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“That Devil’s Madness”

by Rick Lewis

“The only advice I can offer when someone invites you to go to a war, is to bawl no, and if they’re smaller than you and unlikely to respond in kind, belt them in the mouth so there’s no risk of them asking you again and you changing your mind. If you want to know what it’s like, don’t eat or sleep for three days, jump in some mud, visit a mortuary and then blindfold yourself and walk across a motorway (give yourself a chance: do it at three in the morning); if you survive, it’s cheaper and easier.”

From The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer

I don’t know whether any of the contributors to this issue have ever gone to a war, but some of the great philosophers of the past certainly did. They include Socrates (who not only asked questions about the nature of courage, but was himself decorated for valour), Descartes (who was a mercenary in the armies of Maurice of Nassau and the Duke of Bavaria), David Hume (who as private secretary to an admiral took part in a farcical attempted invasion of the French coast), Nietzsche (a volunteer medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War), Ludwig Wittgenstein (who fought in the trenches in WWI), Jean-Paul Sartre (the French army wisely entrusted him with a weather balloon rather than a gun) and Marcus Aurelius, who spent most of his reign as Roman Emperor unhappily fighting long wars in remote provinces and found consolation writing Stoic philosophy in his diary.

Why a war issue now? At the time of writing India and Pakistan have just recently edged back from the brink of Armageddon and the US Army is studying roadmaps of Baghdad again, so war is topical (it usually is). Can philosophy contribute anything to our understanding of war, the cruellest and most persistent of human failings?

One aspect of philosophy is the attempt to clarify our everyday concepts and, with this in mind, one question that might usefully be asked is “what is a war?” In 1956, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden said, “We are not at war with Egypt. We are in armed conflict.” This dubious distinction has been popular among statemen ever since. The United States Constitution says that only Congress has the right to declare war, but Congress hasn’t drafted a formal declaration of war since WWII. These days wars mostly go undeclared by either side and the status of conflicts is kept as unclear as possible to avoid the complications of national and international law. Take the struggle against al-Qaida and the Taliban – if it really is a war, it needs Congressional approval. But if it is not really a war, then it is illegal to intern prisoners without trial. But if it is really a war, those prisoners must be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. And so on. As Bob Sharpe puts it in another context, there is an ambiguity here which serves the interests of the powerful.

In this issue, Bob Sharpe tries to sort out the ambiguities associated with another concept – that of dying for one’s country. David Limond argues against those who see wars as good in themselves rather than as an occasional necessary evil. Rai Gaita warns against the temptation to misunderstand the motives of suicide bombers and MJ Akbar explains the meaning which Jihad, or struggle, has for non-fundamentalist Muslims. But before that, Bob Nelson, Duncan Richter and Dylan Suzanne each take a look at the logic of that Cold War doctrine known as Mutually Assured Destruction, the aptly named MAD.

There are two other questions which need asking. Firstly, is pacifism right? A few people down the ages have taken the absolute view that violence is always wrong. The Quakers are an example – many of them have displayed great bravery driving field ambulances, but none ever agree to bear arms.

Secondly, if you do think there are circumstances in which, for the sake of humanity, we must take up arms, then the question arises of when it is right to go to war and when it isn’t. The philosophers of the middle ages wrote extensively on this topic and we published a brief summary of their criteria for a just war in Issue 32. One criterion was that you must have ‘just cause’. Being attacked (or your friends being attacked) may be such a cause. Is it also justifiable to launch a preemptive strike, if you are certain you are about to be attacked? If so, can you launch a preemptive strike if you simply feel there is a chance you might be attacked? Exactly how certain do you have to be? This question will be left, as they say, as an exercise for the reader.

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