Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Just War Thoughts

According to the current incarnation on Wikipedia, the Just War Tradition "is a view that combines a moral abhorrence towards war and a readiness to accept that sometimes war is the lesser evil." The concession, that sometimes war is necessary, is usually overlooked by those who invoke the concept of just war, but that is of course, just the first hurdle. The second is ascertaining that this war is necessary, and establishing a stable consensus on such a predicate. That being stipulated, the definition implies a continuum on the cost-benefit scale depending entirely on how much you value the innocent components of the target entity. What are your "responsibilities" and how much compliance can you expect from yourself? How do you define "valued", "innocent" and "target"?

For instance, there are certain individuals (type A) who will fight you until they die. They may be identifiable or not. They may be embedded or otherwise protected. It may be possible to identify valued aspects of even these individuals. Unfortunately, they may be unwilling to adhere to any concept of just war on their own, and consequently are interested only in optimizing destructive antagonism. These individuals must be neutralized under any understanding of war. If the entire population, or a sufficiently large portion, of our enemies falls in this category, then we must parse our understanding of the word "neutralize". What must we be willing to sacrifice in order to convert them? Can we afford to imprison them? Should we cut off the left foot and right arm of each? Do we have any choices short of killing them? Which would they prefer? Will their numbers grow or diminish as we hold them at bay? Is there any justice to be extracted with such as these?

There are also many who will fight only until their cause is clearly lost (type B). If we value their lives at all, we must give them the opportunity to surrender, to cease fighting. Maybe we feel that we can’t distinguish the first group from the second group. Then we have to decide what probabilities and costs are associated with a Type I vs. a Type II error and whether they can be managed. In the Pacific Theater during WWII, we felt, at least the soldiers did, that there was no way to distinguish, and that the costs were too high. As a result, no prisoners were taken, no surrenders accepted. How do we tell the soldiers how high the costs are permitted to go? Are we willing to punish them for their more merciless evaluation? In fact, we treated the entire country of Japan under the same rule. Only complete and unconditional surrender of the entire nation of Japan would be accepted, which actually led, IMO, to a relatively just result overall. Maybe we were just lucky.

In the ETO we took prisoners by the thousands. My father was involved in that operation and had nothing but praise for the conduct of his German charges. Americans are often accused of racism for treating these people so differently. But think about this, the British soldiers, more so than the Americans, hated the Germans passionately. Some still do, and yet the British also took German prisoners. Do we praise them for that? Or condemn them for their racist attitudes? My point is that the different rules of treating the European enemy vs. the Japanese were dictated, not by the behavior of the Allied soldiers, but by the behavior of the enemy. Given the relative costs of taking prisoners, there was little choice involved.

One of the salient characteristics of the war in Iraq has been the very high effectiveness of our munitions with respect to collateral damage. A target is bombed. It is almost always the right target. It is almost always the only thing destroyed. Maybe, you say, this is merely the way we want it to look. Well, then you have to ask yourself, why do we want it to look that way? Clearly our values dictate that the effectiveness ratio should be as high as possible.

Our failures in targeting are based on judgment calls, not policy. When the type A targets are mixed in with type B, or with total innocents, someone must decide how many unnecessary casualties are acceptable. Furthermore, someone has to decide how reliable the intelligence is. What probability of error is acceptable? This god-like power of life and death invokes suspicion and disdain among some civilian opponents of the war, but think for a second. Do you realize what a luxury this situation is? And do you think any country other than the US and our natural allies would avail themselves of these choices?

Street fighting is another theater in the Just War. Type A targets do not follow the rules of war, so they treat every reservation we adhere to as a wall to hide behind. For instance, the enemy bases itself in areas with high concentrations of civilians, fires from within sanctuary zones, such as mosques,hospitals and schools. There have been reports of grown men firing from behind the backs of exposed children, recruited specifically for that purpose. I have been told that American snipers have the skills and equipment to neutralize such tactics, but still, contemplate the luxury that we have in making that choice. How much is expected of us?

That is precisely the question. How much is expected of us? The answer is that the US military is constantly raising the bar on its own achievements. It expects a lot of itself. Technical sophistication improves constantly. Individual soldiers will, today, be investigated for questionable choices and prosecuted under US law for mistaken decisions. I imagine the citizens of Grozny would find that darkly humorous.

Almost all of the nasty stuff that is going on in Iraq involves Iraqi on Iraqi violence. Criminal gangs, religious fanatics, sectarian extremists and psychopaths are making Iraq unlivable. Most of the rest is caused by Iranian, Syrian, and Saudi support of various factions. The MNF has nothing but a positive influence. Nevertheless, the Iraqis with leadership capacity and anything else to contribute are leaving. Their numbers reach the millions. So, does that mean our involvement in this war has been unjust because of their suffering? Are we culpable for bullets shot by lunatics who want Saddam back? Can we be blamed for not foreseeing the consequences of our invasion?

The US Senate decided with near unanimity, no matter how they characterize their decision today, to allow and support a war to remove Saddam. They thought it was necessary. Once that was done, they supported with very little question, the continuing effort to promote democracy and suppress chaos in Iraq. The Senate is empowered to speak for America on these issues, and you can bet that the senators checked with their constituents. So it’s fair to say that America thought the war and subsequent cleanup efforts were necessary. There have been opponents all along. And today, there are those among them who would say, abandon Iraq no matter what the cost. This faction seems to have the ear of Congress now, and there is more than a little danger that their wishes will be implemented. So what does that imply with regard to Just War Theory?

Are these opponents motivated by the monetary cost of the war or the loss of American life? Let us say that we can save the loss of another 3,000 American lives and maybe a trillion dollars by leaving today. How many Iraqis would that be worth? Seriously. If we knew for sure, which we don’t, that 300,000 extra Iraqis would be killed, would they still want us to come home now? How about one million? Five million?

Of course, they might say that the killing would probably stop as soon as we leave. Then we would have the best of all possible worlds. My question: Do they really believe that, or do they simply believe that the entire population of Iraq is not worth a single American soldier? That’s a pretty steep cost-benefit curve. Let me just suggest that people who feel this way do not have the right to talk about Just War Theory.

1/9/2007 3:17 AM


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At Tuesday, January 09, 2007 4:02:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

Congratulations JJ. Great post.

Just a couple of things jump out at me.

> Can we be blamed for not
> foreseeing the consequences
> of our invasion?

Yes indeed we can, if you're referring to the chaos, the insurgency, the factional and religious violence.

An Army sergeant I knew (now retired) was very worried about taking the lid off. Even I worried a hell of a lot about the sort of thing that happened after Tito died.

You didn't have to be a nobody like me to worry about those things. Look at General Shinseki and what happened to him.

I don't know exactly where to place the blame. There are too many targets. I suppose the blame is largely collective.

Near unanimity of the Senate was bogus, in my view. Senators went along to avoid showing division. They went along on the basis of lies. They went along to get along. They delegated their constitutional duty to declare war.

I never really liked Robert Byrd all that much, but I took my hat off to him for his opposition in the Senate.

Somehow I can't imagine anybody thinking that the killing will stop if we just leave. It'll stop when one side has won. It seems to me that there are two choices: kill off the ones who want to fight, or let them fight it out. They're not going to get tired and stop.

At Wednesday, January 10, 2007 9:58:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I guess one of the problems is that type B antagonists can be converted to type A by events. The snowballing of events can lead to a exponential increase in violence, following a logistic curve, really, but the violence doesn't level off until a long time later. If either side is allowed to win decisively, they will wipe out the other side completely, and the result will not be democratic tolerance.

The situation in Lebanon a couple decades ago boiled up into total war, but eventually led to a situation where most were willing to compromise. Democracy would be the outcome except for foreign powers stirring things up.

At Wednesday, January 10, 2007 10:19:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I guess my point regarding allocation of blame is that a decision was taken with everything on the table. Most of the senators voted for the war, but are now claiming that they were deceived. Well, it is their responsibility to stand up, to be strong, and not to get deceived. They had the power of subpoena. They should have used it. If the Democrats couldn't get the access they needed, they should have withheld their votes. The vote was not, by the way, an abdication of authority. It was a straight up declaration of war. Did it use those words. No. Senators like to leave a little ambiguity for purposes of future deniability, but an honest assessment is that they knew they were giving the President the authority to strike. And they should have known him well enough to know that he would. If they didn't, they were a lot denser than the average American.

It was the judgment of the Senate to go for it, knowing everything they knew and everything they now pretend they didn't know. They have a responsibility to stand by their choices, which in fairness they have, for the most part. The blame for the miscalculation of post invasion chaos must be fairly distributed. In fact, most of the blame is on various Iraqis. They have had choices, just as we have, and they have often chosen badly. So are we to blame for not knowing how they would choose? There is a certain unpredictability in war. As the situation has deteriorated, we, the MNF, have consistently chosen to take the responsible course. We have also consistently chosen to conform our Rules of Engagement to an extremely high standard as dictated by internal politics. The excessive reluctance to engage and the delicacy of our engagement have increased the vulnerability of our soldiers and decreased their effectiveness. It's hard to know from this side of the ocean, but I believe we can change events over there very easily by making some stern choices.

At Wednesday, January 10, 2007 11:03:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

Stern choices...

President Bush this evening mentioned changing the rules of engagement, and I heard something about clamping down on the militias. The day Muqtada Sadr is dead, along with several hundred or more of his fighters, I'll believe it, but only if the same fate lands on a few other prominent players. Problem is, effective rules of engagement will only increase the anti-Bush anti-war sentiment in the country.

I live across the street from a National Guard base. Yesterday they were doing a lot of shooting and practicing ferrying people in Black Hawks. Today a hundred or two uniforms were boarding white busses to be taken who knows where (I think Afghanistan via some base back east for a few months of training). This evening I saw that Frontline is about the resurgence of the Taliban five years after the rout. Five years!

Oh, well...

At Thursday, January 11, 2007 8:44:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

The Taliban thing is this. We beat them wherever they pop up, chasing them away into safe havens. Why do we call them safe havens? Because these are places where we have decided that we're going to leave them alone. OK, there are good reasons for not wanting to topple the govt of Pak. So the Taliban get to train, recruit and plan with detailed knowledge of what we can do and how we're going to do it.

What we did in Somalia, as far as I can tell, looks a lot more strategically sound. We let them accumulate into a place where they felt safe, abandoning places that were really safe. It's almost like we enticed them, gave them the feeling that they were in charge. The New York Times was very helpful on that score. Then we did a stealthblitz, everything all at once with no means of escape. There was even a naval component.

I don't start with the assumption that the government is completely incompetent.


Ideally, they won't just kill Sadr (though that would be nice), but rather capture him and try him exactly as they did for Saddam. Sunnis get no slack for killing Shia. Shia should get no slack for killing Sunnis.


I think Bush is all talk about changing the ROE. We'll see. But if the Democrats don't pull his fangs, I don't think the news of more Iraqi casualties is going to make much difference. People against him for his "excessive force" can't possibly get any more negative. There are lots of people that were offended by Abu Ghraib, including myself, but that was different. An honest effort to destroy the enemy in Baghdad will not lose him any support that he ever had.


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