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OP-ED: What justifies a war?

  • Published at 10:12 pm September 12th, 2021

Nations have always built narratives around the wars they have waged

The just war theory is a doctrine having deep bearing on military ethics. It has been a great concern of military leaders, men of theology, ethicists, and policy-makers over the ages. Everyone has tried to analyze from their own point of view whether a war was morally justified before involving into one.

There are two distinct aspects -- the right to go to war (jus ad bellum) and the right conduct of war (jus in bello). While the first one was the concern of the legitimate ruler or king, being advised by his courtiers, the second one primarily was the concern of the military leaders and their led. Of course, a third and very important aspect transpired much later in the study of warfare. That is the post-war settlement and reconciliation (jus post bellum).

Virtues of soldiering have been recognized across the ages. Wars are waged in the national interest. Hence, there is a thinking that individuals may not regret if they have to commit themselves to war once the decision has been made at the appropriate level. It is also held that though war may be leading to evil, it can be lessened to a great extent through its right conduct. The ancient Egyptians used to invoke their gods while entering into war, and believed to have received commands of war through  deities.

Aristotle approved war as a last resort, and held military training necessary to avert being enslaved by others. To the ancient Romans, war was justified to repel invaders, and they followed ritualized declaration for such events.

According to Christian belief, war may be necessary, though it may not be good. Saint Augustine held that, while individuals should not resort immediately to violence, God has given the sword to government for good reason.

In the Mahabharata, there is a discussion of the five Pandavas to ascertain the righteousness of war, which is termed as Dharma Yuddyha. They came up with some criteria such as not attacking people in distress, no poison or barbed arrows be used, and a fair treatment to captives and the wounded. Sikhism alike approves war in religious or righteous causes and emphasizes on peace and non-violence.

As held in Confucianism, warfare could be launched as a last resort, by a rightful sovereign having an unquestionable authority and that success justifies the means.

Americans are believed to be a God-fearing nation, doing everything in the name of God. Abraham Lincoln concluded his famous Gettysburg address by saying, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The US presidents are sworn in with the holy book. The US currency note comes with the inscription “In God We Trust.”

US Armed Forces view the aspects of spiritual and moral well-being of soldiers with due diligence. US Corps of Chaplains is the largest in the world, providing the most well-structured faith-based service. Nourishing the living, caring for the wounded, and honouring the dead is the motto of the chaplains.

The idea of just and unjust war impacts soldier psychology and spirit. In this connection, in one of my interactions with a group of US chaplains in 2011, I raised the question as to how they address the issue of just and unjust wars. They were a little embarrassed, but their ultimate stand was, for soldiers, any war they are ordered in, is a  just war.

They view “the just cause to wage war,” as the exclusive domain of their statesmen and political masters. Once the decision is made and they are thrown into the warzone, their duty is to ensure the right conduct in war by not resorting to any excess.

There are US veterans who fought in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, and now realize that theirs was not actually a righteous cause. Saddam did not have WMD, Afghanistan did not actually pose any threat to the US deserving such massive retaliation, and neither did Libya constitute any tangible threat to the US. It is heartening that there are a lot of discussions on the issue, which has generated awareness even among the most warmongering nation, the US.

People have started questioning the rationale of joining such unnecessary and unjustified warfare. People now probably can see through the games of regime change, democratization, vis-à-vis the cost of so many millions of lives.

The US, ever since its inception of nationhood, remained engrossed in wars around the globe most of the time, which they always termed as noble. Their involvement has always been painted as fighting for justice, democracy, and fighting against terrorism and dictatorship.

But by now, the global conscience can see through the game to unearth the real motive behind all these wars and conflicts, including ascertaining their actual beneficiaries.

Americans had grossly overlooked, ignored, and trivialized the massive losses in terms of the death of millions of victims as “collateral damage.” With the haze of deception getting clearer, they cannot afford to bury all the innocent dead and the debris of massive destruction anymore, shrouded in this crafty vocabulary.

Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad, ndc, psc (Retd) is a freelance contributor.

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