5 Ways We Should Radically Reconsider War

Loving your country does not mean following its leaders’ orders no matter what they are.

Editor's note:The following is an excerpt from Richard Rubenstein's new book, Reasons To Kill: Why Americans Choose War, with the permission of Bloomsbury Press. The book will be available September 2010.

#1 Refuse to Accept the Normality of War

At the end of the nineteenth century, when the United States first became a global power, the arguments for occupying other nations or bringing them under our control featured assertions of moral and racial superiority -- an American version of Kipling’s “white man’s burden.” Later, most justifications for war were based on the need to defend cherished democratic values and institutions against Evil Enemies bent on world conquest. But America’s emergence as the world’s sole superpower has produced an additional rationale for intervention: our alleged right and duty to save a world of failed and failing states from political chaos and terrorism. As one conservative spokesman put it, “Like it or not, we are the sheriff of the world.”

Embraced by many liberals and centrists as well, this “law and order” rationale aims to legitimize the continuous military intervention represented by the War on Terrorism. Accepting it reduces publicity about specific conflicts, accustoms people to tolerate undeclared wars, and redefines “normal” military activity. At the same time, however, the expansion of what Dexter Filkins calls the “forever war” to new theaters generates objections both practical and moral, driving a majority of Americans to demand the early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and to oppose new military adventures of this sort in places like Yemen and Somalia.

In all this, one senses a growing understanding that the costs of empire far outweigh the benefits. To position the United States as a global sheriff or superhero actually incites further violence rather than deterring it. The technologically advanced superpower has all the weapons one can dream of, but its rebellious subjects even the score by combining fanatical determination with the ability to use simple weapons against overly complex systems. One might call this the imperial superpower’s “Kryptonite problem.” To overcome it requires taking off the hero’s costume and asking two Clark Kent-like questions:

· What about conflict resolution? Those who resort to violence generally do so because of unsolved problems and unfulfilled human needs, not just out of sheer fanaticism, malice, or power-lust. By giving up the struggle to maintain our superpower status -- an addiction all the more powerful for being largely unconscious -- we free ourselves to assist people to identify their problems and work them out in their own way.

· What about international or regional law enforcement? If conflict resolution doesn’t work, what the world requires is a legitimate source of coercion -- a lawful authority people can accept regardless of their socioeconomic status, political views, religion, or culture. This means new institutions, especially on the regional level, that can be designed and brought into existence relatively quickly, if only we permit people to organize and act free of our control.

# 2 Think Calmly And Strategically About Self-Defense

Almost a decade after the 9/11 attacks, American thinking on self-defense remains fixated on that great trauma. The consciousness that we were subjected to a totally unexpected, bloody assault, and that members of the same organization that attacked us are still at large, has given us the same mindset that afflicts people who have been in a disastrous and unexpected auto accident. For a while, at least, the driver that ran that stop sign and broadsided us becomes the “typical driver,” and ALL other drivers become sources of fear and loathing.

To us, the terrorists of al-Qaeda are still the “typical driver.” We tend to attribute their desire to harm the United States and its people to all other insurgent groups, even though, of all the groups on the State Department’s terrorist list, only a few have ever attacked Americans. Even where terrorists or insurgents do not attack our forces but only their own governments or members of rival groups, we say that “we” are under attack.

This confusion not only costs American lives and money but also operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy. For if we meddle in conflicts that have little to do with self-defense but much to do with exerting U.S. power abroad, groups that formerly had no interest in attacking us (like Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines or al-Shabaab in Somalia) suddenly find us in their crosshairs.

Each time that self-defense is proposed as a justification for war, there are four questions that need to be asked and answered fairly. Who and what, exactly, are we defending? Who and what, exactly, are we defending against? Is the chosen method of self-defense rational, in the sense that it works to make us safer? How long will it take -- and how much will it cost -- to produce that result?

These questions must be asked even when, as in the case of al-Qaeda and its allies, the answers seem obvious. Repeatedly, one hears U.S. government officials say, “We are at war. Terrorists are trying to kill us. We need to kill them first, not talk to them.” Common sense, right? No, not really. In violent conflicts, the enemy is always trying to kill you. Even under these conditions, there are times when warring parties decide to try to settle their conflict peacefully, either through negotiation (that is, bargaining) or conflict resolution (discovering and eliminating the conflict’s systemic causes). Many people believe that it is impossible to talk rationally or strategically with fanatics who believe that their violence fulfills the will of God. But there is a growing literature on the topic of dealing with terrorists, including those fighting under a religious banner, that suggests conditions under which talking may make very good sense.

My own view is that the United States ought not “negotiate” -- that is, bargain -- with al-Qaeda. We ought to engage in extensive conflict resolution processes with leading figures in the Islamic world, including militant Islamists, and invite al-Qaeda sympathizers to participate if they wish to do so. Thinking clearly about self-defense means discovering the best methods to provide Americans with long-term security. And long-term security depends on valued relationships, not weapons of war. The United States does not have to disarm to begin to resolve conflicts like this one, but if it does not begin to resolve them, all the weapons in the world will not provide the safety we seek.

#3 Ask hard questions about evil enemies and moral crusades

There is evil in the world, no doubt. But when officials ask us to kill other people and risk our own lives to combat some great evil, they often diabolize the adversary, and we begin to imagine the enemy leader or even a whole people as transcendentally Evil -- malicious, treacherous, power-mad, and cruel. Like the fallen angel, Lucifer, whom we picture as both super-human and super-bad, the Evil Enemy combines inhumanity with power: a frightening specter designed to rouse us to feats of heroic violence. Enemy images often represent a “shadow double” of ourselves -- a projection on some alien screen of characteristics we dislike and want to be rid of. Getting rid of these unworthy or shameful traits makes us feel purer and better -- the very opposite of the violent, fanatical, self-interested, and power-hungry Other. And so we feel equipped to engage in moral crusades, knowing that we will be able to act as altruists, not hedonists, liberators, not oppressors.

Because the Evil Enemy image is such strong medicine, hard questions ought to be asked as soon as it reappears. For example:

How is the word “evil” being used? Does it mean that the leader or group is diabolical in the sense of wanting to destroy everything good and decent? Does it refer to unusual ruthlessness or cruelty? To a desire to dominate a nation, a region, or the world? Or does it mainly indicate strong hostility towards the United States? (Defining evil does not mean giving up the right to use the word.)

Are there reasons other than evil character for this person or group to think and act this way? Can reasons be discovered in their own backgrounds or experiences? What about reasons rooted in the current situation, or in the behavior of other people, including Americans? (Discovering reasons will not excuse their actions.)

What are the possible responses to such a leader or group -- and which responses make most sense? Should we avoid talking with alleged enemies out of fear that negotiations or conflict resolution processes will compromise us and embolden them? Should we fight them -- and, if so, how can we assess the likely results of violent conflict? Is there some trusted third party who could help us resolve these issues? (Assessing alternative responses does not constitute inaction.)

#4. Analyze patriotic appeals. Resist campaigns of national purification.

Patriotism is not necessarily the last refuge of scoundrels, as Dr. Johnson quipped, but it is the ultimate argument for dubious wars. In its most primitive form, the catechism goes like this: Q: Do you love your country? A: Yes. Q: Are you willing to fight for it (or to send your family and friends to fight for it)? A: Yes.

We Americans are conditioned to slip quickly from the first Q and A to the second. The unspoken connective is: If you love your country, you will fight for it. But that is exactly the connection that needs to be proved in particular cases rather than asserted in general. Loving one’s country does not mean following its leaders’ orders no matter what they are. It certainly does not imply killing foreigners or putting American lives at risk on their command. To make that leap requires a different sort of catechism that ought to be administered to anyone advocating war.

Q: What do you mean by “love of country”? This is a multiple choice question. The answers might include: (a) affection for certain people and places; (b) admiration for certain political, economic, and moral principles; (c) attachment to certain traditions and cultural products; and (d) participation in certain forms of communal life. Some people may consider this list incomplete, on the ground that love of country involves something more general and absolute, like a sense of being part of an ineffable whole: “the mystical body of the Nation.” But loving one’s country does not mean admiring all of its people, places, principles, cultural products, or forms of communal life. In fact, the more one loves certain aspects of America, the more one detests others.

Q: Why, in this particular case, does loving the country require fighting for it?:

The justification for war must show a connection between some specific aspect of the nation and a credible threat to it. We should not commit mass violence in support of theories that do not clearly identify the “America” in danger and show how it is being threatened. The justification must also show that force is the only way or best way to remove the threat, and that peaceful methods of resolving the conflict have been seriously attempted and will not work.

Meeting these requirements is difficult, but not impossible when a war is actually justified. In any case, war advocates should bear a heavy burden of proof. Unlike most other political questions, questions of war or peace operate on the plane of absolutes. In a democracy, we can fix most of our mistakes by throwing the rascals out or changing policies, but we cannot resuscitate the war dead or cure those permanently maimed in body or in spirit. Therefore, we are not only entitled but also required to ask whether the sacrifices demanded by war advocates are absolutely necessary in pursuit of our security and integrity. If a positive answer is not clear and convincing -- as loud and clear as God’s voice was to Abraham, when he lifted his knife over his son, Isaac -- we should not shed blood, either ours or anyone else’s.

#5 Demand that war advocates disclose their interests.

We Americans are fairly hard-headed people, ordinarily. If someone asks us to donate money to help the poor people of a far off land, or even to support our local police force or fire fighters, we want to know how much of the donation actually goes to the advertised cause, and how much ends up in other people’s pockets. But if we are asked to give our sons and daughters or our sweethearts to fight on foreign soil, patriotic sentiment or some other inhibitor often stops us from asking similarly blunt questions. Who stands to gain from the war? How many military careers, civilian jobs, executive salaries, and stockholder dividends hang in the balance as we decide whether or not to fight?

There is another reason why many people may be reluctant to ask these questions. According to many experts, we have been practicing “military Keynesianism” for some time, using enormous military expenditures to supply needed economic demand to a system plagued by congenital overproduction. Can Americans stop fighting wars (and stop supplying the rest of the world with weapons) without jeopardizing their jobs and the health of their communities? We urgently need to confront this issue openly, since it is putting us in an impossible moral position. Shall we sacrifice people’s lives and health in wars of dubious value in order to keep the economy afloat? Surely, there are ways of reorganizing the economic system that would eliminate this dilemma, even if the current “masters of the universe” do not want to think about them.

The war system’s main response to these varied concerns has been breathtakingly simple: minimize American casualties. Official thinking appears to be that if the number of American battle deaths and serious injuries can be greatly lowered, the public will find much less cause to complain about endless war making. Two responses to this are worth keeping in mind:

First, U.S. military experience since the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 shows a significant decrease in American battlefield deaths, but horrifying increases in injuries generated by asymmetric warfare against groups wielding low-tech weapons, such as improvised explosive devices. Our VA hospitals are jammed with soldiers suffering the effects of severe head injuries, amputations, and post-traumatic stress -- and the suicide rate has shot through the roof.

Second, even if the number of US casualties could be lowered to zero, that would not secure our consent to the slaughter of foreigners in unjust wars. Those who believe that we would easily sacrifice other people’s lives in exchange for a guarantee of our own armed forces’ safety do not have a very high opinion of our moral character and beliefs. The idea that American lives are inherently more valuable than those of other people is not patriotism but a particularly vicious form of idolatry.

The current war system, with its pattern of continuous interventions in an ever-expanding zone of conflict, seems consciously or unconsciously designed to wean us from the habit of demanding justifications for specific wars. It is an act of faith, perhaps, to assert that Americans will remain unwilling to fight, except in a cause they are convinced is morally justified. Nevertheless, I will keep that faith, and invite you, dear reader, to keep it as well.

Richard Rubenstein is a Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University.
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