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The purpose of war

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — breaking the grip of the war and peace, militant vs pacifist duality, with justice as the proposed “missing” third ingredient ]


The purpose of war is never peace in the beginning, or there’d be no need of it, no starting point.

Similarly, the purpose of war once initiated is generally peace, but with qualifications — peace that’s in the national interest first and foremost among them, especially if you’re willing to include “the Ummah” among the nations in making that statement.

But I keep getting the feeling there’s more that needs to be untangled. As my example of the Ummah shows — and Christendom or the Anglosphere would suit my point equally well — all manner of identifiers from the tribal to the global can be the ones in need of defense (or adduced in favor of aggressive attack).


Here, I want to zoom in and look for a global imperative that respects both Western and Islamic sensibilities, and is simple enough to make sense to me, sense of my own basic perplexity.

And I think I have it.

The purpose of war is justice, and the purpose of justice is peace.

That formulation doesn’t admit of wars of aggression — which at the simplistic level I am dealing at are inherently unjust (Jus ad bellum i: Just cause) — but it comprehends that wars (and we arrive on the scene in media res) lead to peace, but with an intervening caveat: with justice.

And it fits the explicit statement in the Qur’an, 2.190:

Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.

and also this very interesting verse, 57.25, which gives the other one context:

We have already sent Our messengers with clear evidences and sent down with them the Scripture and the balance that the people may maintain [their affairs] in justice. And We sent down iron, wherein is great military might and benefits for the people, and so that Allah may make evident those who support Him and His messengers unseen. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might.


I’m a simple soul, and no doubt these thoughts of mine have been preceded by others — some in agreement, some in opposition to my line of thinking. I’m naturally interested in your own views, and in those of earlier thinkers that you can quote to me either way — but I am posting this here, as my first post in the role of ZP’s managing editor, because I feel far too much thought goes into the dualism of war and peace — from Tolstoy‘s celebrated novel via George Orwell‘s War is Peace in 1984 to Strategic Air Command‘s Peace is our Profession

— when the simplest level at which we begin to understand its loops, recursions and possible exit signs requires a three-fold logic that includes justice along with war and peace on an equal footing.

Have at it, friends!

“We will start the war from right here.”

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

[collated by Lynn C. Rees]

My Fellow Americans,

Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our Allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.

And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:

Messy Wars, Navigating Wicked Problems, and the Soul of American Foreign Policy

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Michael Few is a retired military officer and former editor of the Small Wars Journal: we are honored to offer our readers this guest post by a good friend of this blog.

This fall, I’m hoping to begin teaching high school social studies as well as an elective on Global Issues or Wicked Problems (WPs). WPs are those messy, seemingly intractable problems that seem to evade solutions from conventional planning and decision making methods — terrorism, poverty, water rights, etc… These types of courses are already being taught in the school system where I live, and my hope is that I will be able to become a force multiplier given my experience and background.

Eventually, if this elective course takes off, then I would like the final project to be a collection of TEDx talks, where the students describe a problem, discuss past failed efforts to tame the problem, and offer coping strategies or new solutions.

As I am doing my initial reconnaissance of the student demographics, the first striking data point is their age. The incoming freshman class would have been born in 1998, and the senior class born in 1995. A second surprise that I received is the socio-ethnic backgrounds. Along with the expected mix of white, black and Hispanic children, my school district has a significant first generation Indian population, whose parents teach or work in the Research Triangle Park or surrounding universities. Moreover, there is a minority of Burmese refugees who have found a safe home after fleeing a repressive regime.

How do they see and understand the world?

The attacks of 9/11 were but a faint memory; the Cold War is ancient history. Their childhoods were formed with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the background, and their pop-culture heroes are Navy Seal Team Six and Call to Duty video games. Drone strikes and the intervention in Libya are normal for them.

It is the way things are. We fight terrorists in other countries in order to protect our way of life. But what is a terrorist or an insurgent? Is it simply someone that disagrees with you?

These students have much bigger problems to solve than simply pacifying villages in the remote areas of modernity. By 2040, when these students are in the prime of their lives, the world population is expected to be nearing nine billion with increased competition for basic resources as the world passes through peak oil and peak fresh water.

If the United States is to remain strong, then these children are our hope. They will be tasked with leading the nation, finding new solutions to coming crisis, and developing innovation in technology, science, governance, and medicine.

As I am developing my teaching philosophy, I am using the same process that served me well as a commander in the military. My purpose is to help develop, mentor, and coach: 1. leaders of character, 2.involved citizens in the nation who understand that rights must be complimented by responsibilities, and 3. the individual self-confidence to pursue a good life respecting themselves and others.

Initially, I want to challenge them to rethink what they’ve been taught or think they know. I want my students to think for themselves and determine what right should look like.

First, I began studying Reinhold Niebuhr. Now, I’m spending some time reading Saint Augustine’s “City of God” and rethinking Just War Theory. If we zoom up from just drone strikes and look at our continued military action across the globe, do we still have the moral high ground? I don’t know. As Saint Augustine wrote,

Whoever gives even moderate attention to human affairs and to our common nature, will recognize that if there is no man who does not wish to be joyful, neither is there anyone who does not wish to have peace. For even they who make war desire nothing but victory — desire, that is to say, to attain to peace with glory. For what else is victory than the conquest of those who resist us? And when this is done there is peace. It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged, even by those who take pleasure in exercising their warlike nature in command and battle. And hence it is obvious that peace is the end sought for by war.

When I quoted Saint Augustine in a comment here, Mark Safranski, the Zen of Zen, replied,

The high ground is in the eye of the beholder. Some people cheered 9/11, including a few American radicals. With multiple-audiences watching 24/7, some will disapprove of our merely existing and bitterly resent and deny the legitimacy of our fighting back because they prefer us defeated and dead. Other audiences are more fair-minded and these are a good barometer – if we are winning them over, securing their admiration and isolating our opponents, our moral behavior in the big picture is apt to be reasonably on track. If we are repelling them, isolating ourselves, driving others to the side of our enemies, then chances are fairly good that we are going astray.

Zen’s point is well-taken, but I disagree. Following a moral life is not based on how others feel about you. It is through living a life that subscribes to your believed philosophy, spiritual norms, and values and beliefs particularly when you have to make an unpopular decision.

John Arquilla, in his most recent “Cool War,” said it best,

’It is well that war is so terrible,’ Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said, ‘lest we should grow too fond of it.’ For him, and generations of military leaders before and since, the carnage and other costs of war have driven a sense of reluctance to start a conflict, or even to join one already in progress.

Caution about going to war has formed a central aspect of the American public character. George Washington worried about being drawn into foreign wars through what Thomas Jefferson later called ‘entangling alliances.’ John Quincy Adams admonished Americans not to ‘go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’ Their advice has generally been followed. Even when it came to helping thwart the adventurer-conquerors who started the twentieth century’s world wars, the United States stayed out of both from the outset, entering only when dragged into them.

Today, war has become too easy and not too terrible. With our global hegemony in military strength, we can force our will at any time and any place.

But, what is the right thing to do?

What is the moral high ground?

These are some of the questions that my students will eventually have to answer.

We do our job, He does His.

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — today’s NYT, just war, Brennan, Obama ]


Today’s New York Times piece by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will, refers to just war theory while comparing John Brennan, counterterrorism advisor to the President, not once but twice to a priest:

Beside the president at every step is his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who is variously compared by colleagues to a dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the president’s attempt to apply the “just war” theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict.

As regular readers here know, I can’t resist a hint of theology…


The President does in fact speak of “just war” in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease — the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.

And over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. 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 God. Wars between armies gave way to wars between nations — total wars in which the distinction between combatant and civilian became blurred.

That quote about “our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God” seems particularly poignant.


But let’s return to the priestcraft of John Brennan, as Harold Koh offers it to the NYT:

“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

That’s (arguably) good.


But then consider this observation from the same article:

… Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

On the face of it, John Brennan doesn’t seem to be guiding his pupil into the ways of “genuine moral rectitude” with great success, particularly regarding that bit about the just war requiring that “whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence”.


Perhaps, though, that’s okay. After all, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Cîteaux who led the siege of Béziers in which 20,000 heretics — heretics, mind you — were slaughtered, is reported to have said:

Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius

In plain English, that’s “Kill them! The Lord knows his own”.


A similar sentiment may be found in other theologies:

According to an old, old, so old it’s Archived piece in the Wall Street Journal written by Amir Taheri — whose reputation for accuracy in quotation has been questioned — the late Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali wrote a fatwa in which he said:

Among those we seize hostage or kill, some may be innocent. In that case, Allah will take them to his paradise. We do our job, He does His.

Which in turn gives me the title for this post.


But this isn’t only a Shi’ite opinion: in the same article, Taheri quotes the distinctly Sunni Abu Anas al-Shami, “the self-styled ‘mufti’ of al Qaeda”:

“There are times when Mujahedeen cannot waste time finding out who is who in the battlefield,” he wrote. “There are times when we have to assume that whoever is not on our side is the enemy.”

… which reminds me of another remark made by a recent US President …


… which in turn reminds me of the apparent paradox presented by Luke 11:23, “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth” — when set beside Luke 9:50, “And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us”.

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