I have been asked in a comment to another post by a friend recently whether war is ever justified. This is undoubtedly a difficult issue, one that has bothered humans for generations and that I myself have been grappling with for several years now.
Firstly I think it is necessary to lay out some basic principles and state unambiguously what one’s values are. I would say quite clearly that I believe that violence is wrong in itself, as any violent act goes against the principle that human life is precious, and all humans are equal and should be valued as such. I take the Quaker notion of ‘that of God in everyone’ to refer to wholly human values of love, mercy and compassion and combine this with a belief in the dignity and worth of all people from the humanist tradition as my own personal framework. According to these beliefs, all wars must in themselves be fundamentally wrong as they involve countless acts of often horrendous violence. I think individuals and groups should state this loudly and clearly. However it is possible to do something which we believe is wrong with the aim of preventing a greater wrongdoing from happening. This is where of course I admit it becomes difficult. I find the notion of a ‘just war’ extremely alien personally but also very outdated and completely unfit for purpose today in the twenty-first century. The concept was first used in a time when wars took place on the ground between soldiers with guns on a battle field. The reality of modern warfare renders this idea almost completely meaningless to my mind, as today it involves dropping bombs on cities and towns, ultimately always causing huge numbers of civilian deaths and casualties. In an era of nuclear weapons there is also the threat of much worse, as was seen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War 2. The impact on innocent civilians and those not in the conventional ‘army’ of battle means that I find it hard to see how any war today can be ‘just’.
However, I do not wish to appear naive about the realities of conflict and situations of extreme injustice and oppression. I do not think I am a pacifist. In judging certain situations there is a clear distinction in my mind between an act of aggression (such as Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, the US bombing of South Vietnam in 1962 etc.) from an act of self-defence or resistance to aggression (e.g. the French resistance, what there was of it, under Nazi occupation). In my view, acts of aggression are never justified as they impose domination on people against their will and thus violate liberal or libertarian values. These acts are identified as the supreme international crimes, established by the Nuremberg Principles and used in the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions. In contrast, I can see how acts of self-defence or resistance to aggression and occupation can be ‘justified’ even though I may still personally disagree with them. Such examples today would be the resistance in Iraq and in south Lebanon. It can be argued that a fundamental principle is that people have the right to defend themselves from foreign occupation. Some people will choose to do this and some people won’t. This is what has happened for example in Lebanon. Now, one can say that someone has the right to do something without agreeing with them doing it. This is what I would probably say for example for acts by the Mahdi Army or Hizbullah, whilst still maintaining that all violence is inherently wrong.
Above all, I believe that we should always seek to resolve conflicts nonviolently and find alternatives to violence, and this should be a universal principle. I honestly do not believe that anyone, even those who commit acts of violence and aggression, want war and destruction and are glad that it takes place. War to my mind, is a failure of humans to resolve conflict, and can result from unwillingness or despair or lack of perseverance in believing another solution is possible and working to achieve it. In order to effectively find alternative solutions, we need to seek out sources of injustice and oppression and try to dismantle them and build just and sustainable alternatives. Opposing the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Kashmir, as another example would be part of this process. This is how we can move to a more peaceful world for the future. I hope to play a part in this huge set of challenges in my work in the future. In future posts I will refer to examples of nonviolence in action, and what different organisations are doing to live this out and lead the way for peace.