20 votes

What, if anything, makes a morally good war?

I've been consuming the darkness that is wartime histories from the past three or four centuries and I feel like I've encountered a lot of people who had what they believed to be justifiable reasons to launch wars against other powers. There are people who thought they had divine right to a particular position of power and so would launch a war to assert that god-given right. There are people who believed in a citizen's right to have some (any) say in how their tax money gets used in government and so would fight wars over that. People would fight wars to, as John Cleese once said, "Keep China British." Many wars are started to save the honor of a country/nation. Some are started in what is claimed to be self-defense and later turns out to have been a political play instigated to end what has been a political thorn in their sides.

In all this time, I've struggled to really justify many of these wars, but some of that comes with the knowledge of what other wars have cost in terms of human carnage and suffering. For some societies in some periods, the military is one of the few vehicles to social mobility (and I think tend to think social mobility is grease that keeps a society functioning). Often these conflicts come down to one man's penis and the inability to swallow their pride to find a workable solution unless at the end of a bayonet. These conflicts also come with the winning powers taking the opportunity to rid themselves of political threats and exacting new harms on the defeated powers (which comes back around again the next time people see each other in a conflict).

So help keep me from embracing a totally pacifistic approach to war. When is a war justifiable? When it is not only morally acceptable but a moral imperative to go to war? Please point to examples throughout history where these situations have happened, if you can (though if you're prepared to admit that there has been no justifiable war that you're aware of, I suppose that's fine if bitter).

54 comments

  1. [21]
    Algernon_Asimov
    Link
    No can do, sorry: I'm a hardline pacifist. Have been for decades. However, I'll give it a go! :) War is based on murder. Whether you actually kill anyone else or not, the intention to kill is...

    So help keep me from embracing a totally pacifistic approach to war. When is a war justifiable?

    No can do, sorry: I'm a hardline pacifist. Have been for decades.

    However, I'll give it a go! :)

    War is based on murder. Whether you actually kill anyone else or not, the intention to kill is certainly involved in any decision to go to war. We can dress it up in whatever fancy language we like, whether it's "casualties" or "collateral damage", but it's still murder, and murder by any other name does not smell sweet at all.

    So, what justifies murder? If I killed my neighbour, what justifications would other people accept for that act?

    Would "regime change" count? "She was mean to her children, forced them to eat certain foods and dress certain ways, and wouldn't let them out to play. I killed her to set her children free." Yeah... nah. That ain't gonna cut it. The children may have been constrained, but they weren't in any actual danger. There were other ways to get that mother to treat her children better.

    Would "invasion of territory" count? "He knocked down the fence between our backyards, moved it three metres further into my property, then he built a swimming pool with the extra land he took from me. I killed him to get my land back." Again, that wouldn't cut it. You don't kill someone over a boundary dispute.

    To justify murdering my neighbour, I'm going to have to come up with something better than those excuses.

    The only excuse that I could reasonably use to justify killing someone is to prevent them killing someone else - and, even then, murder would be the last resort. I'd have to prove that I was unable to rescue the endangered person(s), and that I was unable to disarm the prospective killer, and that there was no other way to defend the endangered person(s) from the immediately impending threat to their lives.

    War is the same. If you're not trying to save someone from impending death or serious immediate harm, you're not justified in going to war.

    In this context, World War II was justifiable. The Germans were not only killing millions of their own people, but they went into other countries to kill even more people. They had to be stopped.

    I'm not an aficionado of military history (my historical interests lie elsewhere), so I can't name a whole lot of wars which were justifiable. But I think I've explained my principles well enough that those more familar with the various wars can probably work out my position for themselves.

    11 votes
    1. [13]
      aethicglass
      Link Parent
      I like the analogy, but I think it falls short on "invasion of territory". Invasions usually involve some sort of preemptive killing. "He knocked down the fence between our yards, killed one of my...

      I like the analogy, but I think it falls short on "invasion of territory". Invasions usually involve some sort of preemptive killing. "He knocked down the fence between our yards, killed one of my kids, then built a new fence a few meters in and threw my kid in a ditch." There could also be production issues. "He claimed my corn field as his, and now I can't feed my family." I'm not saying that either one is an example that necessarily justifies murderous rebut. There could be plenty of other options available. But in cases that cause immediate threat to the lives of a population, I can begin to see it as a feasible option.

      The Rape of Nanking would be a prime real world example. As would the invasion of Poland and France. The Mongolian invasions, Spanish conquests, British imperialism... I feel like the majority of the wars fought could be fairly well justified from the defenders' perspectives. The argument could be made that in some cases, more of the invaded people could have survived and lived in relative peace if they hadn't gone to war over territory or revenge, but humans also seem to have a penchant for genocide so I would hesitate to speculate on that.

      I don't count myself as a pure pacifist, but I absolutely feel like alternatives are rarely put to use or even considered before entire nations decide to start killing one another. I struggle to understand these aspects of humanity (hence my previous thread on the world wars).

      6 votes
      1. [12]
        Algernon_Asimov
        Link Parent
        That was pretty much the whole point of my comment: that the only true justification for war is to save people's lives. That's why my "invasion of territory" scenario didn't include the invader...

        But in cases that cause immediate threat to the lives of a population

        That was pretty much the whole point of my comment: that the only true justification for war is to save people's lives. That's why my "invasion of territory" scenario didn't include the invader killing people - because that scenario would provide a valid justification for a war of self-defence.

        I'd like to take this opportunity to add that self-defence does not mean counter-attack. To defend yourself does not require invading your invaders' territory and killing them in turn. When you've stopped the invasion and pushed the invaders out of your territory, you have defended yourself. Anything beyond that is disproportionate and unjustified.

        4 votes
        1. [12]
          Comment deleted by author
          Link Parent
          1. [11]
            Algernon_Asimov
            Link Parent
            That's not qualitatively different to my scenario. It's "salami tactics". However, even salami tactics have to turn nasty at some point. At some point, the invader will run out of empty land in my...

            What about another state slowly colonising your territory?

            That's not qualitatively different to my scenario. It's "salami tactics".

            However, even salami tactics have to turn nasty at some point. At some point, the invader will run out of empty land in my territory to colonise. Eventually, they'll have to start pushing people out of their homes. And some people won't be pushed. The only way to push them out is at the barrel of a gun. That's when it's morally justified to fight: to defend those people from harm.

            On a more indirect note, the invader's colonisation might remove agricultural land from my country's control. If that causes my people to starve, it's morally justifiable to push the invader out: again, to defend those starving people from harm.

            What if the only solution to be able to defend your territory in the future is to push into enemy territory?

            What? No. Once they're off my territory, it's over. There is no such thing as "pre-emptive defence". Invading their land to prevent them invading my land is just exchanging one moral wrong for another moral wrong.

            What is your territory?

            Whatever I'm living on now. If an invader annexes my territory, the time to fight back is now, not in a year's time or a century's time.

            Does it make a difference if the people in the territory belongs to the same ethnic/cultural/linguistic group, especially if they're oppressed or even at risk of, say, ethnic cleansing?

            I'm lost about who belongs to whom. Are the people in the invaded territory part of my ethnic group or the invader's ethnic group? But they'd have to be part of my ethnic group; the invader wouldn't perform ethnic cleansing on people of their own ethnicity.

            But the point of defending people from harm always applies. When you start talking about oppression and ethnic cleansing, it becomes morally good to defend those people from harm.

            1. [6]
              Comment deleted by author
              Link Parent
              1. [5]
                Algernon_Asimov
                Link Parent
                Since when is invading someone else's territory the only way to defend your own territory? Yep. As I said in my original comment, I'm a hardline pacifist. You have to come up with a very good...

                you're not allowed to defend yourself since you're taking the only way of doing so off the table?

                Since when is invading someone else's territory the only way to defend your own territory?

                Is it still wrong because it's not absolutely pure?

                Yep. As I said in my original comment, I'm a hardline pacifist. You have to come up with a very good justification to defend killing someone else.

                In other words, if you lose one defensive conflict one time everything you lost is now lost forever and you have no moral right to ever take it back?

                You really do like to take things to extremes, don't you? "The only way to defend yourself", "lost forever", and so on. I didn't say you could never try to take your land back ever, I said " the time to fight back is now, not in a year's time or a century's time". That means that, if someone walks in and takes your land, you don't sit there complacently and let your grandchildren complain about it in a hundred years' time. You also don't get to come back in a thousand years' time and say "your ancestors pushed my ancestors off this land, so you can get out now". If there's something to be done, then you do it now. And, if necessary, you keep doing it.

                I see way too many fights these days starting over land that was taken centuries or millennia ago. That's just not on.

                Yes, of cours they belong to your ethnicity/etc.

                So... your case is that my neighbouring country comes in and pushes some of my citizens off their land and out of their houses. (Why even mention their ethnicity? That was just an unnecessary and confusing detail.) Easy. The inhabitants refuse to move. Civil disobedience. A "sit in", if you will. The only way to remove them is to kill them - and, if you kill them, you're causing harm which then justifies my defending those people.

                1. [5]
                  Comment deleted by author
                  Link Parent
                  1. Algernon_Asimov
                    Link Parent
                    I've tried to address your examples as best I can. Sorry if that hasn't satisfied you. I'll do you one better - I don't fight back at all. If you hit me, I won't hit back. This has been proven a...

                    I have specified examples that you've seemingly refused to respond to.

                    I've tried to address your examples as best I can. Sorry if that hasn't satisfied you.

                    Then why do you not draw it to its logical conclusion - that the only way you can ever fight back is with non-lethal weapons?

                    I'll do you one better - I don't fight back at all. If you hit me, I won't hit back. This has been proven a couple of times in my life. I walk the talk. Not only do I not believe in violence, I don't commit violence.

                    However, this thread is about discussing the morality of war. In that context, I'm discussing hypothetical examples where a war could possibly be justified, even by a pacifist like me. As I've said a few times here, the only time I think violence is ever justifiable is when someone is in immediate danger of real injury or even death. Everything else I'm discussing here is just a hypothetical mental exercise. I'm actually finding it very hard to come up with reasons to justify killing people over who possesses a piece of land. I'm trying, in order to participate in this discussion, but it's hard for me to do. I just don't see that land is worth killing someone for.

                    that the weak (even temporarily so) must never complain and accept anything short of being killed.

                    You've twisted my response to suit your purposes. I never said they can't complain and must only be killed. Again, you've taken things to an extreme which I didn't. It's very hard to discuss this with you, when everything I say is distorted so badly and thrown back at me as some sort of proof of something I didn't even say.

                  2. [3]
                    BuckeyeSundae
                    Link Parent
                    I've highlighted the part that eludes me. What examples did you specify? I genuinely don't see which ones you're thinking of. I see an abstract pattern that you're talking about, where the...

                    Since the dawn of time, and I have specified examples that you've seemingly refused to respond to.

                    I've highlighted the part that eludes me. What examples did you specify? I genuinely don't see which ones you're thinking of. I see an abstract pattern that you're talking about, where the military objective to push someone out of the war is to capture their capital city, but we're well beyond that as a standalone guarantee to push someone out of war. Nowadays, you have to attack someone's capability, their economy, their finances, their military supply. Not all of those require invading another territory to achieve, but some do. And when they do, they call for a much more complete invasion.

                    What's more, there are two points I would make on this topic generally: (1) war as a concept has now transitioned fully from the "dawn of time" era that you've been talking about, where the military objective is a fort or specific physical objective, and into a much more abstract objective that I just finished talking about where you focus on a nation's ability o willingness to resist. For that second sort of warfare, you don't even really need to invade a country at all (and it is incredibly costly to do so). (2) the scope of war that does involve invading territory tends to be ... well, total. The era where noncombatants are actually treated like noncombatants when their economic output can contribute to the war effort, when their support of their government can support to the war effort, and most importantly when resistance fighters can hide in their number, is over. Noncombatants largely don't exist anymore when a war takes its into another territory. That should alter the calculus of what we're talking about here pretty dramatically as the real cost both in terms of cost to you and to human life is massively higher than in the days when 3,000 troops from Athens would march to war while the city of 100,000 people would nod along and support the effort.

                    So if I had to sum up how I see things playing out from what you're saying, you seem to be getting a little annoyed about what may simply not be clear. And the core points that you're talking about have shifted so dramatically in the last century that it's fair to wonder whether we're even talking about the same activity anymore.

                    1. [3]
                      Comment deleted by author
                      Link Parent
                      1. Algernon_Asimov
                        Link Parent
                        But I did respond to those examples. I didn't break them down, one by one, and give a precise tactical response to each scenario. I responded in principle: However, I now see where I went wrong....

                        "What if the only viable solution to be able to defend your territory in the future is to push into enemy territory? Perhaps you have a very strong navy but a much too small population to fight on land and as they've been attacking you, they too are attacked on another front giving you a rare possibility to push them back over a strait what will allow you to defend yourself in the future. Perhaps you push them over an easily defensible mountain range. Perhaps they've repeatedly been using a hill to attack one of your cities with artillery, so you occupy it. Justifiable or not?"

                        But I did respond to those examples. I didn't break them down, one by one, and give a precise tactical response to each scenario. I responded in principle:

                        What? No. Once they're off my territory, it's over. There is no such thing as "pre-emptive defence". Invading their land to prevent them invading my land is just exchanging one moral wrong for another moral wrong.

                        However, I now see where I went wrong. Here are the responses you wanted:

                        • I don't push them back over the strait because once they're off my territory, it's over. There is no such thing as "pre-emptive defence". Invading their land to prevent them invading my land is just exchanging one moral wrong for another moral wrong.

                        • I don't push them over an easily defensible mountain range because once they're off my territory, it's over. There is no such thing as "pre-emptive defence". Invading their land to prevent them invading my land is just exchanging one moral wrong for another moral wrong.

                        • I don't occupy that defensible hill with artillery because once they're off my territory, it's over. There is no such thing as "pre-emptive defence". Invading their land to prevent them invading my land is just exchanging one moral wrong for another moral wrong.

                        1 vote
                      2. BuckeyeSundae
                        Link Parent
                        I must just have missed that. Thanks for requoting them. Now that I know where we're talking about, I can see that Algernon did respond to your example but in a way that I also wanted...

                        I must just have missed that. Thanks for requoting them.

                        Now that I know where we're talking about, I can see that Algernon did respond to your example but in a way that I also wanted clarification on.

                        I'm responding here because I've been on your side in this sort of exchange before, where frustration seems to be spilling over into the argument itself. It may be that Algernon believed he had responded to the examples you specified, but you did not see it as sufficient (I certainly had a question as to his meaning). I'd just urge a bit of patience, as you're on opposing sides on this issue and that might mask what you each are bringing to the discussion table.

                        While I'm here, I should say that I'm not saying that all armed conflict goes the way of the two world wars either. But very few conflicts are restricted solely to local, fortified objectives anymore. Even the Eritrean-Ethiopian war, you had trench warfare playing a dominant role (which, of course, is what World War I is most known for having helped bring to popularity). As modern armies, the Ethiopian military was able to flank and drive the Eritreans from their trenches, but the fact remains that they're fighting more like modern armies than like pre-WWI armies. These battles don't just focus on military objectives but can often have massive spillover on each participants' economy, supply, and ability to fight. That's just as true in many of the examples you site (with the exception of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 and maybe the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which I'm not familiar with) as it is in French-Algerian war, or in Afghanistan, or against ISIS. I mean, the Six-Day War starts off with an air raid on Egyptian airbases to destroy their air capability.

                        Let's put this scope problem into real terms. The estimates of the army Alexander the Great used to conquer Persia et al is usually estimated as being around 30,000 near the beginning and 70,000 soldiers at its height. I've seen estimates that the Roman empire at its height had 350,000 troops up to around 750,000 troops, and that they could field up to around 40,000 for a single battle. These soldiers were specialists, trained to fight, not the conscripted sort we've seen in more modern times. It's a similar model to how the US currently runs its military. In this sort of situation, if you lose your army, you lose the war. That is why key battles at strategically important positions are hugely important in those days. Your military couldn't take a loss of 30,000 soldiers because if you're Alexander that's your entire early army.

                        In the Eritrean-Ethiopean war, you had losses calculated as being up to 100,000, with 70,000 being the commonly used figure. That's Alexander's entire army at its height and two massive Roman battles. These are not the old scales that we're talking about. They're modern. You didn't have trench warfare in 1803. You had Napoleon, running a conscripted army, commenting glibly about being able to lose 30,000 soldiers in a month and still being able to fight, and that was what made his terrifying to the rest of Europe. Once you combine the military infrastructure with the killing power of modern weaponry, you set up the possibility for horribly bloody and costly conflicts that have defined most conflicts ever since.

            2. [5]
              BuckeyeSundae
              Link Parent
              I would normally distinguish between causes for war and execution of it. And while I would admit a great number of problems with the pre-emptive defense strategy that you're talking about, at the...

              What? No. Once they're off my territory, it's over. There is no such thing as "pre-emptive defence". Invading their land to prevent them invading my land is just exchanging one moral wrong for another moral wrong.

              I would normally distinguish between causes for war and execution of it. And while I would admit a great number of problems with the pre-emptive defense strategy that you're talking about, at the end of the day the execution of the war has to have in mind the ability to win it. Are you saying that once a war has started the line decided between your land and the invader's land is one that must continue to be respected in military strategy? That the cost of the war's home front must be borne only by your people? Sounds like a way to set your people off at a heavy disadvantage from the onset to me.

              But maybe we're talking about different points in the process. It could be that you're focused exclusively on reasons/ethods/justifications for starting the war, not how the war itself plays out. If this is the case, then I think we probably agree (if maybe for different reasons).

              1. [4]
                Algernon_Asimov
                Link Parent
                No, the point is to end the war, not necessarily win it. All I need to do is push the invader off my territory and keep them off. That's it. I don't need to beat the enemy into submission. I don't...

                at the end of the day the execution of the war has to have in mind the ability to win it.

                No, the point is to end the war, not necessarily win it. All I need to do is push the invader off my territory and keep them off. That's it. I don't need to beat the enemy into submission. I don't need to carpet-bomb their main cities. I don't need to nuke their capital. I just need to get them off my land.

                Counter-attack is not the same as self-defence.

                Like I said in my original comment here, I can't really give you a moral justification for war. I've tried here, but the best I can come up with is that the only justification for killing other people is to prevent those people from killing.

                That's why you all struggle with my answers. I don't give the common "hit 'em back and hit 'em hard" response that most people want to see.

                1 vote
                1. [3]
                  BuckeyeSundae
                  Link Parent
                  Sure, and I appreciate the effort. Forgive the emphasis on tactics, as I know your historical interests are not military, but it seems strange to me that a political solution would be possible and...

                  Sure, and I appreciate the effort. Forgive the emphasis on tactics, as I know your historical interests are not military, but it seems strange to me that a political solution would be possible and favorable to your side of a conflict if you act solely defensively. This seems more like a position to hold only when the geography of the place you're at allows it (such as Australia, which can't have anything other than amphibious or aerial assaults).

                  This question is impossible to know with any certainty, but would your views change if you were in a situation where either (1) your enemy would not relent and would never be geographically isolated from your territory (such as Israel), or (2) would never settle the question of where your territory ends and theirs begins (China, India, Pakistan, Crimea, among other current territorial disputes)?

                  I think the Six Days War is an interesting case when it comes to this sort of topic, so I'll go into a little detail on that. There you had Egypt and Israel engaging one another in more and more provocative rhetoric for some time, with Egypt being the party saying the other party (Israel) is an illegal state and should be wiped off the map. As part of that (and part of a larger Arab league effort to boycott all things that contribute to Israeli strength), Egypt moved forward with a plan that would cut Israel off from 90 percent of its oil trade in closing the straits of Tiran. Israel saw this as an existential threat because that loss of oil would amount to a material crippling of their military capabilities. So they (probably, as there's some dispute) acted first to destroy Egypt's air superiority by bombing their airfields and air fleet in a fantastically successful raid. It wasn't so much that Egypt would have put up an amazing fight in air space, but Israel having basically unchallenged superiority dominated the military adventures that came shortly after.

                  Israel invaded and occupied the Sinai Peninsula with startlingly low casualty numbers on both sides (last I checked it was something like 20k for the Arab allies and a little over 5k casualties Israel, which seems just impossibly low in modern warfare). It did so because Egypt was seeking to cut Israel off from its ability to defend itself, while Egypt and the Arab league generally were already two wars into trying to wipe Israel off the map. You seem to be saying that Israel's actions here were unequivocally not moral, despite the overt justification for this action being that Israel was seeking a decisive military victory that would prevent its Arab-majority rivals from openly rejoining war against them. What information would you need to find a moral path forward?

                  1. [2]
                    Algernon_Asimov
                    Link Parent
                    You mention Israel. I strongly disapprove of their pre-emptive invasion of territory that was not their own. If Egypt was going to commit military action against them, all Israel needed to do was...

                    You mention Israel. I strongly disapprove of their pre-emptive invasion of territory that was not their own. If Egypt was going to commit military action against them, all Israel needed to do was disarm them - a surgical strike on Egypt's airfields was a morally defensible action in that context (preferably without killing anyone; it was sufficient to destroy the aeroplanes and weapons). That's it. They should have stopped there. Invading land that wasn't theirs and dispossessing over a million people (subjecting them to harm) was not morally defensible in any way. Continuing to hold those lands 50 years later is even worse.

                    Ironically, there is one tactic of Israel's which I agree with in principle, even if I deplore how it's playing out in practice: building a wall. Putting up a protective barrier between yourself and a potential attacker is a valid pacifist approach. However, erecting a wall through other people's territory, dispossessing those people, and cutting off access to areas they need access to, is morally wrong.

                    1 vote
                    1. BuckeyeSundae
                      Link Parent
                      Thanks for exploring this example with me. It helped me immensely in understanding your point of view. I usually hesitate before bringing israel into any of these debates because they're so laden...

                      Thanks for exploring this example with me. It helped me immensely in understanding your point of view. I usually hesitate before bringing israel into any of these debates because they're so laden with emotion on all sides, but I think it served very nicely here.

    2. [7]
      BuckeyeSundae
      Link Parent
      More and more I find myself falling into the camp that World War I may have been better off (and never escalated to world war at all) if England stayed out of the war when Germany invaded Belgium....

      More and more I find myself falling into the camp that World War I may have been better off (and never escalated to world war at all) if England stayed out of the war when Germany invaded Belgium. England did not have to enter the war. They were not allies with anyone (and intentionally so). Instead, the Germans saw Belgium neutrality as a "piece of paper" that would have prevented them from winning against the French quickly enough to turn to deal with France's Russian ally, and they operated under the mentality that "if war must be waged, make it quick. Terrible but quick is vastly preferable to slow and 'humane'." (I'm quoting, but it's actually paraphrasing one of the German generals leading up to the conflict.)

      I would hesitate before taking World War II in isolation. The problem is so much of what led to it is tied up in the first World War. At Versailles, the western powers decided to seize the opportunity: France for payback on an affront the Germans caused 60 years prior at the same palace when it declared its nationhood, Britain to put Germany "back in the box" to simplify the massively complicated alliance networks that Bismark had devised to prevent war two generations earlier, the United States to get its money back some way some how (literal payback). Without the punishing look and impact of the treaty of Versailles, the wind at the backs of alienated nazi youth may not have flared high enough to win a plurality in German government. It is likely that there would have been catastrophic depression anyway (they did just get done killing off millions of their youth), but without the punishing fiscal and economic reparations and conditions on top of everything, and without the winning powers insisting Germany had caused the war to begin so they could justify their punishment, well. World War II would take a very different shape if it had happened at all. The German (now deposed) Kaiser was still hanging around looking for a chance to regain control of the government. Perhaps with a less strong nazi party, Wilhelm II might have had better bargaining chips to achieve his dream.

      Instead we got a world order that had almost exactly the same problems as the world in the lead up into World war I. Germany was still a serious power, and the dominant powers were trying to pretend it didn't exist, or shouldn't get any say in international affairs. Russia and the US weren't playing in the main international body that was supposed to help resolve disputes between or among nations, so two highly relevant economic powers weren't even participating in the space the dominant powers had created for themselves. Thus, the Thucydides problem remained the constant between both world wars (that age old idea that war between Sparta and Athens was 'inevitable' because Sparta couldn't imagine a world in which Athens was its military equal, and Athens refused to be snubbed).

      The dirty underbelly of both world wars that needs to be mentioned here also is military capability projections that incentivized military and diplomatic corp toward war. In WWI, France looked at Germany and saw themselves on the verge of being permanently eclipsed. Germany, for its part, looked at Russia and saw themselves on the verge of being permanently eclipsed. So in both cases, military leaders reasoned now was the time that both countries would be best positioned for a conflict, if a conflict must break out. In the lead up to WWII, you had similar looming projections indicating that the USSR's military peak was still coming in close to a decade, and it would be vastly outstripping the German capability; France and Britain, for their parts, looked at their military projections and saw that they would be strong enough in 1940 to deal with the German threat (and were content to play the waiting game for that projection).

      What I am saying is that the geopolitics of war in WWII are just as big of a reason that the people joined that war, if not bigger, than anything Germany itself did at the onset. And given the number of deaths that the war directly led to, and the number of lives ruined by it, was it really such a great, justifiable war? The atrocities that each side justified even in WWII merely because they were at war are sickening. Japanese-American internment; the Rape of Nanking; if it needs to be said, the Holocaust; the Dresden bombings; the list can go on and on. All to "save" people? Hard to argue you're fighting to save millions when you're killing millions to do it.

      2 votes
      1. [2]
        Algernon_Asimov
        Link Parent
        You obviously know a lot about World Wars I & II. Thanks for sharing that. You're not alone: some historians refer to this as Europe's Second Thirty Years' War.

        You obviously know a lot about World Wars I & II. Thanks for sharing that.

        I would hesitate before taking World War II in isolation. The problem is so much of what led to it is tied up in the first World War.

        You're not alone: some historians refer to this as Europe's Second Thirty Years' War.

        1 vote
        1. BuckeyeSundae
          Link Parent
          I don't know if I'd go so far as to call the two conflicts part of the same ongoing conflict, but certainly the way the first war goes lays much of the foundation for the technology, beginnings...

          I don't know if I'd go so far as to call the two conflicts part of the same ongoing conflict, but certainly the way the first war goes lays much of the foundation for the technology, beginnings and lessons taken into the second.

          And yeah, political history (wars and conflicts) are where many of my historical interests have been over the past few years, especially as a coping mechanism for the state of US politics.

      2. [4]
        tnkflx
        Link Parent
        If you ever get the chance, watch The Great War channel on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/user/TheGreatWar/. He follows the first World War week by week. Additionally, he explains all the...

        If you ever get the chance, watch The Great War channel on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/user/TheGreatWar/. He follows the first World War week by week. Additionally, he explains all the reasons for the start of World War I and there were many :)

        1. [3]
          BuckeyeSundae
          Link Parent
          The first few weeks especially are so messy. And the "causes" of the war are so debated that the fight itself is one to eat popcorn and watch normally polite professors turn rabid and try to bite...

          The first few weeks especially are so messy. And the "causes" of the war are so debated that the fight itself is one to eat popcorn and watch normally polite professors turn rabid and try to bite each others heads off in the most polite way they can manage.

          Thanks for the recommendation.

          1 vote
          1. [2]
            aethicglass
            Link Parent
            I'm currently reading Guns of August and it goes into a surprising level of detail about events in the years leasing up to wwi. I believe it was somebody on here who recommended it to me. Might...

            I'm currently reading Guns of August and it goes into a surprising level of detail about events in the years leasing up to wwi.

            I believe it was somebody on here who recommended it to me. Might have even been you! Oh man, what if I'm recommending a book to the person who recommended it to me? Well, if it wasn't you and you haven't checked it out, you might find it worth the read.

            1 vote
            1. BuckeyeSundae
              Link Parent
              Tuchman's account is a classic for a reason. I'm pretty sure it wasn't me that recommended the book to you, so we're safe from that particular mobius strip of Tuchman recommending. I always felt...

              Tuchman's account is a classic for a reason. I'm pretty sure it wasn't me that recommended the book to you, so we're safe from that particular mobius strip of Tuchman recommending. I always felt that Tuchman's narrative style was infinitely more accessible than most other historians covering the period. You read a guy like Tratchenberg and end up just wanting to sleep. Or maybe that was just how sleep deprived I was at the time, who knows.

              1 vote
  2. [2]
    Vadsamoht
    Link
    Not the detailed answer you're looking for, but one of the textbooks I used at university is quite readable and covered exactly this, (albeit largely from the perspective of cosmopolitanism in the...

    Not the detailed answer you're looking for, but one of the textbooks I used at university is quite readable and covered exactly this, (albeit largely from the perspective of cosmopolitanism in the later sections - you may or may not agree with this). The book is The Ethics of Peace and War by Iain Atack (ISBN 9780748615254). Yes, that's really the guy's name.

    As a general overview (not necessarily my own opinion), the commonly stated idea of a 'just war' in the context of political ethics relies on the party concerned respecting the limits and requirements of the principles of Jus ad bellum when entering the war (e.g. you don't wage war because somebody called your leader names) and Jus in bello regarding conduct in the war itself (you don't torture people for funsies). I'd explain in more detail, but you may as well just read the overview of these on wikipedia to get an idea of what these are. It is also often argued that actors in a conflict have a set of Jus post Bellum duties after a conflict has concluded (e.g. concerning reconstruction of devastated areas) - sometimes irrespective of whether the victor was the instigator of the conflict and sometimes not.

    Hopefully that's useful to you, even if it's not going to start any debate (which you may be looking for, idk), but at least being familiar with these principles will at the very least give you a grounding to base a discussion off of. Some people honestly advocate that war itself is not a bad thing (militarism), or the opposite (pacifism) and a hundred other standpoints, so as with any philosophical conversation it's often more productive to base it around the pros and cons of a particular argument or set of ideas rather than an open ended "what is the answer to problem X", which just ends up in people stating unfounded or unexamined opinions more often than not.

    3 votes
    1. BuckeyeSundae
      Link Parent
      Thanks for helping provide a better framework than I did for discussion. I did my own tour through just war theory back in my undergrad years, but I think memory of it got lost in the philosophy...

      Thanks for helping provide a better framework than I did for discussion. I did my own tour through just war theory back in my undergrad years, but I think memory of it got lost in the philosophy class I took just after it ("space and time").

      This is one of those questions that has a lot of writing on it out there. Tons of thoughtful people have talked about this issue before us and haven't come to all that convincing of a conclusion themselves. So in some sense what hope do we have? But in another, it means that we can enter the discussion as almost equals, especially if we can make our views on their backs.

  3. [13]
    meghan
    Link
    I am also in the thought that I mostly would like to say "nothing" and that diplomacy can solve all problems (given the two sides are willing to have the conversation), but so as to not dismiss...

    I am also in the thought that I mostly would like to say "nothing" and that diplomacy can solve all problems (given the two sides are willing to have the conversation), but so as to not dismiss your question I would say that what makes a morally good war is exactly that: one based in morals and virtues and not money or land. I like this quote that says "a truly tolerant society requires an intolerance to intolerance" and so I think my favorite kind of war (that "has" to happen) would be one where two incompatible ideologies fight.

    2 votes
    1. [11]
      Algernon_Asimov
      Link Parent
      So, if I'm running a totalitarian dictatorship and you're running a liberal democracy, would it be okay for me to go to war with you? It's a war between two incompatible ideologies, and I'm doing...

      I would say that what makes a morally good war is exactly that: one based in morals and virtues and not money or land.

      I think my favorite kind of war (that "has" to happen) would be one where two incompatible ideologies fight.

      So, if I'm running a totalitarian dictatorship and you're running a liberal democracy, would it be okay for me to go to war with you? It's a war between two incompatible ideologies, and I'm doing it for moral and virtuous reasons: to save your citizens from the loose morals that come with not having a strict social structure.

      1 vote
      1. [6]
        meghan
        Link Parent
        I mean I'd definitely rather not, but I think it's the most likely

        I mean I'd definitely rather not, but I think it's the most likely

        2 votes
        1. [5]
          Algernon_Asimov
          Link Parent
          Cool. Expect an invasion at dawn! And, because this is a "morally good" war on my part, I expect you to just surrender. I can then rescue your citizens from the immoral lives you're letting them...

          Cool. Expect an invasion at dawn! And, because this is a "morally good" war on my part, I expect you to just surrender. I can then rescue your citizens from the immoral lives you're letting them get away with.

          1. [2]
            meghan
            Link Parent
            I mean, it's still a war. I'm not going to just surrender haha. I have to save your own citizens from your tyranny if we're really doing this..

            I mean, it's still a war. I'm not going to just surrender haha. I have to save your own citizens from your tyranny if we're really doing this..

            1 vote
            1. Algernon_Asimov
              Link Parent
              So we're starting a war just because we don't like the type of government in each other's country. Somehow, I don't think the people we're about to kill in our armies and civilian population will...

              So we're starting a war just because we don't like the type of government in each other's country. Somehow, I don't think the people we're about to kill in our armies and civilian population will see this as a moral cause worth dying for.

              1 vote
          2. [2]
            BuckeyeSundae
            Link Parent
            If you were truly totalitarian you wouldn't necessarily have to confine yourself to international laws that seem built to favor democracies over your centralized system. I would expect rather that...

            If you were truly totalitarian you wouldn't necessarily have to confine yourself to international laws that seem built to favor democracies over your centralized system. I would expect rather that you would support a shadow war where you support insurrectionist elements that remember The Old Days when they didn't have this pesky democratic government trying to be pluralistic or friendly with their western neighbors above them keeping them down with weakness and slowness.

            Not that I'm talking about Russia and Ukraine or anything.

            I think there is a fair bit to question when it comes to the standard of a leader's moral code. I'm not sure moral relativism is the right direction to go with it though. Obviously there will be some crimes that the world should struggle to ignore. When a country uses nerve gas on its citizens in violation of international agreements it has signed and when the US president has said "don't do that or else," it's probably fair to expect some military reaction to that proportional to the deed (and aimed at reducing the ability to repeat the feat).

            I think the problem comes in the grey areas, not the obvious disagreements you're pointing at. If one country sees humanitarian intervention as a justifiable moral reason to intervene in a conflict (while simultaneously and conveniently failing to mention the oil fields that are fueling their economy in said country), while another country or group of countries don't see that as a justifiable reason, that's where you get into the sketchy areas with this approach. Here I'm referencing Libya, where France, Italy, and European allies pushed hard for the US to help intervene to help the Libyan rebels overthrow Qaddafi, but then the victorious rebels fractured when it came to actually trying to rule the country left behind, and now what's left over is basically a failed state. Was the failure here a lack of moral leadership from US or France and its allies? Was the failure here merely part of the long running cycle of the entropy of victory?

            1. Algernon_Asimov
              Link Parent
              I'm just playing the games by @meghan's rules. She says a good war is based on morals and virtues, so I'm declaring war on her country in the name of morality! If you read my own top-level comment...

              I'm just playing the games by @meghan's rules. She says a good war is based on morals and virtues, so I'm declaring war on her country in the name of morality!

              When a country uses nerve gas on its citizens

              If you read my own top-level comment here, you'll see that I think this is pretty much the only valid justification for war: to save people's lives.

              I'm referencing Libya, where France, Italy, and European allies pushed hard for the US to help intervene to help the Libyan rebels overthrow Qaddafi, [...] what's left over is basically a failed state. Was the failure here a lack of moral leadership from US or France and its allies?

              The failure happened when some people decided to kill people for a lesser reason than saving other people from severe and immediate harm. Achieving "regime change" in a country is not sufficient justification for choosing to kill the citizns of that country: "We're going to kill your fellow citizens to help you change your government. We're saving them by killing them!" That logic doesn't hold water.

      2. [4]
        demifiend
        Link Parent
        Why can't you and the leader of the other country settle this in a boxing ring, over crossed swords, or with pistols at dawn? Why make ordinary people fight and die on your behalf?

        Why can't you and the leader of the other country settle this in a boxing ring, over crossed swords, or with pistols at dawn? Why make ordinary people fight and die on your behalf?

        1. [3]
          Algernon_Asimov
          Link Parent
          We're in a thread discussing moral wars, not one-on-one battles between champions. @meghan gave us an example of when war is moral, so I'm fighting a war under her rules, to show how moral I am. :)

          We're in a thread discussing moral wars, not one-on-one battles between champions. @meghan gave us an example of when war is moral, so I'm fighting a war under her rules, to show how moral I am. :)

          1 vote
          1. [2]
            demifiend
            Link Parent
            Right. Never mind that avoiding battle in favor of single combat between champions goes all the way back to Homer. :)

            Right. Never mind that avoiding battle in favor of single combat between champions goes all the way back to Homer. :)

            1. Algernon_Asimov
              Link Parent
              I could also simply not care about the government and society in @meghan's hypothetical country - but that's not the point of this thread. We're here to discuss the morality of war. meghan gave an...

              I could also simply not care about the government and society in @meghan's hypothetical country - but that's not the point of this thread. We're here to discuss the morality of war. meghan gave an example where war is moral, so I'm taking up that point for debate (in my own quirky way).

              1 vote
    2. BuckeyeSundae
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      I think because of the absolute horror that was World Wars I and II, many people think the idea of total war is absolutely anathema (and I would be among them). So when we talk about war, we're...

      I think because of the absolute horror that was World Wars I and II, many people think the idea of total war is absolutely anathema (and I would be among them). So when we talk about war, we're talking about military conflicts with specific objectives. It could be regime change; it could be military capability strikes; it could be guerilla warfare against a stronger state; and it could be the armed attempts to restore order from said guerilla fighters. In all these cases, we should end up shy of total war situations like we saw at the start of the 20th century.

      I think it's actually pretty rare for two ideologies to find themselves incompatible as you put it. A lot of people like to point to World War II as an example of these incompatible ideologies coming to blows, but I think that's a misreading of the causes that lay under the beginnings of World War II. It's a convenient one for the western (winning) powers, but it's probably wrong. The reason that it's wrong is that World War II seemed more a continuation of the failure of the Western Imperial powers to integrate and respect the power of Germany as an international force. Instead, everyone continued to operate under 19th century thinking and earlier which seemed to suggest that nations could be "put into a box" and left to rot, effectively. It's this rotting that formed a lot of the alienated energy that led to the Nazi regime's election.

      So in effect both World Wars is much less about incompatible ideologies but the failure of the dominant power to make space for the new power to feel respected, and the failure of the new power to respect the traditions of the establishment they're entering. This dynamic is one of the oldest in recorded history, extending back to Thucydides' observations of Sparta's war with Athens.

      I am guessing that "Respect/prestige" is not a good enough reason for you, though it may be a sort of virtue.

      Edit: I think one example I could point to of what you're talking about, a war between incompatible ideologies, would be the failed revolutions of 1848, and the spurts and starts of uprising the decade before in France. In these revolutions (which are themselves as armed uprisings arguably war), you had monarchists who believed that the sovereign's power came from god on the one hand, and radical republicans who believed that a sovereign's power was granted by the people on another (you also had student socialists angry that the economic question wasn't being answered while this political question was). THIS was a fight between incompatible ideologies that had to be resolved by the sword. The monarchists largely won these wars (though obviously the republicans got much of what they wanted eventually as absolute monarchy is so rare today that you can count on one hand the number of nations who still have it).

  4. demifiend
    Link
    IMO, the only morally justifiable war is a war where the politicians who started it and the rich pigs who profit from it are the first to die.

    IMO, the only morally justifiable war is a war where the politicians who started it and the rich pigs who profit from it are the first to die.

    2 votes
  5. zoec
    Link
    My impression is that the most often accepted view is that only the war as the last resort of self-defence is morally justifiable. I'd say even in this case, the justification is a precarious,...

    My impression is that the most often accepted view is that only the war as the last resort of self-defence is morally justifiable.

    I'd say even in this case, the justification is a precarious, limited, and vulnerable one, as is all moral goodness. An argument for good necessarily include its own moderation and the acknowledgement of its own vulnerability.

    And even in this setting, I think it's perhaps futile to assign "moral goodness" to one side, because each side constitutes a whole mass of human beings. An individual volunteer joins the armed force and consent that her bodily life be put in risk for war. A general, in his relative safety, makes strategic decisions and set troops in action in terms of the anonymous bodies of regimens, columns, or whole armies. Both may have good reason to be convinced of the justice of the war, but there isn't the justice; their meanings of justice overlap, but are not the same. One is more visceral, more embodied, more fragile, more prone to fear, despair, and self-doubt, and more connected to the fate of her fellow common human beings; while the other is more rational, more self-convinced, more abstract. I tend to side with the former.

    But all this said, I think using the labels such as "good" or "just" didn't cut it. Instead of speaking of a "good" war, perhaps I meant a redeemable war.

    1 vote
  6. est
    Link
    Logically, by killing off those who think the war it's immoral.

    What, if anything, makes a morally good war?

    Logically, by killing off those who think the war it's immoral.

    1 vote
  7. [2]
    lol
    Link
    Even though I agree 90% of wars are huge wastes of human lives for an unjustifiable cause, there are some cases where fighting a war is justifiable. The first thing that immediately comes to mind...

    Even though I agree 90% of wars are huge wastes of human lives for an unjustifiable cause, there are some cases where fighting a war is justifiable. The first thing that immediately comes to mind is WW2. This was a regime that murdered its own civilians and were invading relatively defenseless countries, if the allies did not invade there would have been even more loss of life and sovereignty. Don't forget that Japan attempted to invade the US, if there wasn't a significant retaliation then where would we be now? What peaceful action can you take when a nation refuses to back down and will take your land if you let them? These threats are why I think militaries may (hopefully) get smaller as time goes on, but will never really go away, at least not in the next few centuries. Of course the side affect is the nations that control them now have the power to commit those atrocities, and if they're sitting there doing nothing I imagine those in charge may feel like it's burning a hole in their pocket (this is part of why I think military should be used more for national projects and to build infrastructure and such in peacetime, if you want to send your nation to war you have to give up that fancy new airport you wanted).

    1 vote
    1. BuckeyeSundae
      Link Parent
      I've written a pretty lengthy comment already about why I am not sure WW2 is such a great example of a justifiable cause for war. When it comes to the US, its isolationist trade practices...

      I've written a pretty lengthy comment already about why I am not sure WW2 is such a great example of a justifiable cause for war. When it comes to the US, its isolationist trade practices (especially when it came to oil trade with Japan) was a lot of the reason Japan believed it had to attack the US. In both world wars, the US tried to say "oh we're neutral!" while engaging in trade with really only one side of the conflict (and often including the selling of munitions).

      Another part of the reason was the idea that if you needed a natural resource, you had to have it within your territory because countries didn't want to trade their stockpiles to you.

      That doesn't excuse Japan's surprise bombing on pearl harbor, but let's not pretend that the US did nothing to provoke that sort of strategic planning.

  8. nil
    Link
    I'd recommend the book "Nonviolence, the History of a Dangerous Idea" by Mark Kurlansky, if you are interested in the mechanics of starting a war. To answer your question, though: a "morally good"...

    I'd recommend the book "Nonviolence, the History of a Dangerous Idea" by Mark Kurlansky, if you are interested in the mechanics of starting a war.

    To answer your question, though: a "morally good" war is whatever those in power want you to believe is "morally good". In my personal view, the expression "good war" is contradiction in terms.

    1 vote
  9. Layla
    Link
    One where nobody is forced to kill, one where nobody has to die. So.. nothing.

    One where nobody is forced to kill, one where nobody has to die.

    So.. nothing.

  10. luke-jr
    Link
    The obvious example of a justified war was the Crusades. Abuses certainly happened, but the basis for the war (fighting back against Muslim oppression) was itself good. I think the Catholic...

    The obvious example of a justified war was the Crusades. Abuses certainly happened, but the basis for the war (fighting back against Muslim oppression) was itself good.

    I think the Catholic Encyclopedia's article on war answers your general question quite well.

  11. anti
    Link
    They aren't, are they, if you consider murder to be immoral. They may be justified, but they are never moral. A war can be justified at any time for any reason that a population deems justifiable....

    They aren't, are they, if you consider murder to be immoral. They may be justified, but they are never moral.

    A war can be justified at any time for any reason that a population deems justifiable.

    These aren't palatable answers, but I think they're about as close to capital T truth as you can get on the topic at large.