The question of war is a divisive one on the left. Most progressives have opposed every American war since Vietnam — which is to say, every war in their own lifetimes. Few have any memory of World War II. For generations of Americans, the very idea of war has been defined by the experience of Vietnam.
Only with the attack of September 11, 2001, has a wide-scale, serious debate emerged among American progressives on the question of “just war” — that is, when waging war may be considered ethically or morally permissible, or even necessary. And the debate has been a bitter one. Those who oppose all war accuse advocates of just war of sanctioning murder. Advocates of just war accuse pure war resisters of closing their eyes to evil.
ISSUES: JUST AND UNJUST WARS
The question of just war comprises two separate debates. One distinguishes a just war from an unjust war — that is, a war may be fought versus a war that should not be fought. The other distinguishes permissible from impermissible tactics in the conduct of war. Some say the second question amounts to little more than labeling proper versus improper ways of killing someone. And yet, if some wars can be moral, then there must be moral and immoral ways of fighting.
The Geneva Conventions lay out a code of war that most nations have endorsed on paper, though holding governments to account is a constant struggle. Governments rarely admit their own misconduct.
Complicating efforts to oppose injustice is the frequent tendency to confuse the two separate questions of just versus unjust wars and just versus unjust methods of combat. Opponents of war rarely stop to ask whether immoral tactics necessarily render an entire war immoral, since highlighting abusive tactics can help weaken public support for a war that they oppose on principle. On the other hand, failing to answer the real questions helps the architects and advocates of unjust wars to nurse their grudges for years, believing their true motives were never aired or understood.
ISSUES: WAR THAT IS NOT WAR
The laws of war define violent conflict between states. They do not provide any guidelines for the various forms of informal conflict that arose during the twentieth century and became alternatives to the traditional practice of settling disputes by warfare, notably terrorism and nonviolent resistance.
Typically, these are methods by which non-state actors mount opposition to state powers with vastly greater firepower at their disposal. States have struggled for decades to find effective responses, but they tend to find only that power has its limits.
Terrorism is a form of armed struggle, but because it is conducted by individuals out of uniform, representing entities that are not recognized as sovereign states, there is no consensus on how to understand the combat nor how to treat the combatants. Are they to be considered soldiers on an amorphous battlefield, to be hunted down and shot on sight? Or are they civilians, to be arrested and granted due process?
Responding to nonviolent resistance is not so much a moral dilemma as a strategic one. Mass civil disobedience has the power to make a subject population ungovernable, but if protesters are determined and disciplined, efforts to stop them lead almost invariably to violence on the part of authorities. This is precisely the goal of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, as developed and taught by Mahatma Gandhi: to provoke the authorities to violent overreaction in order to expose their moral bankruptcy. Here too, as with terrorism, states have no truly effective responses.
The United States has responded to radical Islamic resistance with what it calls a war on terrorism. This is merely the latest in a long series of wars declared by Washington that are not wars at all, but metaphorically labeled legal or social campaigns, beginning with the War on Poverty in the 1960s and continuing through the interminable and unwinnable War on Drugs.
The ancestor of these non-war wars may well be the U.S.-Soviet Cold War that began after World War II and continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That may be the best example of a non-war war that actually resulted in victory.