Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
On 16th February, it was widely reported that American and British planes had bombed a suburb of Baghdad, causing a number of civilian deaths. In our last issue we invited readers to say what they thought about the incident.
I BEGIN WITH some general observations. The reflective individual will be sensitive to the difficulty of enumerating facts upon which to adjudicate a dispute. Acute partialism may colour both the premises from which opponents reason and their reports about the legitimacy of using lethal force: the bias will typically have to be equal, after all, to whatever it takes for either side to claim that they are right and the other is wrong. Even a consequentialist will seek to justify the killing of one or more for the sake of preserving himself or those whom he chooses to identify with. In the face of morally vociferous conflicting reports, then, the reflective individual may resign himself to not making a decisive adjudication (where adjudication can but need not mean taking sides).
The bombing of Iraq by US and UK aircraft on 16 February 2001 was morally unjustified even on its own terms. Our adjudicator need not torment himself over the difficulty of correcting for unconscious or intentional partialism masquerading as objectivity on either side in this case. He need only assume that the bombers’ spokespersons would not knowingly – and did not – present their case less strongly than they could have. Neither Tony Blair nor George W Bush nor any of their military spokespersons or appointed political representatives claimed that the bombing was a direct response to a plane shot down in fact. No: the justification given by Mr Blair the following day was, “in order to reduce the chances of one of his missiles [Hussein’s] downing a British plane,” (my italics).
The justification given is consequential. Even were it reasonable (I doubt it) to expect Iraq not to defend its own air space, both sides would concur that no Iraqi missile had in fact hit a plane. The difference in the case of a bomb which fails to hit its target is that destruction and probable harm to individuals will be caused either way. To bomb was to substitute for the mere fear of harm to oneself or one’s agents the actual or at least greater probability of harm to, or killing of, one’s stated enemy. If the air strikes were not evil their rationalisation – as “self-defence” or “proportionate response” – occasioned misrepresentation as blatant as any in the history or rhetoric of war. If the action was not obscene its stated rationale would be a perfect example of political hot air.
Our spokespersons are in denial about – without explicitly denying – Iraqi reports that three are dead and twenty-five injured, all human beings.
Shahrar Ali is Assistant Director of the University of London
Philosophy Programme and Editor of Philosophy TODAY,
Newsletter of the Society for Applied Philosophy.
We need to define what we mean by bombing. Iraq is patrolled many times a day by allied aircraft. When illuminated by radar they fire at the source of the radar but at no time have they targetted civilian targets. The Iraqis have been putting ordnance of every kind into the air, and what goes up must come down. The most likely cause of casualties is antiaircraft shells falling down again. When we talk about bombing we need to be very careful as to what we mean. Iraq hasn’t been bombed in the normal sense of the word since the mid 1990’s. That is not to say aircraft have not fired at
Colonel Mike Dewar is a defence analyst.
A Just What?
In response to your invitation (Philosophy Now Issue31) I would like to suggest that the term ‘just war’ is something of an oxymoron. Any theory of ‘just war’ must necessarily reconcile two contradictory ideas: (i) that war can be justified only as a response to aggression; and (ii) that the immunity of the innocent (understood to mean civilians and noncombatants) be preserved.
To invoke the use of military power in order to contain a ruthless and aggressive dictator might, therefore, be considered justifiable, at least from the point of view of political expedience. The problem is that the deployment of force to such an end, however well-intentioned, has a potential to become the instrument of injustice.
The destructive power available to a modern military strikeforce is immense. Its effect can be devastating and indiscriminate. All too often an attack on a legitimate military target will incidentally punish those who are in an appropriate sense ‘innocent’. But as long as there are tyrants to be resisted there will be justifiable arguments in favour of opposing them and continued endorsement of the old cliché “war is a necessary evil”. In appropriate circumstances, ‘necessary’ and ‘justifiable’ may easily be reduced to a common standard of comparison. The concept of evil, however, will seldom be commensurate with any notion of ‘just’. That which is ‘justifiable’ in terms of acting from motives of policy does not always equate conveniently to that which is ‘just’ in terms of intruding beyond the boundaries of civilian immunity.
Let us continue to wage ‘justifiable’ wars against tyrannical dictators. But let us not, in whatever manner or degree, delude ourselves that such wars are discriminately ‘just’. Hilo Matthews, Lydney, Glos
An Iraqi Voice
I am writing in response to your request to the readers of Philosophy Now, regarding the subject of bombing Iraq.
First of all, I would like to introduce myself. I am a doctor from Iraq and lived 26 years of my 28 under Saddam’s regime. I will try to be as objective as possible.
It is beneficial to give a general account of the way Saddam Hussein achieved the number one position in Iraq, and of his ruling principles. When he first came to government, in a relatively bloodless revolution in 1968, all Iraqis knew that Saddam was the real leader in the country, though he was vice president, at the age of 31. During the next ten years, he used his command over the Army and the security forces to get rid of all ideological opposition. In 1979, he became the President of Iraq, beginning his era by eliminating any high-profile figure in Iraq, whether opposition, same side, or neutral. As a result of that bloodshed, Saddam reached the point where there was no one in the leadership picture apart from him. His ambition and obsession with power led him to develop a strategy to be the sole leader of the region, not only of Iraq. The strategy involved three elements: first building a ‘scientist bank’ that he can rely on to build his own arsenal, so nobody can dictate what he does. That involved sending Iraqis all over the globe to gain higher education, resulting in the creation of 16,000 Iraqi scientists (UN statistics) in the 80’s. I would like to add on this point that Saddam believes “it is easier to contain and control educated people than to control the noneducated.” Secondly, building a huge military arsenal that consumed about 90% of Iraq revenue each year during the 80’s. Thirdly, building a very complicated security system (consisting of a five circle structure) concerned with his personal safety first, and that of his inner circle, to make it almost impossible to get rid of him by any means.
On the basis of the above strategy, Saddam got Iraq into two major wars plus smaller-scale military operations against the Iraqi people. The personal ambition of this tyrant resulted in disastrous social, economic, political and military results for Iraq particularly as well as for the whole region.
From the western point of view, at first it was so delightful the profits they gained from selling weapons and security technology to Saddam, but when Saddam crossed the red line and begin to develop his own weapons as well as threatening their interests in the region, the decision came to contain him and reduce his size to what it was originally (but not to get rid of him totally). In the name of rescuing Kuwait, stopping the atrocities of the Iraqi regime, and bringing democracy to Iraq, a large-scale military operation was established (the largest since WW2).
Iraqis have reached a state of resignation, due to the fact that they have suffered too much. For instance, the Iraqi people were previously living a prosperous life and now they are on the lower extreme of poverty; they are suffering psychological trauma due to losing about 2 million human beings, either killed in wars, by Saddam Hussein’s security measures, or by the continuing silent killer (the Sanctions); and politically they are fed up with excuses from the Allies and the Iraqi regime. As a result of all this, Iraqi morality has been lost and materialistic values are what drive the people there. They have turned into a new nation – people who used to live there can spot the difference. They are caught in a huge dilemma to answer the most important question – “who is the enemy? And who we should defend ourselves against?!” In 1991, they were so close of getting rid of Saddam, in the uprising that happened after the war, but Saddam suppressed it harshly and without any mercy. This happened under the watching eyes of the Allies and their troops, so if I may ask “was not that one of the priorities at the time? I wonder!!”
In my view, Iraq has suffered and still suffers being caught in the middle of a clash between two huge powers, who want to control it, and use it as a battleground with all that implies. Obviously (and this is from a person who lived the terror of war in full scale), no excuse whatsoever can justify killings or wars. They are born of stupidity, ignorance, greed, failure to communicate, and psychopathic personal desire to be famous and to control. It is simply inhumane, and whether you are a pacifist or not, you do not want to experience it.
Thank you for discussing this subject.
(Name withheld at author’s request.)
• • • • •
Here are some edited extracts from messages posted the Philosophy Now Online Discussion Forum conversation about the bombing of Baghdad (www.philosophynow.org)
By Rick Lewis (Ricklewis) on Sat., March 24, 2001
If in some circumstances waging war is a necessary evil, do those circumstances exist now? Is this a just war? What does make a war into a just war? Do the containment of a ruthless, power-crazed dictator and the protection of Kurdish civilian lives justify us in killing other civilians in Baghdad? All thoughts and opinions welcomed.
By Brian Koontz (Briankoontz) on Sat., March 24, 2001
That’s not war… a war is a battle between two sides to determine who is stronger. A war is between peers.
This qualifies as punishment. I think it’s more straightforward to simply assassinate Hussein, but for some reason that hasn’t occurred so what we get now is the punishment of Iraq for not following our directives.
Its a matter of… “You don’t do what we say? OK.. its time for some pain”.
I said they should have assassinated Hussein long ago… 10 years ago I think. These long-standing sanctions and twentyyear plans are stupid. I’d much rather see one dead human than millions of weakened humans due to strict sanctions.
By Darren Carter (Lifegazer) on Sat., March 24, 2001
If America kills Hussein, then we may as well announce the beginning of World War 3. You make the assassination of the head of a nation sound like an everyday occurrence. You obviously cannot have thought through the consequences. Hussein would become an eternal martyr for the Islamic peoples’ struggle against the West. The IRA’s campaign against Britain would look like a kids’ squabble, in comparison to the fireworks that this ‘act’ would ignite. Sooner or later, America would be compelled to invade the Middle-East on a scale unprecedented since WW2. Then what?
By Ryan Lubben (Skeptic) on Monday, March 26, 2001
With control of Kuwait, Saddam would have had control over a larger area of the Persian Gulf which in turn could have been financially detrimental to oil dependant nations such as the US and Great Britain. The Gulf War was not about human rights or a nation’s inviolability; it was about economics pure and simple. Had Kuwait been a small nation in Africa, the chances of UN intervention would have been unlikely. In 1990 when UN tanks stopped short of Baghdad (something that could be considered tantamount to Soviet tanks stopping short of Berlin in 1945, had they done so) the Iraqi people were encouraged by former President Bush to rise up against Saddam and to overthrow his despotic government. Did we lend them a hand in their attempted revolution? Of course not! We had already achieved our objective of protecting the economic stability of the Middle East thus ensuring a continuous supply of that most coveted black gold.
So now over ten years later we complain that Hussein’s presence in the Middle East is an annoyance and we must keep him in check through continuous bombings of Iraqi military installations (most likely resulting in the death of innocents) and starving the inhabitants by economically strangling the country.
One of the main principles that was recognized after the Thirty-Years War, at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 was that: no country will recognize any authority outside of its own. We in America seem to recognize it as it applies to us, but not when other nations are involved.
Just because we believe a country’s policies to be antithetical to our beliefs does not give us the right to dictate their policies for them – especially at the threat of violence
By Michael Brett (Dralon) on Saturday, April 21, 2001
This whole situation is not about one man. It is about the entire relationship of the West with the Arab World. In general, this is run by a patchwork of Western backed kings and dictators who do not represent the Arab people as a whole. Few have any illusions about this man, but he is seen as the one person who can stand up to the West. In this respect, he is similar to Castro. He enables people to have some pride in themselves, though at a terrible cost. In a sense he is like the character in the labours of Hercules who gains strength from the earth. Every time Hercules hurls him to the ground, he grows stronger. Saddam gains strength at home with every defeat.
The abolition of dictatorship is inseparable from the issue of the democratisation of the entire region, something that all the great powers are reluctant to tackle. However the policy of building up the economic and political centre in Latin America that has been adopted by the USA in recent years, has been far more successful in creating a pro-US atmosphere than the old Nixon era policy of creating and supporting military dictatorships that were loathed by everyone. A Pan- American Free Trade Zone is the result.
The examples of prospering and democratic nations in the Middle East would be the best way of demonstrating the alternatives to both secular and religious totalitarianism, and undermining them politically. This is what the USA and the Europeans should do. Anything else is irrelevant.
By Brian Koontz (Briankoontz) on Sunday, April 22, 2001
Yep. McDonald’s are the foot soldiers and Coca-Cola is our black gold. Both are cheaper than oil, too.
A Just War, or Just A War?
When is it right to go to war? How should war be waged? The Church in the Middle Ages developed a complex doctrine of the Just War, which is still of philosophical interest today. The source of many of these ideas was St Augustine, but his ideas were refined and extended by mediaeval philosophers and theologians, most famously in Thomas Aquinas’ essay De Bello.
According to the Just War doctrine, waging war was justified if and only various conditions were met. The exact number and nature of those conditions varies from writer to writer although there is a great deal of overlap. Aquinas says there are three conditions for a just war:
1) Auctoritas (Just authority). Only the legitimate rulers of the state may declare war. [This is because people below the rank of sovereign can settle their disputes in the law-courts. It is only sovereigns who have no higher authority to arbitrate.]
2) Causa (Just cause). In general, nation X may wage war on nation Y only if Y has done some injury either to X or to X’s allies or friends. [It isn’t clear whether Y having harmed Y’s own people is also a just cause for X to wage war on it].
3) Intentio (Right intentions). The intentions of the warriors taking part must be the achievement of peace and of the just cause – not revenge, the desire for plunder or the suffering or destruction of the people on the other side.
Other thinkers such as Alexander of Hales, Christine de Pisan and Hugo Grotius gave additional conditions, notably:
4) Proportionality. The anticipated good must not be outweighed by the bad likely to be caused along the way.
5) Probability of success. There must be a reasonable prospect that the war will succeed.
6) Last resort. Peaceful alternatives must all have been exhausted first.
Later thinkers worried not only about when it was just to declare war, but also about how justly to conduct a war once it had started. The conditions for justly conducting wars were:
1) Proportionality (again). Acts of war must not be out of proportion to the provocation or the needs of the situation.
2) Discrimination No killing of innocent civilians or of noncombatants such as medics and camp-followers.
The various philosophers all tended to agree on some, at least, of the central criteria for a Just War. Where they very often disagreed was over the casuistry – the application of these principles to actual cases. As can be seen from the list above, the conditions are open to widely varying interpretations.
• For more, see the chapter on ‘The Just War’ in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy.