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Afghanistan: A ‘Just War?’

President Obama, in his address accepting his Nobel Peace Price, referred to the notion of ‘just war.’ Early in his remarks, he says:

The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence. Of course, we know that for most of history, this concept of “just war” was rarely observed. The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different G[-]d. Wars between armies gave way to wars between nations — total wars in which the distinction between combatant and civilian became blurred. And while it’s hard to conceive of a cause more just than the defeat of the Third Reich and the Axis powers, World War II was a conflict in which the total number of civilians who died exceeded the number of soldiers who perished.

Here he refers to basic principles, a checklist of sorts, that helps define what constitutes a ‘just war.’ As a country in the midst of two wars, the President makes no apologies for either the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, only states that one of them is drawing to a close. If a war is illegal, it follows naturally that the war is also unjust. One might conclude from statements Obama made during his campaign, that he would agree the Iraq war was not only ill advised, but illegal, and therefore unjust. As our nation’s focus has slowly shifted, since Obama took office, from Iraq back to Afghanistan, his administration has done nothing to punish, or even investigate, those responsible for the illegal war in Iraq.

The inference I draw from these statements is that he has concluded the war in Afghanistan is indeed a ‘just war,’ as America, along with other nations from around the world, are defending themselves from evil. It is in this context that Obama apologetically distances himself from previous Nobel Peace Prize winners like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.

It seems Obama is suggesting that neither King, nor Gandhi faced the world as it is, but rather lived and operated in some other, idealized world, separate from the one in which he and the rest of us live. It is, rather, their firm commitment to the principles of non-violence in ‘the world as it is’ that made them heroes worthy of the same price given to Obama. Instead of being a leader and champion of peace, he gives in to the popular, almost zealous notion that we must do whatever is necessary to eradicate terrorism from our world, an endeavor which is almost certainly doomed to fail. In my opinion, there is nothing peaceful, nor noble in that sort of mentality and simply paying lip service to those who have come before him does not absolve the President. As a leader of the American people and the free world and now recipient of this auspicious award, he should strive to be better.

In an article in the December 2001 issue of The Progressive magazine, historian Howard Zinn clarifies the difference between a ‘just cause,’ which Obama seems to be mistaking for a ‘just war.’

I believe that the progressive supporters of the war have confused a “just cause” with a “just war.” There are unjust causes, such as the attempt of the United States to establish its power in Vietnam, or to dominate Panama or Grenada, or to subvert the government of Nicaragua. And a cause may be just — getting North Korea to withdraw from South Korea, getting Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, or ending terrorism — but it does not follow that going to war on behalf of that cause, with the inevitable mayhem that follows, is just.

On this point, I agree with Zinn. I won’t deny the threat terrorism poses to America and the world. What’s more, I think a strong case can be made against the use of force to deal with terrorists generally and Al Qaeda specifically.

Let me back up a moment. While most people claim, as Obama does, that World War II was a ‘just war,’ he also concedes that more civilians than soldiers dies. In this instance also, there is no doubt that the cause was just, but how can such a war be just? I don’t think it’s hard to imagine the same is true for the war in Afghanistan. In fact, rough estimates for the total number of civilians killed in Afghanistan as a result of the war ranges anywhere from 9,260 to 12,057. And more than half of those deaths have been a direct result of U.S.-led military actions.

So, while Obama claims the righteousness of a ‘just war’ in defense of Americans, it would seem the consequence of civilian casualties is little more than an unfortunate cost of doing business.

The Bush Administration dismissed Al Qaeda’s motives as a hatred of freedom and the American way. I might have missed it, but I haven’t heard the current administration refute the previous administration, nor suggest their own thoughts for the root causes of terrorism, and I’d hope the current administration’s insight would be more… nuanced.

Could terrorist hatred for America be a result of our abysmal foreign policy and militarism around the world? Could it be our willingness to interfere in the affairs of sovereign nations as a matter of our own self-interest? These are questions that need to be seriously looked at, devoid of any nationalistic leanings.

Instead of trying to eradicate terrorism by force, a prospect I doubt will have much success, why don’t we try helping those countries build their own economies. Surely there are alternative methods of fighting terrorism that don’t involve killing people or blowing things up; let’s find a way to fight terrorism with a ‘carrot’ instead of a ‘stick.’

One suggestion might be, instead of sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, why not try sending 30,000 teachers, or doctors, or Peace Corp volunteers? For a man accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama seems all too eager to cast aside the notions of non-violence.

One reply on “Afghanistan: A ‘Just War?’”


I like a lot of this, particularly when you criticize Obama’s portrayal of Gandhi and King’s “idealism” as not being suited for dealing with “the world as it is.” Spot on!

I think I disagree with the reasoning about WWII. I LOVE pacifists. I agree with them 99 times out of a hundred. You point out a lot of civilians were killed in WWII, so maybe even though the cause may have been “just,” perhaps it was not a “just war”?

Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese militarists were determined to seize vast areas of land at gunpoint, at bayonetpoint. This was clear long before the US joined the war effort. Perhaps the people in Manchuria, Ethiopia, Holland, France, Poland, Russia and the Jews of occupied Europe could have practiced disciplined Satyagraha in resistance to the invaders?

I WISH that could have been true, but I think armed resistance was the proper response. Just focusing on Hitler: the Germans were determined to ruthlessly seize and clear vast tracts of Europe and were not going to allow trivial humanitarian appeals to derail their efforts. Fascism celebrates brutality and enslavement in an unashamed fashion.

Which does not mean I support all the actions taken by the US and its Allies in prosecuting that war. But WWII may have been justified according to the criteria of the “Just War Doctrine.”

With Afghanistan, you have a situation where the immediate cause of the war: safe harbor provided for Al Qaida by the Afghan government, may arguably be a legitimate “casus belli.” But that is merely ONE criterion for determining if it would be a “just war.” Most relevantly, there must be a reasonable expectation that use of warfare would likely lead to an improved situation. I do not think the US intervention satisfies that criterion, though it MAY have justified a quick, limited military attack upon Al Qaida training camps or leadership meetings, either to seize them for trial or as punitive attacks to deter future attacks upon Americans.

YMMV, of course.

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