which Osama bin Laden lives by, Palestinian muslims can justifiably claim that the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia have wronged them by not driving the Jews into the sea: he gets quite irate about it. Lots of people agree with him. To my way of thinking, the aborted millions of the United States have a justifiable claim that the refusal of decent folk to rise up in arms against the culture of death has wronged them. What does Gaita suggest as an objective principle for differentiating a justifiable from an unjustifiable claim? I could find nothing.

I would argue that whenever it was possible for us to do something, and we didn’t, the victims of our inaction have a justifiable claim against us. Whenever it was possible for us to do something, and we did, the victims of our action likewise have a justifiable claim against us. Countless people will have justifiable claims against us at all times: there is no way we can ever be blameless. We have to balance these competing justifiable claims as best we can.

Gaita asks, ‘what do we think we are, to have taken this upon ourselves?’.

‘Eritis sicut deus, scientes bonum et malum.’

That is what we are. We are humans, with the knowledge of good and evil, and the question ‘by what right can we take this upon ourselves?’ will never magically fade away. There is no objective process of ‘necessitation’ that removes from us the evil we do. If we had invaded Rwanda, there would have been ‘collateral damage’; there would have been atrocities perpetrated in turn by the Tutsis on the Hutus that would not have happened if we had not invaded. We would have had to look at these things and accept the blame for them. Were we right to fight the Nazis? We were not obligated to, in the way the Poles were. We could not predict the consequences of our intervention in 1939 with any certainty whatsoever. Maybe things would have turned out better if we had let Hitler and Stalin keep Poland. We don’t know. I think we were right to fight the Nazis, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we ‘don’t have to look at the corpses on one side and the joyfully liberated on the other’. We have to look at Dresden and accept the blame for it. It is our duty as human beings.

Peter Coghlan (Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Australian Catholic University), takes up Gaita’s argument, and also has a go at drawing the distinction, in a way that I think is more fruitful:

‘Can we stand by and watch as the citizens of an entire nation are treated as raw material in an insane and fanatical drive to create a new form of society- indeed, in the perverted minds of the Khmer Rouge, a new form of human being? Can we stand by and watch evil on such a terrifying scale? ... In a case like this, the victims of such horrors cannot rightly say that we betrayed them by not intervening on their behalf. But they can justifiably say that we failed them- that we could have protected them when they had been driven by their persecutors to the very margins of human existence but did not. It is that just claim which may generate an obligation to go to war on their behalf. That obligation falls in the first instance on the community of nations in the UN. But if the UN fails in its duty, then the obligation falls on any group of nations, or any single nation, which has the capacity to gelp through armed intervention.
Yet there are surely limits to such claims and the obligations they generate. What of the people of the Ukraine in the period from 1932 to 1933 when Stalin deliberately engineered a famine to break their spirit- a famine which cost seven million lives? Assume that we had accurate information about the extent of the horror. Would the Ukrainians have had a just claim on us to wage war on their behalf?

I think the answern has to be no. The reason is clear. The west could not have intervened on behalf of the Ukrainians without precipitating a conflict with the Red Army; and the outcome of the conflict could not have been predicted. A defeat at the hands of the Red Army would have been a real possibility. Then we would have lost on both counts: our forces would have suffered terrible casualties and we would have failed the Ukrainians anyway.

So, here, the radical uncertainty that often attends on humanitarian military intervention does make a difference to our moral judgment. We might have had a reasonable hope of success in protecting the Cambodians had we chosen to invade that country during Pol Pot’s rule. But wehen we are faced with a major military power, our chances of success are obviously weakened. In the nuclear age, they may be weakened to the point where we cannot act without precipitating a conflagration involving the deaths of many millions. That is why, to return to two earlier cases, we would be justifed in refusing any cries for military intervention- cries made in the name of our common humanity- of the Chechens and Tibetans.’

I think there is a lot of truth in this argument. The interesting thing about it is that in clarifying what is meant by ‘necessitation’ it turns the idea of ‘necessitation’ on its head. We might be forced into war by an invasion by a massively superior force- in such a case, where we have no hope of success, it would be wrong to fight. But if we possess overwhelming force and can reduce the uncertainty attendant on humanitarian military intervention to near zero, then we ought to intervene...the more a war becomes a ‘war of choice’, by Coghlan’s argument, the more it is morally justifiable! Coghlan does not of course say this, and after conceding that Iraq’s military was obviously no threat to the US, he says there was no compelling obligation to go to war.

‘The stark truth is that there are many countries like Iraq, and many peoples who are living under oppression and persecution, terrorised and brutaslised by the apparatus of the police state- and subject every now and then to mass murder. Zimbabwe ... North Korea ... Burma ... Turkmenistan. The peoples of all these nations- and more- could aly claim in the name of our common humanity to our military intervention to come and liberate them. And, in every case except perhaps that of North Korea, we would have reasonable grounds for thinking that our intervention would be successful. ... And the international community simply does not have the resources to tackel all these cases. So deciding which cases demand an armed response is a matter of judgment. Typically that judgment is determined by other factors besides humanitarian concerns.’

Where there is a nasty regime that is down on its luck and has no power and no friends- and Iraq satisfies that criterion much more than the icky regimes of Zimbabwe (regional superpower South Africa = friend), or Burma (ASEAN = friend), or Turkmenistan (Russia = friend)- then it becomes a moral imperative to sink the boot in. Are you guys comfortable with this distinction? I’m not entirely sure that I am. But it is the only clear objective distinction between Rwanda 1994 and the Soviet Union 1932-1933. Coghlan recognises that Iraq was weak, but Coghlan has consciously or unconsciously shied away from the implications of his argument by his choice of dates: the more relevant example from Stalin’s era is really 1945-1946, when he continued to engage in practices just as hideous as 1932-1933, but was at the mercy of the world’s sole nuclear power.

An interesting corollary of Coghlan’s attempt to make a black/white distinction is the effect of public opinion- if your nation has the resources and political will to wage a humanitarian war, then claiming it is immoral and protesting against it may weaken the probability that the war will fulfill its humanitarian aims, and hence make it into an immoral war!

I concede the field to Socrates and St. Paul, and accept that the invasion of Iraq was wrong. Likewise, an invasion of Rwanda would have been wrong, the invasion of Cambodia was wrong, and the invasion of Germany was wrong. But then I think everything is wrong, in my lucid moments.

‘Why the War was More Wrong than the Other Possible Courses of Action in 2002-2003’ does not make a catchy title for a book, but that is really what the contributors to the volume are trying to say. Clearly the suffering and loss of human potential attendant on the invasion of Iraq was bad. Clearly we can imagine ‘less wrong’ courses of action practicable in 2002-2003. Thousands of miles away and years afterwards, we can all sit back and think of them.

However: the real question for citizens of countries like ours- not the country driving the policy, but the ones invited to contribute- is: ‘Of the choices available to our nation at this moment, which is the least wrong?’ There were only two reasonably coherent plans proposed at the time:

(1) Removing Saddam Hussein by force, or
(2) Maintaining the existing regime of sanctions and inspections.

We had to chose one of these, and in our small way, try to move it in a ‘less wrong’ direction. The Australian and British rules of engagement saved civilian lives. The war would have been more successful and less deadly to civilians with a larger Australian involvement. The war would have happened anyway, even if our Prime Minister had been a xenophobic bogan. What would we have achieved by opposing it?


Jenny said...

I really liked your thinking on this concept. I haven't done any real consideration of it yet, and I may not agree with it all when I have, but it was a point of view I have not seen previously in all the argument (at least not well analysed like this). So it was very thought provoking and made me wonder what the basic tennents of those who disagree with the war are, and how universally would they apply them?

On an almost unrelated note, I saw in the newspaper an article about an advisory board to the courts in the UK stating that parents who smack their children should be jailed and parents who smack their children in front of their siblings should be treated just the same as child abusers. In and of itself, this seemed a bit harsh to me, then the article continued to say that this was the same advisory board that two years ago said muggers should not be jailed for their crimes unless they had used weapons in their mugging or caused permanent harm to their victims. I thought the attitudes were a little if they'd added that muggers should be jailed if their victim was a child, it might be less so.

PS my blog is still anonymous enough not to get comments spam...heh

Jenny said...

OK - now I'm getting spam...famous last words. Where did you get the spam blocker from?

Marco said...

What a great analysis. I especially thought at the time that extra Aus involvement would have made the invasion work better for its goals. I don't know if the US establishment got the message that the rules of engagement, and the type of training given to the active soldiers needed broad re-thinking, but I hope so. I must apologise for little involvement in blogging, but ebay keeps beckoning for my spare time attention! I assume there is a blogger setting for the word verification spam-blocker?

Dr. Clam said...

I hassled Androo for years to try to get him to explain what the basic tenets leading him to disagree with the war were, without success... that was also why I read the book! I suspect the common denominator is pessimism about human nature, particularly the nature of the United State government: if you have the habit of thinking that the Unied States is incompetent and/or wicked, you will tend to oppose anything they propose.

Marco said...

There is also the gut feel, and the partisan rules of thumb, which most people I know put more faith into than calculated logic. Basically, the gut feel of people opposed to the war was quite clearly that things would turn out better for the world with the general ideas that the europeans had in mind, ie. continuing sanctions, empty threats etc. Also the belief that peaceful activism against war brings us closer to an ideal of "World peace" which is a widely held wish, however unlikely to result.

Marco said...

Don't think it's going to stop all spam.
Want to see the quality of Cueldee products - bid online for one of these Cueldee ebay offerings

Andrew Shellshear said...

"I hassled Androo for years to try to get him to explain what the basic tenets leading him to disagree with the war were, without success..."

You did not.

Marco said...

Ok, "We" hassled you, and we still haven't given up.

Dr. Clam said...

As I recall there was a metaphor about letting a friend walk into traffic for his own good, which I never understood, and then a retreat into sullen silence. Perhaps we have not 'hassled you for years' except in the laconic Australian way, see below, but we have on numerous occasions- both whenever you have appeared in our corners of the web, or when we wander over to yours to make nuisances of ourselves- prodded you to tell us what you think and why. This is because we want to know, not because we want to score political points.

Two drifters wander for years together along the dusty roads of outback Queensland (Editor's note: In a completely non homo-erotic way.). One day they pass a dead animal on the side of the road. An hour after they pass by, one says to the other: 'Dead horse.' After another hour, the second one says: 'Weren't a horse, was an ox.' No more is said, but the next morning the second drifter awakes to find that the first has taken off before dawn, leaving a note: 'Gone. Sick of all the arguin.'

Dr. Clam said...

Link to comment featuring me hassling Androo.