07 November 2011

On War and Morality

When Bush and Blair collaborated to invade Iraq they may both have been convinced that it was the right thing to do both morally and legally. The concept of a ‘just war’ is very old and can be traced back even before the likes of Aquinas and Grotius. Still, there are millions of people who differ and think that their action was neither moral nor legal. Clearly the legality was questionable and some would argue that both the legality and the morality were shoe-horned into place to justify the action that had already been agreed.

We don’t seem to have moved on all that much in our understanding of either the legality or the morality of war, (except perhaps in the formulation of international treaties, charters and conventions and the refinement of customary law between nations), and given the way war has changed in both practice and reason, it is perhaps time we tried to make things clearer.

It would help because to be asked to leave your home, travel to some distant land and be required to kill people is neither a trivial thing to do, nor to ask of someone. If you wanted me to do such a thing, I would want to question you very closely on your reasons and motives for asking it of me, even if I was in the armed services and you were a commander tasked, with handing out the orders.

In the case of Iraq, the reasons, the motives, the justifications, seemed to be a movable feast: a spectrum of imminent threat to us from WMD; Iraq’s possible connection with terrorist outfits like al-Qaida; getting rid of a brutal dictator who, when he wasn’t gassing his own people, was ruthlessly oppressing them. It depended when and of whom you asked the question. It all sounds as cobbled together as was the intelligence that supported the action. Why was that?

One answer seems to be that it all came about as a consequence of 9/11. After that, the concept of pre-emptive or preventative war moved much higher up the political agenda but without a corresponding refinement of either the legal framework or the moral considerations which frame such actions. It might be time to update both, but how?

The justification for both pre-emptive and preventative war seems to rely on a couple of premises: that the intelligence provided is accurate, reliable and complete and that the outcome is achievable and worth the expenditure of life, money and material it will entail. In the case of the Iraq war, both of these premises seem to me to be entirely questionable. One of the difficulties is that wars in olden times look to be much simpler, transparent and base in their motivations, though no less horrific for that; while modern war, seeming as it appears to be moving more towards more pre-emptive or preventive strategies, looks to be not only more complex, but also seems to go very much against notions of what a just war is.

Of current concern is the widely reported and disturbing news that Israel is seriously considering a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities near Tehran in the conviction that such facilities are for anything but civil and peaceful purposes. That may be so, I don’t know, but if they do strike, it takes us yet further down the road of normalising pre-emptive strike strategies setting yet another precedent that such actions are permissible.

Israel has form in this regard both with its preventative strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in June ’81 and, arguably, with its pre-emptive strike in the ’67 Arab-Israeli war. Preventative in the first instance because there was no immediate threat to Israeli security and pre-emptive in the second because seven infantry divisions, several hundred tanks and jet fighters clustered on your border, coupled with Egyptian pacts with neighbouring Arab states to lend military support if required, could be construed to be a tad threatening. In the first instance the UN Security Council condemned the raid while in the second, they mounted no objection.

It could be that Iran is attempting to produce a nuclear weapon. It is conceivable that they are just crazy enough to use it against Israel. It could be, indeed, seems likely, that Israel will strike pre-emptively to prevent this. What is as difficult as figuring out the legality and morality of such action, is working out the second and third order consequences for the Middle East and the rest of the world.

War is always terrible, if not always immoral. If we are asking our young people to kill and be killed in our name, we should, at very least, be clear about the moral and legal frameworks we use to justify such action. It seems self evident to me that we are not.

No comments: