In light of rising antipathy to the war in Iraq, is it now appropriate to revisit the question of whether any war can be justified? That seems to be the question raised by Nicholson Baker in his new book “Human Smoke,” which seeks to reexamine whether World War II, our modern model of a “just war”, was “just” at all. While I have not read Nicholson Baker’s book, and will not cast judgment on whether Baker is qualified to examine WWII (recall that Nicholson Baker also wrote “Vox”, which detailed a phone sex conversation and will have its place in history as the book Monica Lewinsky gave Bill Clinton as a present), neither the particulars of “Human Smoke” nor of Nicholson Baker’s credibility are necessary for a discussion of the broader question presented by Baker (and, presumably, the pacifists for whom Baker purports to speak) - whether armed conflict is ever justified.
I need not list the countless scholars and experts who have determined that Adolf Hitler would not have yielded to pacifism. It is well documented that the “policy of appeasement” adopted by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French leaders prompted expansionism and further aggression on the part of Hitler, culminating in the Munich Agreement and its aftermath. Hitler could only have been stopped by force and it took four years and over 7 million German lives before Hitler’s passion for aggression was finally doused. World War II was a “just war”. The lives of countless Jewish people, together with the freedoms enjoyed by many in Europe, the United States and much of the rest of the world attest to that fact. So, historically at least, war can be justified.
Arguably, however, we live in a fundamentally different geopolitical system now and the level of interdependence in much of the global community is unprecedented in human history. Thus, the question remains - can war ever again be “justified”? If so, under what circumstances and to what extent? To put it another way, is the use of military force still a viable method by which nations can achieve political objectives (understanding that those objectives can encompass preserving a nation’s existence)?
I will look to the threat of terrorism to attempt an answer to that question. I note at the outset that I am not referring to the politicized “war on terror” that the Bush Administration has held over the collective head of the American people to justify the war in Iraq and to attempt to maintain us in a perpetual state of fear. Though there is no internationally agreed upon definition of terrorism, using the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as a benchmark, I would define terrorism as an act or campaign of violence by a foreign group or organization against or without regard for the civilian populace of a state, for the purpose of invoking fear and as a means of achieving a political objective. Terrorist organizations are generally sub-state actors that operate with the aid of and/or within the boundaries of a state (note that “state” is shorthand for “nation-state” or country).
Though I believe the use of military force as a means of responding to or preventing an act of terrorism is justified, the manifestations of terrorism, coupled with the structure of certain terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, create complexities that prevent a clear, universally applicable answer. If military force is to be employed at all, it must be a reaction to an act or threat of terrorism against a state or against its strategic interests. Before employing force, a state should have clear and convincing evidence of which terrorist organization is involved and where that organization is located. Further, a threat of terrorism must be imminent. Force should generally be employed as a last resort. Finally, military force is not an appropriate response to all acts or threats of terrorism and, though I am not yet prepared to discuss a threshold act or threat of terrorism that would justify reactive military force, I do believe that 9/11 represents a case where responsive military force is appropriate.
Conventional militaries have, since at least the First World War, been organized to respond to an act of aggression by a state, not by a sub-state group within a state. Moreover, conventional militaries are organized to battle clearly identified “enemy” militaries and to do so on fields of battle that are separated from population centers. Why, then, is military force justified against terrorist organizations? By definition, terrorist organizations are sub-state groups without clearly identifiable militaries that operate out of, and blend into, population centers. It would appear that conventional militaries are ill equipped to meet the threat posed by terrorist organizations and that the use of military force against them is, therefore, never justified.
That, however, is a simplistic and one-sided argument. It is also true that terrorist organizations can wield considerable political and “military” power and influence and that, because of the sophisticated weaponry and political power of some such groups, law enforcement agencies are also ill-equipped to respond to terrorist attacks. Moreover, militant Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda have cannibalized the Qur’an and manipulated its teachings to “justify” a terror campaign aimed at destroying or destabilizing the United States and its allies. This brand of terrorist considers it honorable - indeed worthy of a special reward in Heaven - to take his own life and to maximize civilian casualties in the process. Thus, just as the structure and locus of the terrorist group make it difficult to be met with military force, the ideology of the terrorist group make it difficult to be met with diplomatic pressure and deterrence.
We should not lay paralyzed in the face of such a threat simply because it is not neatly met by our present military structure; and it is not “unjust” for the United States or any other state to seek to defend itself against such a threat. If a terror group commits or threatens a terror act that threatens the existence or stability of a state, that state is justified in responding with military force aimed at eliminating or neutralizing the terror group.
Before military force can be successful, however, the state seeking to use force must have and maintain the trust, cooperation and participation of the government (to the extent not influenced by the terror group) and civilian population of the state(s) out of which a terrorist organization operates. Such state’s military must also have and maintain excellent intelligence regarding where the “bad guys” are in relation to civilians. Lastly, except in response to an act of aggression verifiably attributed to a terrorist organization, force must be a state’s last resort after all other options have been exhausted.
Thus, terrorism presents a threat that states, in some circumstances, are justified in using force to resist. Force, however, is not appropriate to meet all terrorist threats and I am not yet prepared to define a threshold terrorist act or threat below which military force is not justified. I am also not representing that terrorism represents the only threat that can be justly met by military force. Moreover, this analysis does not seek to examine the philosophical and moral questions surrounding the potential role of states in creating the socio-political inequities that might have contributed to the underpinnings of terrorist groups. However, notwithstanding the blame that some states might share in having brought about conditions that lead to the formation of terror groups, a nation should not abdicate its right to survive and its duty to protect its inhabitants simply because it made unwise policy decisions in the past. Every person, and by extension every state, has a right to defend him/her/itself against the threat of death or harm without regard to role that person may have had in creating the situation which lead to the threat. My discussion also does not encompass weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear or biological weapons, which I consider to be political, rather than military, weapons. Such weapons, particularly strategic nuclear weapons, have very little military value. Whether and under what circumstances the use or threat of use of such weapons could be justified may be the subject of a follow-up post.
In limited circumstances, at least, terrorism can be justly met with military force, which must be applied intelligently, effectively and efficiently, and generally as a last resort. Conventional military forces must be restructured to better meet the structure (or lack thereof) of terrorist organizations. I may revisit and expand upon this topic at a later date, but in the interim, I am excited to hear what you think. Let your thoughts flow!