Why America goes to war
Why go to war when a peaceful resolution to a conflict may still be an option? Richard Rubenstein, a professor at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, has spent a career trying to answer that question and to find ways to inspire a reflex toward peace over violence. In “Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War,” just released by Bloomsbury Press, he explains why ordinary Americans follow their leaders into battle even when war is difficult to justify. Here, he outlines five traditional justifications for war – and why they should stir skepticism.
By Richard Rubenstein
Since 1950, the United States has spent more than 20 years at war, with military operations killing more than a hundred thousand Americans, wounding at least five times that number, and consuming several million foreign lives. We have been fighting continuously since 2001 with no end to the violence in sight.
The question that most wants answering at this point is not why our leaders go to war but why we so often follow them into battle. Some commentators think that Americans are innocent dupes, people who will buy anything, including war, if it is cleverly packaged and sold. Others insist that since the early days of our republic we have been a nation of frontier warriors eager to prove our manliness in battle.
Each of these theories contains a piece of the truth but misses the most important point: we are a religious people who will not fight unless first convinced that war is morally justified. (This is why virtually every American war has spawned a significant anti-war movement.)
Our nation’s history reveals five crucial justifications for war:
Self-defense: We are under attack and have a sacred right and duty to defend ourselves.
Evil enemy: A diabolical enemy – one who wishes us harm because of his evil nature – exists and must be destroyed if we are to remain safe and free.
Humanitarian duty: We are morally obligated to rescue the victims of atrocious oppression from tyrants who violate their human rights.
Patriotism: Loving America means being willing to fight for the nation when asked to make this sacrifice.
Last resort: War is necessary because the enemy has refused to negotiate or cannot be trusted to adhere to diplomatic agreements.
These principles have often been invoked to induce us to participate in unnecessary and unjust wars. That is why each one should trigger a series of skeptical questions.
Claims of self-defense should make us ask who, exactly, is threatening us and what the threat consists of. If U.S. troops occupying another nation are attacked by local insurgents, is a war of counter-insurgency needed to defend our nation or merely to secure some imperial outpost?
Similarly, even though a figure like Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden is declared an evil enemy, we still need to ask what, exactly, motivates his hostility and what non-violent policies and actions on our part might undermine his sources of support and make us safer.
Humanitarian duty is often invoked to convince us to intervene to save oppressed peoples. But if we assume that America alone is capable of liberating the oppressed without becoming a new oppressor, we make the fatal assumption of our unique virtue and fruitlessly deny our own “dark side.” This is why, following the Spanish-American War, we repeated in the Philippines the worst excesses of the Spanish counter-insurgency campaign in Cuba, killing more than 200,000 Filipinos in the process.
Patriotism does not necessarily mean fighting for one’s country; it means doing what is best for America and the world, which often requires working for peace rather than participating in war.
And, most U.S. wars have not been justified by the principle of last resort. Not only have our own leaders often refused to negotiate, they have not yet learned to use the methods of conflict resolution to discover and eliminate the underlying causes of war.
Americans are neither gullible dupes nor frontier warriors. But we have too often abandoned our usual hard-headed skepticism when asked to support U.S. military campaigns abroad in the name of patriotism. There is an antidote to this – the “I’m from Missouri, show me!” attitude exhibited by great patriots from John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln to Mark Twain, Jeannette Rankin, David Dellinger and Dennis Kucinich.
It’s not too late to regain our balance and end America’s unnecessary wars.
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