Jonathan Zimmerman, in his Los Angeles Times column reprinted in the Denver Post “Letting Atrocities Define Afghan War a Mistake” (http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_16544999), almost got it right: Atrocities are not dispositive. But they are relevant. It is our ability to divorce the relevance of war’s very real and abundant brutality from our case-by-case decisions whether to go to war or not that enables the overly blithe willingness to commit mass murder and impose massive suffering in service to political ends.
I think Zimmerman is right, though, that if a war must be fought, because avoiding it will lead to more suffering than prosecuting it, then its brutality, including the war crimes that will be committed by some on our own side, should be a part of the calculation, rather than proof of some irrefutable conclusion (Zimmerman errs by not acknowledging that such brutality should always be a part of the calculation, weighing heavily against the choice to go to war). The illegal brutalities committed by some of our soldiers in Afghanistan, like the brutalities committed by some of our soldiers in World War II (and accepted more readily by the military and the public), should be treated as the crimes that they are. So Zimmerman’s point that using those war crimes as proof that it was an unjust war is disingenuous is correct. However, his conclusion that those war crimes have no bearing on the judgment of whether it is a just war or not is strikingly incorrect.
Our bias should be against war, against dropping explosives on civilians’ homes that rip children and babies, as well as their parents and grandparents, to shreds. The horrors unleashed, sanitized by our deliberations, largely scrubbed of concern for those we are killing, oblivious to the full scope of the violence and brutality unleashed, should always be a primary consideration. Instead, we ask ourselves only if we are willing to sacrifice the lives of our own military personnel, along with the material costs to ourselves, of going to war. We rarely ask ourselves “Is it worth killing tens of thousands of innocent people?”
I am not a pacifist, though I dearly wish that it were possible to be one, that the world were a rational enough place that pacifism could be a viable position. But, as Henry Kissinger (who I rarely quote) once said, pacifism is simply the surrender of the world to the most ruthless. And he was right. The British policy of Appeasement in World War II ended up contributing to far more suffering, to a far more brutal war, than a stronger military stance earlier on probably would have. Sometimes, you do have to stand up to brutal dictators. Sometimes, you do have to resort to “defensive” violence to prevent the often more extreme, and, perhaps, more unjust “offensive” violence that would occur in the absence of such military diligence. But it is a decision that should always ask, almost before and above all other questions: Is the need great enough to justify slaughtering tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children? Because that will always be a part of the very real cost of going to war.