Lichtenbert, Robert, “The Injustice of the U.S. War Against Iraq,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 1991).
The U.S.-led war on Iraq raises many troubling questions. Chief among these is the moral question of whether this war was just or good. The moral dimension or ethics can alone answer this question from which all the other questions about it follow. In this article, I will apply this dimension, in the form of the conditions of a just war, to the U.S. war on Iraq. I will argue that this war was unjust because it did not meet any of the major conditions of a just war.
The notion of a just war comes from many sources such as Plato, the theory of natural law, the Catholic Church and international conferences, especially Geneva, on peace. Most of all the notion of a just war represents common sense. If there were no such thing as a just war, then any war would be just. This is insane in view of how many unjust or aggressive wars have been waged throughout history. In order for a war to be just, it must satisfy all of the conditions of a just war. In this article I will apply the four most important of these conditions from the moral viewpoint.
The first condition or principle of a just war is that it be a war of self-defense only. Military aggression or starting a war for territorial expansion is clearly immoral. Such wars have been frequent throughout history. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990 is a clear example of an unjust war. This is the strongest justification of the U.S. war on Iraq. President Bush repeatedly stated that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was an act of “naked aggression.” (The U.S. invasion of Panama on December 20, 1989, in which over 2,000 Panamanians were killed in order to seize Gen. Noreiga, can also be called “naked aggression,” but this is not the topic of this article.)
Although Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait definitely was not just, we are still left with the question of whether the U.S. counteraggression on January 16, 1991 was just. The U.S. was certainly not defending the lives of its own citizens–as surreptitiously claimed in the Panamanian invasion–or even its own land. The U.S. may claim that it was defending its “vital interests.” “Vital,” however, refers only to “life.” The U.S., therefore, was really defending its own economic interests, especially oil. However, this is the very justification that Japan gave after they attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
A just response to an unjust aggression requires that we stop it with the minimum violence needed to do the job. This was done shortly after Iraq’s invasion. A war is not required after an aggressor has been stopped.
The second condition of a just war is intentionality. This formidable word merely means that a just war is motivated by the intention of righting the wrong and restoring the peace. Intentionality means to seek harmony and common ground between disputing parties. It is based solely on concern for the people of a conquered territory.
Unjust intentionality consists of the intention to obtain power or gain for oneself. While the U.S. war on Iraq was stated by Bush to be for “the liberation of Kuwait,” it is very hard to understand how the purpose of this liberation was other than the desire to have military power over Iraq, especially by destroying its power to wage chemical and nuclear warfare (fears that were greatly distorted). The U.S., thus, was seeking power over the Arab world and over the price of oil. This use of power shows that the second condition of intentionality was not met.
The third condition of a just war is proportionality. This means that the good that a war does outweighs the evil. Deaths due to war can be justified only if they are less than what would have occurred without the war.
The U.S. war on Iraq may have saved the lives of many innocent citizens of Kuwait from the brutal invasion.and subsequent atrocities by Iraq. Clearly, many lives were taken in forcing the Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait to leave. Bombing these soldiers was very inhumane. Other great evils that resulted from this war include, among others,.the future hatred from the Arab world and the loss of archaeological treasures. The war cost the U.S. at least one billion dollars a day, but this is secondary morally to the loss of lives. The only good that can result is the restoration of a legitimate and less brutal dictatorship in Kuwait
The final moral condition of a just war is that it be a last resort. Hussein firmly refused to negotiate on this issue. The U.S., likewise, was not willing to negotiate on the Palestinian question. Bush seems to have waited only long enough to have his troops ready. Four months may look as if it were sufficiently long, but it is relatively brief in times of war, as a cursory look at history, especially the Vietnam peace talks, will reveal. Setting short limits, using name-calling epithets like “Hitler” and the “Great Satan” in public and military buildups all indicate escalation of hostilities rather than patiently working for a peaceful settlement. The condition of last resort means that all options other than war must be totally exhausted, not just tried half-heartedly.
Another option that was not exhausted was sanctions or an economic embargo against Iraq. Again, a cursory study of history reveals that these have worked, but they too require a long period of time.
To sum up, the U.S. war on Iraq fails in a major way all four of the main conditions of a just war. The strongest justification of the U.S. war was Iraq’s totally unjust aggression in Kuwait. Yet, the U.S. war cannot be justified as a war of self-defense of either our lives or country. The condition of intentionality was violated because U.S. intentions were clearly more to gain power for itself than to restore peace between Iraq and Kuwait. Almost incalculable are the huge number of deaths and the financial expenses to all involved, particularly for Iraqi non-combatants. Thus, the condition of proportionality of good over evil quite conspiciously was not met.. Finally, the condition of last resort was not satisfied because of the disregard for the amount of time needed for war negotiations and embargo to work. The U.S. war against Iraq, thus, was unjust on all four conditions.
Justice and morality played a very small role in the decisions that led to the bombing of Baghdad on January 16, 1991. The primary considerations seem to have been hatred, revenge and fear.
The start of the last decade of the twentieth century looked very promising as finally one of peace. Hopes of this have been tragically dashed already. The peace dividend will be spent many times over on swords and shields. When will we ever beat them into plowshares to feed the millions of hungry people on earth? Is the answer “blowing in the wind?” No, it rests only in taking goodness (or morality) and justice seriously. Only ethics and justice can answer the troubling questions which we constantly raise for ourselves. War is very rarely the correct answer.
An active pursuit of peace is the only way to live a good human life. Mostly we must try to love our enemies and resist any evil they do by active nonviolent resistence as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi–perhaps the only two thinkers who have made full sense of love–have taught us. When we learn this lesson, we may at last fulfill the prophetic concept of the destruction of all weapons as expressed by Micah: “nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:45). This is spiritual peace through true strength, rather than force which is based on fear. In this regard, the concept of a just war is a tool that can help us.
What we need most to unite all nations under peace is a creative vision of a just peace based on the strength, not of force, but of the constructive power of human thinking which is nurtured by funding education, not war or even defense. Only then will be get positive answers to the question of war that now trouble us.
Robert Lichtenbert is a professional philosopher who lives and teaches in the Chicago area.