Just enough war
December 15, 2009
While it upsets me and probably offended the Nobel committee to have a peace prize winner lecture the audience on the necessity of war, peacemakers should be grateful for the opportunity to re-engage in this debate. This is a struggle of ideas, and the idea of the just war simply isn't going away.

Those of us who believe, as Bishop Dozier once said, that 'the just war theory belongs in the same place as the flat earth theory', must confront some powerful ideas and images that make the just war theory resonate with people.

It's not surprising that many conservatives liked this speech, and see Obama as finally doing something Presidential. Among US elites there is some consensus that a President can't become a great leader without going to war and killing people. That's what makes you look presidential; that's the kind of 'hard choice' that gives someone the aura of being a statesman. A lot of regular people seem to agree.

At least three things help account for the popularity of war in America. First, war brings no immediate consequences to all but a tiny minority of the American public. No taxes, no deaths in the family, no retaliation, no victims on TV. Second, the bulk of the public agrees with what I call the 'sports bar mentality' of international conflict. You win by being tougher, more coercive, more violent than the other side. Conflicts are zero sum-only one winner, one loser. If someone 'disses' you, get in their face. Your reputation is everything. Only wimps talk it out. Third, Americans, both elites and masses, cling to a moral self-image; we refuse to acknowledge the evil within our own society or our own selves.

War's popularity produces a profound need for a just war theory. If you believe that the US is strong and envied, it will be threatened, attacked, or disrespected; when that occurs, we must fight with violence because we can't see ourselves as soft. But we can't see ourselves as evil either, so we need a doctrine to justify the violence.

The emotional evidence that Obama provides for the just war is not Afghanistan, but as always, the stubborn image of World War II. Images of demonic Nazis validate not just the existence of evil, but evil's concentration within one human being, or one nation. Hollywood understands that this has a deep resonance in the human psyche: even our children see the hyenas marching in goosestep, saluting Scar in the Lion King. People have an enormous capacity to see other people as enemies, completely evil, beyond redemption.

But the reliance on the Nazis reveals the fallacy of this view. By now we should understand that all people are both good and evil in some measure. We dehumanize enemies so that it's easier to kill them and still hold on to our moral self image, which we desperately need, for fear of confronting the evil within ourselves.

The flip side of the Nazi image in Obama's speech is his glorification of American might and selflessness during the cold war and after. The US provided security for the world for six decades with the "blood of our citizens," "the strength of our arms," and "the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform." Yes, we are good, we are strong. Gloss over the "mistakes we have made," and thank God for the USA.

Images of good and evil are powerful. It's not surprising that the images Obama evoked overwhelm the weak logic of his argument.

If you read the speech closely, Obama understands that WW2 did not follow the conduct of a just war criteria, as more civilians were killed than soldiers; this violates the noncombatant immunity and proportionality guidelines of war conduct in the doctrine.

Obama also accepts that the UN has basically solved the problem of big interstate war, but he cites 'new' threats-civil war, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation-to argue that the just war theory needs rethinking. Like Bush, he needs a new just war.

Finally, we get the false choice: faced with these threats, and the presence of evil in the world, Obama says he can't "stand idle." Though he had just discussed Gandhi and King, and admitted that there is nothing passive about nonviolence, he presents his choice as either standing idle or using violence. His decision: like Bush he will use force unilaterally, though (of course) only in self defense.

This reasoning is poor history and an insult to veterans of nonviolent campaigns. In the face of the evil of Jim Crow and lynching, did King "stand idle?" Did Gandhi "stand idle" in the face of British massacres and oppression? Did thousands of their followers who risked their lives in nonviolent struggle stand idle?? Did the students of Otpor, the nonviolent movement that ended Milosevic's rule in Serbia and really brought democracy to the Balkans, stand idle?

I wish Obama would reread King's Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam war.

Still, none of this matters to the public at large. It's the images of good vs. evil that dominate.

Despite Obama's skillful rhetorical attempt to reconcile war and nonviolence, Gandhi and King were right. The ends and means are connected. If we want to bend the moral arc of history more quickly toward justice, we need to stop using violence to solve our problems. A first step on that path is to stop trying to justify our violence with the just war theory.

Commentary by Marc V. Simon, associate professor of political science and coordinator of the peace and conflict studies minor at Bowling Green State University

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