Just War Theory & the Question of

COMPETENT AUTHORITY in a Representative Democracy

November 10, 2004

Comment #529

Contextual Note: In the recent election, about 20% of those leaving the polls said moral values determined their vote, and about 80% of those making that statement voted for the incumbent president. Yet when asked about the question of moral values, most of these respondents limited their responses to questions of religion, abortion, gay marriage, and the like. Intellectual integrity— lying, for example—was not a moral issue often mentioned, and Iraq, although an issue, was not discussed as a moral issue. Yet history shows that the questions of honor and integrity, of going to war, conducting war, and ending war are among the deepest of moral questions. Does their absence from the panoply of moral values suggest a hole in our moral outlook? Or are they merely settled questions?

The attached essay by Gary Wills (be advised: he is one of my favorite writers) is one of the best critiques of Just War theory I have ever read. And it ends on a surprising note, by emphasizing the moral question of competent authority in making a decision to go to war. Since the establishment of the primacy of the nation-state, this is a question that has been largely regarded as settled, yet Wills lays out a devastating argument, in a surprising and deeply disturbing way, for reconsidering it anew.

Long-time readers of the Comments will recall our frequent discussions of 4th Generation Warfare, where at least one of the belligerents is a non-state actor. The increasing incidents of 4GW reflect the wider ongoing breakdown in the primacy of the nation state as an organizing principle, particularly in less developed parts of the world. In a strange and unintended way, Wills' question of competent authority in decision to go war by supposed democracies may also be a reflection of this escalating breakdown.

I hope I am wrong. But I urge you study Will's argument critically; examine its premises and their linkages to conclusions, and judge for yourself whether or not he has put the question of competent authority on the table as an important moral issue facing all the citizens of United States.


What Is a Just War?

By Garry Wills

New York Review of Books, Volume 51, Number 18
November 18, 2004

Please read the complete review at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17560

Arguing About War by Michael Walzer
Yale University Press, 208 pp., $25.00

In war, the raping and robbing of civilians, the brutalizing and killing of prisoners, are not anomalies. War propaganda excites such extremes, with its emphasis on the vileness of the foe. That is why President Bush presents his war as a battle against evil itself. Hate is too valuable to be renounced. Often it is the only antidote to other emotions like cowardice or humanitarianism. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were, like Claude Rains in Casablanca, "shocked, shocked" at the idea that Americans could commit atrocities.

If war, once embarked on, will of itself drive toward extremes, overriding concern with justice, then the real use of just war theory must rest mainly on the decision whether to go to war in the first place.

While most war leaders ratchet up hatred, [Lincoln] tried to ratchet it down, in recognition of the evil being done on both sides. …" During the Vietnam War, Senator Mark Hatfield introduced a resolution calling on the nation to repent its own war crimes. He was attacked as unpatriotic, as treasonously giving aid and comfort to the enemy-till he revealed that he had been directly quoting Lincoln.

The way to repair that blunder was with sanctions, the no-fly zones, and demands for new inspections backed by force. This approach was working when inspectors were readmitted in 2002, and the combined pressures made it impossible for Saddam to deploy any threats he might have had in mind. Increased (though targeted) sanctions, and a no-fly zone over the entire country, combined with insistence that the inspections continue unimpeded, were obvious alternatives to the ultimate step of military attack. "For whether or not the inspectors find and destroy weapons of mass destruction (some of these are very easy to hide), they themselves are a barrier to any deployment of such weapons."

But members of the Bush team did not want to support inspections.

A more serious way of keeping citizens out of the decision process is the modern cult of secrecy. We must, we are told, trust our leaders to make decisions we are not qualified to evaluate. Lyndon Johnson said that if we knew what he did, we would approve his actions in Vietnam-but we could not know.

Anything that might be embarrassing to a president is now treated as a national security issue-weakening him, it is said, will hamper his dealings with foreign powers. Unless we treat him as infallible, foes will see him as powerless. Since democracy is impossible without accountability, and accountability is impossible if secrecy hides the acts to be held accountable, making a just war may become impossible for lack of a competent democratic authority to declare it.

----[end of Wills' essay]-------------

Chuck Spinney

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - James Madison, from a letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822

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