While reading news online recently, I came across an article that detailed a very troubling statistic: in war, approximately 90% of all deaths are civilian casualties. In other words, for every 10 people that die because of war, 9 are innocent victims. The case against war is very simple: it kills the innocent.
As an aside, can you guess which country is the biggest contributor to civilian deaths because of war? The United States. In fact, from the end of World War II to 2001, there have been 248 armed conflicts across the globe. Of those, the United States started 201 of them. This helps explain why the United States is responsible for over 40% of the world’s total military spending, and in 2011, we spent more on defense than the next 13 nations combined.
War will never be a good thing, and there will always be unintended consequences, fallout, and blowback. Yet in a very small way, war is a necessary evil.
A brief case for war: In a perfect world, war would be unnecessary, but we live in an imperfect world, where war should be used as a last resort, but not to be regarded as totally abhorrent. War can be justified in certain senses and, in fact, is most effective when there is a specific moral reasoning behind the use of force. If war were dismissed as an abomination (pacifism), this would simply create an unstable equilibrium where the aggressors wait their turn to crush and gobble up all those nations who thought their “moral high ground” would buy themselves favor with nations who have no morals. Even the most highly moral of us must face the reality of human nature—weakness invites aggression, and only the most disciplined of us can resist the temptation of aggressing upon those who are unable to fight back.
Moreover, one must also consider the even greater threat to the world at large if a vile regime or an immoral tyranny is allowed to march across the face of the earth and infect the world with its vile poison. Let us all not forget that Hitler was able to consume almost all of Europe by 1942 simply because other nations refused to recognize the writing on the wall. Accordingly, to assume that diplomacy can be the most effective resolve for all conflicts simply ignores humankind’s predilection to sin and thirst for power. To desire peace is admirable, but to desire peace absolutely is foolish.
As Hitler demonstrated in early World War II, on the heels of conflict, doing nothing will only add weight to the inertia of what already is.
The case against war: War is normally waged by those who stand to lose little from the conflict, and those who do stand to lose the greatest often play no role in waging war in the first place. As the numbers from the first paragraph indicate, armed conflict inevitably and overwhelmingly destroys innocent civilian life.
The problem with contemporary American exceptionalism is that it assumes our model for the rest (war with an ideological end) is what’s best for the world, even if they prefer what they’ve been doing. The whole idea of harmony entails finding a natural equilibrium of interests, not the superimposition of them. Additionally, although Americans tend to pride themselves on being the prime example of democracy, our version of democracy has become so riddled with hypocrisy, violations of constitutional principles, and contradictions that what we package and export as democracy is valid in name only. It’s impossible to export genuine ideology when the parties responsible for the ideology’s corruption are its manufacturers.
When a nation decides to use force for immoral or fallacious reasons, then coercion turns into a venomous disease that erodes the aggressor down to the core and robs the exerciser of all validity. Even more, when such a force is used against innocent people, they may be forced to follow in a physical sense, but such methods create a seed of discontent in the will of the afflicted, whose long-term destructive potential is far greater than any short-term gains. Loyalty, acceptance of ideology, cohesion, and a community can never be achieved by force—what can be achieved is to turn the target so far away from your viewpoint that the efforts at “victory” become the exact same means that plant the seeds of defeat. When rules and regulations are imposed, the lack of trust makes any attempt at legal reconciliation futile. Force cannot bring together better than real life.
When engaged in war, either faction will invariably end up violating moral standards, which nullifies any “just” reasoning they may have had in the first place. War itself is a state separated from normalcy, where soldiers are ordered to abandon their conscience and eliminate the enemy. (On the battlefield, shooting someone in the head may be easy, but certainly walking up to a stranger in the supermarket parking lot and pulling the trigger is a more challenging task.) To purposely kill another human being is psychologically tormenting, but to eliminate a decrepit scoundrel is a completely different story. The mechanization of warfare has heightened and accelerated this dynamic by removing the operators of “drones” or other such devices from the arena of combat and placing them thousands of miles away, separated both physically and mentally. After all, pulling a trigger and watching someone die is vastly different from pushing a button on a keypad. Target dehumanization relinquishes the aggressor of his conscience and any moral restraint that may have kept his actions along more just lines of behavior.
The “War on Terror” is a fitting example. The catastrophic events of 9/11 were horrendous. However, by now, have we not, as a nation, become the exact perpetrators of immorality and injustice that we, not long ago, so vigorously denounced? On 9/11, just under 3,000 people died (by no means a small number) on American soil, yet since then, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the war has resulted in approximately 162,000 civilian deaths of people indigenous to those countries. This figure does not include the more than 6,500 American forces that have died since 2001 or account for the $3.1 trillion in military and defense spending, a sum that will be paid for by taxpayers for years to come. At what point did we lose our moral right at retributive justice, and when will we realize that we have now become the monster we have been fighting to exterminate?
Furthermore, force, in and of itself, spawns anger, hatred, and therefore a right to retribution and violence within the targets of force, prompting them to aggression and destruction that would not have existed had war not been waged in the first place.
A practical problem in our current era is that even when using nonviolent means, this does, in fact, equate to covert violence (e.g., economic sanctions leading to monetary collapse and subsequent poverty), which ultimately does not give its user a higher moral standing than the one who used force overtly. Realistically, putting a gun to someone’s head and saying, “Give me your bread!” and then pulling the trigger is the same as preventing that person from buying any bread, leading to starvation and ultimately death—the latter is simply an act of “civil” diplomacy.
To live in harmony does not mean to live without conflict, for in any heterogeneous society, harmony simply equates to an equilibrium where conflict remains covert in a state of cease-fire. At some point or another, covert intentions will inevitably lead to overt actions. War is simply a means to restore the said cease-fire, with a bias for those lucky enough to end up on the winning team. That bias simply reshuffles the deck to set up the conditions for the next conflict.
In choosing war, we must always do so very carefully because, in an attempt to fend off the “terrorists,” “revolutionaries,” or “barbarians,” we must first recognize our own self-righteousness and the pervasive self-interest that infects all aspects of life and finds its most diabolical expression in the atrocities of state-sanctioned armed conflict. Terrorism may be evil, but so are the steps taken to rid the world of it.
C. H. E. Sadaphal