What is war? The standard definition goes something like the following: a conflict carried on by force of arms as between nations or parties within a nation. There are, of course, many variations and manifestations of the war paradigm, all of which rely upon the worst instinct humanity has to offer—the propensity for violence.
If it truly is a native human instinct, are we condemned to resorting to violence whenever the stakes are perceived to be too high to leave to the powers of reason and negotiation? It is often noted that what sets man apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is precisely this ability to reason—to employ the intellectual assets of logic, inference and persuasion for the purpose of advancing the most morally enlightened position.
Problems arise, naturally, when each side to a conflict believes their position entitles them to operate from the moral high ground. Logic dictates, however, that opposing forces cannot both command the moral high ground simultaneously. Put another way, if man's voice on the most important moral issues of the day is truly enlightened, singular and unambiguous, then one party will necessarily be operating from a higher moral ground than the other.
Can war sometimes be a moral choice? Pragmatists would assert that violence in defense of a higher moral order is justified whenever violence is employed by others to promote a lesser moral order. Nazi Germany, they would argue, was not likely to be persuaded to renounce genocide by any other means than violent military intervention. Thus, man has ingeniously conjured what appears to be moral justification for employing the tools of war and violence: the defeat of evil.
Historically, acts of violence and war have been answered with even greater acts of violence and war. The syndrome of escalation is usually inescapable. Only when casualties are deemed too great to sustain any further are parties to a conflict moved to employ negotiations as a means of resolving their conflict. And on at least two occasions, the measure of casualties inflicted was horribly extreme. Note: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, 1945. One of the greatest moral questions of our time is whether the United States was justified when, using nuclear weapons, it incinerated nearly 100,000 people in the combined attacks. The paradox is that the obscene assaults ended the war.
So costly is the escalation syndrome in war, that fully automated, i.e., unmanned, machines are now being utilized to avoid having to pay the human price that war normally extracts. But just as electrocution as a means of imposing the death penalty has been replaced by the more ‘humane’ method of lethal injection (in many places) so, too, does unmanned warfare appear to be little more than a veiled attempt to sanitize what is arguably the most unsanitary act—the intentional killing of another human being.
It can be argued that war only ever comes about as the inevitable consequence of repeated and escalating prior moral failures. Could the invasion of Afghanistan have been averted had Al-Qaeda operatives working out of that country not conspired to attack the World Trade Center killing nearly 3,000 people? Would the attacks on the World Trade Center ever have occurred had the United States not had a history of global imperialism and native subjugation for over 200 years? Could the police officers’ shooting of the deranged suspect have been averted had the suspect not been moved to extreme anti-social behavior brought on by repeated violent abuse during his early life? In each of these cases, acts of seriously questionable morality are perceived as justification for responses which, in and of themselves, are of dubious morality at best.
Perhaps the most important kind of failure war has come to exemplify is failure of the imagination. If the peaceful processes of reason and negotiation are to make any difference in the face of unreason and those unwilling to negotiate, more so than the might of arms, creativity and imagination may be the most potent tools in the human arsenal. The uniqueness of conflicts demands the road less travelled—or never before travelled—be examined in the full light of day.
And what about pacifism? Is pacifism in the face of violence and evil ever the right response? Will the only eventuality with the power to obviate the need for war and violence ironically be the unequivocal renunciation of war and violence themselves? Sam Harris argues in his book The End of Faith that pacifism in the face of precisely such evil and violence is itself acutely immoral. The clear implication here is that war is sometimes justified.
It appears achieving the ability to reason represents merely a starting point from which man can endeavor to overcome his baser impulses and learn to resolve conflict without resorting to violence. At which point—it is hoped—a peace paradigm will emerge and become the guiding force in both interpersonal as well as international relations.
The question is, If two wrongs never really do make a right, is war truly—the ultimate expression of failure?
2 years ago