War with Iraq: Just Another Unjust War by James P. Sterba

Sterba, James, “War with Iraq: Just Another Unjust War,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 1991).

The U.S. led war against Iraq has resulted in a popular victory for President Bush and his administration. For many in the U.S., the President’s ability to cope with a myriad of social problems, such as a deepening budget crunch, trade deficits, a $3 trillion national debt, inadequate health care, drug problems, homelessness, deteriorating highways and bridges and a $500 billion savings and loan bailout, seems less important than his ability to triumph over the military forces of Saddam Hussein.

The morality of a war, however, is never determined by whether it produces victory or whether it distracts people from the social problems they face. The morality of the war against Iraq is determined by whether it satisfies the requirements of just war theory, specifically the requirement of just cause that nonbelligerent correctives must be neither hopeless nor too costly, and the requirement of just means that the harm resulting from the use of belligerent means must be neither directly inflicted on innocents nor disproportionate to the military objectives to be attained. Unfortunately, neither of these basic requirements of just war theory were met in the U.S. led war against Iraq.

First, going to war against Iraq was not the last resort because there was strong evidence that the economic sanctions would have worked. In a comparative study of 115 cases where economic sanctions were employed since the beginning of World War I, economic sanctions were effective 34% of the time. In the case of Iraq, the estimated cost of the economic sanctions was 48% of its gross national product, which was three times higher than the cost imposed on any country where sanctions had been successful. So the likelihood that economic sanctions would be successful in the case of Iraq was near 100% if the sanctions were kept in place for about a year. The results of this study were also clearly available to the Bush administration as they were reported in The New York Times two days before Desert Storm began.

Second, war with Iraq also violated the proportionality requirement of just means. Intelligence sources estimated that as many as 150,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed during the war, and the number of civilian deaths could equal that number. A recent United Nations survey of civilian damage caused by allied bombing of Iraq calls the results “near apocalyptic” and claims that the bombing has relegated Iraq to “a pre-industrial age,” warning that the nation could face “epidemic and famine if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met.”

During the war, we were shown precision attacks with smart bombs. But after the war was over, we were told that only 7% of the explosives dropped on Iraq and Kuwait were smart bombs and that 70% of the 88,500 tons of bombs dropped on Iraq and Kuwait actually missed their targets, thereby causing extensive collateral damage. There were also a number of opportunities during the war when military action could have been halted or slowed down to allow for a diplomatic solution to develop, which would have meant less damage and fewer casualties, but these opportunities were ignored in the rush to achieve a military victory.

But why do so many people approve of the U.S. led war against Iraq? Is it that they reject the moral requirements of just war theory? Not necessarily. First of all, it may be that they are simply misinformed about the likelihood that an economic blockade would have been successful, although the close vote in the U.S. Senate suggests that many U.S. political leaders were well aware of that likelihood.

Note also that those who favored staying with the economic blockade included such well known moderates and conservatives as Sam Nunn, Lloyd Bensen, Casper Weinberger, and two former Chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe and General David Jones. Secondly, so much attention was devoted to the limited damage and the small number of casualties suffered by the U.S. and its allies, that many people failed to appreciate the widespread damage and the large number of casualties suffered by Iraq.

But the proportionality requirements of both just cause and just means demand that we take both types of harm into account. Thirdly, once it appeared that the casualties to the U.S. and its allies could be minimized, many people were attracted to the idea of winning this war with Iraq as though it were like winning a game. After the debacle of Vietnam, many in the U.S. wanted to show the world that their military forces could be victorious again in a large scale war. All of these simply lost sight of the fact that the only justifiable goal of any war is peace with justice.

The irony of it all is that once the full costs of this war for the U.S. and its allies are known, it may turn out that even this war with Iraq, like so many other unjust wars in the past, has only losers.

University of Notre Dame

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