War : Is it ever justified?
I believe that one has the right to self defense and the defense of others peoples’ lives. But it is important to distinguish between violent aggression, self defense, and revenge or retaliation. Revenge is not self defense. Neither is attacking someone else before they can attack you. It is unfortunate that so many of our government leaders, (and those they govern), are unable to distinguish between these three uses of violence when deciding what is or is not justified, particularly when it comes to war.
War is one of the worst atrocities that humans inflict upon each other. War usually involves the killing of masses of innocent men, women and children who have no choice in the matter. The reasons and justifications given for war have been numerous over the centuries. Real reasons have usually centered on accumulating more land, other resources and power. In order to gain support of the masses of people from whom soldiers are taken, created and used, justifications are phrased as principals like “Freedom,” “Patriotism,” “Democracy,” “Liberty,” and sometimes, “Self-Defense.”
The selfish motivation for some wars have been very plain in cases such as European nations fighting each other over land and power during the middle-ages, or the Spanish-American war in which the U.S. fought to take Cuba and the Philippines from Spain to be colonies of the U.S. instead. These are just two of extremely numerous examples of wars fought rather blatantly for land and power.
Other wars have mixed and complicated motivations and/or have mixed consequences that cause people to have mixed feelings about whether or not those wars were “good” or at least justifiable, even necessary. In the U.S. the most obvious examples are the Civil War (and its impact on slavery in the U.S.) and World War II. (More on those examples after the next two paragraphs.)
In addition to questions of whether or not a war is truly one of self-defense or saving lives, other questions revolve around the issue of war. For example, there are some who feel that certain systems are so oppressive that they must be changed “by any means necessary,” and that “the ends justify the means.” This is debatable on three counts.
First, it is my contention that the means generally determine the ends. That is, violent
means of creating a new society generally give birth to a violent society. Peace is never attained at the point of a sword (or gun or bomb). Second, one needs to truly examine the actual “ends” before deciding if they were justified by the means. For example, if fighting a war to “save lives,” one might ask whether more lives are lost in the fight than would be lost without it? Third, there has been sorely inadequate discourse on alternate means of effecting desired or necessary changes. Not going to war does not have to be the equivalent of doing nothing. One can fight injustice and oppression, (if that is one’s true motivation,) in other ways than violence or war.
Let’s look at one of the more difficult examples; the U.S. Civil War. In the U.S., this war is seen by most as a “good” and necessary war, despite the fact that over 600,000 soldiers on both sides died in the four-year war. It seems justified as the means for the ending of slavery in the U.S. But was that the only way it could have been done?
First it is important to note that ending slavery was not the primary purpose for which war was declared. The war was declared because some southern states were starting to secede from the Union, and the government leaders felt it imperative to keep the Union (the U.S.) together and not lose any states. Slavery was an integral part of the conflict, but was not the immediate purpose or ultimate motivation for the war. However, the success of the Union did lead to the abolition of legal slavery in the U.S.
But was there any other way to accomplish the abolition of slavery? Could it have been achieved through economic sanctions such as boycotting rice, cotton and cotton-derived materials coming from slave plantations? Could the government have outlawed slavery and the recapture of slaves in northern states, and simultaneously funded and encouraged the work of the Underground Railroad? Could the government have funded and carried out a massive education campaign against slavery? Surely there are many other ideas I have not thought of that could have worked to end slavery without war. That slavery could be ended without war is evidenced in the fact that slavery was abolished all over the world, including in South America where race-based slavery supported economies as much as it did in the U.S., and yet in most places slavery was abolished without a civil war.
The other most philosophically challenging war was World War II. As with the Civil War, the U.S. involvement in WWII is generally seen as necessary for humanistic reasons; in this case to end Fascism and genocide. Once again, it is important to note that the U.S. did not enter the war out of a motivation to end Fascism or genocide. Understandable though, it entered the war when the Japanese military bombed a U.S. Naval Base in Hawaii killing 2000 soldiers and 400 civilians.
As noted above, many questions need to be explored. In this war over 2% of the world’s population, (over 60 Million people), died in World War II. This figure includes, (in addition to over 6 million Jews and others killed by Nazis in Germany and other parts of Europe), over 300,000 innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the U.S. dropped atom bombs on crowded cities, and over 9 million soldiers of the USSR, over 3 million soldiers of China, over 4 million soldiers of Germany, and millions of soldiers from all over the world who died in this war.
Was it worth 60 million lives? Is the world less savage and dangerous now than it was before that war? Were there better alternatives to stop Hitler and the Nazis without
increasing the bloodshed so dramatically?
What if the U.S. (and all the other countries to whom Germany offered Jews) would have welcomed in the Jewish population instead of turning its back and limiting their immigration? What if heavy economic sanctions were waged against Germany, Japan and Italy by all of the Allied nations? What if the U.S. and other Allied nations disallowed and prevented the selling/providing of arms and/or materials with which to create weaponry to the Axis nations? What if we get out of the munitions business altogether and outlawed the practice of manufacturing arms and selling them to the highest bidder?
In other words, what if we had enough dedication to peace and against war, that we actually brainstormed and tried every possible method to defending and protecting (and freeing) the innocent, without massive slaughter in the process (wherein anywhere from thousands to millions of these same innocents are killed)?
We will never know what other methods might have brought an end to the holocaust and to Nazi efforts to take over the world without such devastating slaughter of millions, because a concerted effort to find less violent means was never conducted by those who
were in a position to make such a difference.
But everyone is in a position to say or do something. Powerful leaders are influenced by the voices of a majority of their constituents. This was dramatically demonstrated in early September 2013, as the voices representing a majority of Americans quickly convinced American President Obama not to immediately pursue his announced plans to engage in military action in Syria. This was a rare occasion when anti-war sentiment arose so quickly after the announcement of war-plans, that (involvement in a) war was prevented (or at least stalled) before it even began.
It is very important that people understand that they do have an influential voice, especially in combination with others, but only if they are willing to use their voices to be
heard. It is very important that people be educated about the history of war and anti-war movements, the reasons behind wars and the reasons given, the issues to be explored and the many alternative actions to be considered. It is very important that people understand the difference between self-defense and revenge, military targets and civilian ones (such as Hiroshima), and that every human life is a precious thing no matter where they live.
It is for these reasons that I wrote this today in the hopes of contributing some small influence toward a someday more peaceful, healthy, loving world.