If you (or a commentator or your political representative or an executive official) support entering into a war, is your support in accordance with a firm and accurate understanding of the war?
Is the war a war that’s being initiated rationally? By rational, we mean the standard kinds of things: cogent, sensible, common sense, sound, judicious, prudent.
I’m not asking if the war is just. I’m asking about considerations that precede that question. To be able to label some wars as unjust, it’s helpful to back up and ask if it’s meeting conditions of being rational. Indeed, if these considerations are not addressed before entering a war, that lapse in the thoughtful analysis itself suggests that elements of irrationality are affecting the decision to go to war or not.
For a war to be just, it is necessary that it be entered into rationally. If the war is entered into irrationally, it cannot be a just war except perhaps by accident. Not all rationally-entered wars are just, but all just wars are preceded by rational considerations.
In order to assess rationality, I propose that we ask ourselves a series of questions. The asking and the answering are part of a rational process. Ignoring the asking and answering suggests the decisions being made are being made irrationally. Of at least equal importance, the answers themselves also illuminate the presence or absence of rationality.
The nature of the war gives rise to the central questions of what the war is about, who the enemy is, how the war has come about, and what options there are that are alternatives to war.
What’s the beef? What’s the dispute or conflict?
How did this war come about? Are the causes clear?
What are we fighting for and what against?
What are the aims the war is supposed to achieve? What do we regard as a success, failure, partial success and partial failure?
Is the perpetrator of the war identified with near certainty?
Who is the war against? Who is the enemy?
Is the cause great enough and certain enough to be a cause of a full-scale war, or are lesser actions called for? Is the war the right means to achieve the desired ends? Have we considered all the available alternatives for dealing with the causes and the enemy?
Are there hidden causes and motives for the war?
How did the impulse to war arise?
Did a false flag event trigger the war?
Did a government-concocted event trigger the war?
Is a trivial event being used as a cause of war?
Have there been emotional pressures to get into the war?
Did a government propaganda campaign create the sentiment to go to war?
Have government agencies produced inflammatory materials, including fictional events, so as to sway public opinion?
Has the country been attacked by another state or state-run force?
Is the war in defense of this country or in defense of some other country?
Is the war an aggression on our part?
We typically turn to our military experts to answer many other kinds of questions that it is common sense to ask before embarking on a war, questions such as:
Where will the war be fought? Where is the enemy?
How will the war be fought? What weapons and methods of warfare will be used to achieve victory; and what will not be used?
When do we think that the war will end? What events tell us that we have won or lost or reached a stalemate or compromise, that is, reached an end?
How do we anticipate dealing with a defeated enemy?
How much will the war cost? Can we win?
Who is going to fight the war? How many who are fighting will likely be killed and wounded on both sides? How many non-participating civilians will likely be killed and wounded? How many refugees are likely?
Might this war escalate and go out of control? Might new forces enter? Which ones?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy?
The congressional role of Congress in war leads us to ask further sensible questions:
Did Congress declare the war? Did it debate the war fully and answer the questions of its rationality? Were dissident views and arguments fully aired? Was the vote in Congress heavily one-sided?
Was the decision based on sound information? Was it hasty or measured?
Irrationality can arise from emotion, as opposed to sound judgment. Irrationality also arises when wants and motives are confused with reasons. For example, suppose I say that there was no good (sound) reason for the U.S. to have attacked Iraq in 2003. A critic tells me that there was a perfectly good reason, which was for military contractors to make big profits. My reply is that this “perfectly good reason” is, in fact, a bad reason because it’s not a reason at all. A reason must justify something, and there must be some criteria outside the activity to refer to in the reasoning and justification. If I kill you because I want your hat, I cannot justify that by saying I had a perfectly good reason, namely, my own gratification. That’s circular; it explains the killing by a motive or a want that’s coincident with the act, not by a reason that goes outside the act. It attempts to explain an act of gratification by the fact that it was gratifying, which is no explanation at all.
Bush’s explanation of attacking Iraq was at least rational on the surface, even though it was based on fabrications. He said that he was making a preemptive attack on an enemy prepared to attack us with weapons of mass destruction. This purported self-defense became the justification for the attack. It was possible to argue against Bush’s reasoning in several ways because it was made within a framework of rational thought. If he had said that he was attacking because it felt good to kick ass after 9/11, this would have openly told us that he was acting emotionally and irrationally. In fact, almost immediately after 9/11, Bush is reported to have said “I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We are going to kick some ass.” (This is quoted in the book Bush by Jean Edward Smith). The same source tells us that Bush said “This is an opportunity beyond Afghanistan. We have to shake terror loose in places like Syria, and Iran, and Iraq.” Smith’s comment is that “Bush was escalating the issue.” Furthermore, we are told that “Bush was acting on his instincts” and that he right away told those around him “I want all of you to understand that we are at war and will stay at war until this is done. Nothing else matters. Everything is available for the pursuit of this war.”
This case, which is documented, tells us immediately that Bush hastily decided unilaterally on war. He decided irrationally, not only because of the emotional element but because (a) he didn’t consider the kinds of questions that are listed above within any kind of sensible, reasoned and reasonable way; and (b) the answers he came up with were deeply flawed.
Think of the enormity of the decisions Bush was making. If we go through the important questions one by one that he failed to think through, we can sense the enormous irrationality of the wars that he unleashed. He didn’t identify the enemy. He actually hid the fact that the Saudis were perpetrators of 9/11. He misidentified certain states as enemies. He didn’t identify the causes of the terror attacks. He had no notion of the harm he’d do to several foreign countries. He had no idea of the costs. He told his subordinates “Everything is available for the pursuit of this war. Any barriers in your way, they’re gone. Any money you need, you’ll have it. This is our only agenda.” He didn’t consider alternatives. He had no idea what forces he might be letting loose. He didn’t consider the military end of it. We can go on and on pointing out how bad his decisions were. Bush’s decisions and the process he used to make them were unbelievably irrational, really very, very stupid.
The sad thing is that this lack of rationality with respect to getting into war is not unique to Bush as president, and it’s not limited to the issue of getting into the war. We can easily find case after case after case where the decision-making regarding war is fundamentally irrational, where even the most basic questions are either ignored or answered without sound reasoning.
The record is a very sorry one. It would do America no harm at all if it declared a 10-year moratorium on interference in the affairs of other countries and used the time to consider how to inject some rationality into its conduct of foreign and domestic affairs.