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Why America goes to war

Guest Blogger

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.

By Steven E. Levingston  | October 26, 2010; 1:21 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  
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Wars are unnecessary if there are viable options. But the theory we have followed is the "stitch in time saves nine" idea. Had we gone after Hitler very early we could have saved many lives. So we have tried to head off conflict and since we did avoid the nuclear war many thought was inevitable - it has paid off to our benefit.

Vietnam was bad enough, but it saved many. So did Iraq and now Afghanistan.

Once we establish our credibility, the peace option will be open to us. But the other side has to fear the alternative enough to make peace.

If Iran feared us enough we would have peace without fighting.

As it is, we may still gain that goal.

If you are willing to fight, you may not have to. If you run from the fight - it will always follow you home.

Like to New York.


Posted by: GaryEMasters | October 26, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Alas, this is highly unsophisticated. Most of the wars of the past were unjustified. Madison entered the War of 1812 only to be reelected, while McKinley did the Spanish-American War to arouse patriotism before his election. World War I was a terrible mistake that ultimately rested on ethnic anxiety. The Mexican War, although not morally nice, was historically necessary, and it was so unpopular in the parts of the north that it contributed to the Civil War.

The Civil War was necessary by the time it occurred, but nothing would have been easier than to defuse the purely symbolic free soil issue. But no President has been reelected since 1840 and none renominated since 1844. Lincoln feared that he would continue the streak if he compromised on a symbol. So he rolled the dice, hoping the South was blufffing. Unfortunately, the Southern leaders made the most grievous mistake and plunged ahead.

World War II and Korea were good, but Korea quickly became unpopular. LBJ knew Vietnam was a disaster but thought he would lose the election if he let Vietnam fall.

The recent wars are easy to explain: we decided to have a Foreign Legion, and the rest of the population does not even have to pay taxes to pay for the war. The great casualties come among people we allegedly are helping, but we don't care about foreign deaths at all.

Posted by: jhough1 | October 26, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

"Vietnam was bad enough, but it saved many. So did Iraq and now Afghanistan."

Who did these wars save? They cost many lives. How can you know how many, or if any lives at all were saved? What you are really saying, even if it does no good at all you are willing to kill foreigners.

Posted by: steveh46 | October 26, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

Then why are we not at war with all of the drug cartels in Mexico. These people are terrorizing the whole Country of Mexico and even killing their polie there. The drug cartels are also a direct threat to the USA when they come here and ship their drugs all over our Country. The US could go there and be out in a very short time if they were orginazed. Help Mexico get rid of these terrorists.

Posted by: randykree | October 27, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

"The US could go there and be out in a very short time if they were orginazed."

Hey, just what they said about iraq and Viet Nam. And just as likely to work out as both of those.

Posted by: steveh46 | October 27, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

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