The Justification For War – Analysis


The situation post-Tahrir Square gave a lot of hope about Non-Violent struggle as an alternative for Revolution or War or any such violent conflict across the Globe. Ideologues as Johann Galtung and Gene Sharp and other proponents of Non-violence predicted demise of War as a concept. Here in this essay we try to identify why war might still be a better alternative at certain eventualities.

By Hunter Davis and Sumantra Maitra

War is an overt organized violence and an ‘act of force to compel our enemy to do our will’ conducted between states or within states. Aggressive states conduct wars for political goals including territorial expansion. A belligerent state never respects appeasement or non-violent civil defence. Furthermore, non-violent methods could never have prevented The Second World War or the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Self-defence is an established principle in domestic law and is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations as a way to ensure peace and enhance the security of states and therefore people. Certainly, one cannot deny this self-evident and natural norm to any person or state.

An armed defence force is indispensable and the only reliable method for the purpose of deterrence in an anarchic world. It cannot be denied that the long peace in Europe during the Cold War was assured through the threat of violence. For Western Europe, the United States provided security on the one hand and the Soviet Bloc provided a stabilizing factor on the other. One must remember that during the twentieth century the continent of Europe experienced two of the most deadly wars in history and deterrence during the Cold War prevented further mass conflict on the Continent. Countless lives were saved. The presence of nuclear weapons pacifies the international system due to the caution they generate, the security they provide, the rough equality they impose, and the clarity of the relative power they create. Being students of Politics, we conclude that peace, in whatever form it comes, if at all, can be brought and effectuated by a balance of power, the theory of deterrence, which should be the area of major research. To quote Mearsheimer, “the peace since 1945–precarious at first, but increasingly robust over time–has flowed from three factors: the bipolar distribution of power; the rough military equality between the superpowers; and the ritualistically deplored fact that each of these superpowers is armed with a large nuclear arsenal.”

In a system plagued by uncertainty about the future, the tempered preparation for war provides safety for states and their citizens. The actions of other states are always unpredictable and their intentions unclear. Hyper-nationalism is a dangerous phenomenon and can be used by elites to ‘demonize a rival nation to drum up support for national-security policy’. The phenomenon is not obsolete and can re-emerge in the future. The relatively recent Yugoslav wars during the 1990s are evidence of destructive and volatile hyper-nationalism that led to wars, genocide and human suffering. The problem with the idea that war is obsolete is that it is not held universally and only one country need decide that war is feasible to make war possible. One can argue that the World as we know was never really a paradise for the last three thousand years of human history. Conflict is ever present, and the ways of solving, preventing and minimizing conflict should be a priority. We don’t deny that peace is needed; however we differ on the ways to achieve peace.

War is never ‘yesterday’s nightmare’ and proponents of the obsolescence of war disregard the fact that the Second World War occurred after the horrors of the War to End all Wars. History is not static and the peace we have at the moment may not last into the future. Non-violence can never alter this fact. Conventional wars can be long and bloody or short and decisive, much like the Russia-Georgia War of 2008. Unfortunately, the cost of short conventional wars can be cheap and therefore expedient for geo-political goals. History is littered with the failures of non-violent movements. Egregious examples are Tiananmen Square or Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968. As George Orwell said, “It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary. “

We have thus far not considered that possibility of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Examples of each of the above can be found within the past decade such as in the Balkan Peninsula, Darfur and Liberia. These crimes and are not obsolete and have not been relegated to the ash-heap of history. The Rwandan episode occurred in the lifetimes of everyone present in this room when 800,000 people died. The Rwandan episode involved the military, paramilitary and civilian groups and included other forms of physical and psychological violence and torture. It is clear that many of the victims of this genocide attempted to resist non-violently when faced with annihilation but found themselves bereft of support from the international intervention. A salient example when humanitarian intervention worked is East Pakistan in 1971 when the Pakistani Army murdered hundreds of thousands of people in a genocidal campaign. An intervention by India prevented further atrocities from being committed and established the independent country of Bangladesh. When it comes to situations like Darfur or Rwanda, where an imminent existential threat exists, it is impossible to non-violently resist. Hindsight in these situations would perhaps reveal scenarios in which violence was unnecessary or avoidable. If only we could be so perceptive! Unfortunately, we consistently fail at such a simple task.

Peace delayed is peace denied. When it comes to leaders like Pol Pot or Idi Amin, peaceful resistance by civilian populations will only lead to more destruction. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible to appeal to outside opinion, let alone bring a mass movement into being. The concept of nonviolence presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one’s adversary. When our adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, our reaction can only be one of violent resistance. Unfortunately, as the supporters of the Kellogg-Briand Pact found, war is never ‘yesterday’s nightmare’ in an anarchic world.

Constructivists argue that we always have a choice. Unfortunately, the world is filled with many prepared to make the wrong choice. Whether through fear, greed, pride, or any other motivating factor, the choices presented make the aggressive alternative attractive. Thus, our response must be to deter this unfortunate decision on the part of our adversary. Henchman and thugs make poor choices, we must respond decisively. In autumn of 1816, Admiral Lord Edward Pellew, arrived off the port of Algiers and ordered to use “nothing but shots” to negotiate with pirates. In the battle that followed, the British lost 128 men, and their Dutch allies lost 13. But casualties among the enemy were monumentally greater, as Algiers’s fleet was destroyed and its fortifications leveled. In 1830, when the French occupied Algiers, their backbone was completely broken – and tens of thousands of lives that would have been lost to the slave trade were saved. We highly doubt Non-violent resistance would have stopped slave trade in North Africa.

It is fine to suggest a non-violent alternative. However, all too often, we are faced with a choice. Not a pleasant choice. Not one we would want to make, but a choice nonetheless. A choice between surrendering our own lives and often those of innocents around us, or violently resisting the issuer of a threat. The risk of violent action IS great, no doubt, but the devastating result of inaction is too great to bear. Certainly we would choose the preservation of LIFE over the maintenance of some lofty, perhaps utopian, ideal.

Biased proponents of non-violence deny the utility of the use of force by third parties or humanitarian interventions. The threat of use of force can save countless human lives. The use of violence for humanitarian objectives is just and the world in which we live still experiences moments where intervention is necessary. The human cost is significant but the cost of inaction is higher. In most cases, civilians bear the brunt of violence when there is a lack of humanitarian action. In the words of the Nobel Peace prize recipient, José Ramos Horta, “Sometimes, a war saves people.”

Environments conducive to mass violence are a sad reality and the world is not a utopian one where tyranny does not reign and crimes against humanity are not committed. Reality is sometimes distasteful and war is sometimes necessary to prevent carnage and promote outcomes considered beneficial by all. We do not wish to imply that non-violent resistance is always ineffectual but that it is not always appropriate. The prediction of when future crimes against humanity will occur is fanciful and states must be prepared for possible military action as a last resort.

Sovereign states wage war due to the structure of the international system and that non-violent means of resistance cannot always dissuade belligerent behaviour. Deterrence and the possibility of war secure global peace and non-violent movements do not always guarantee success during civil wars as evidenced in the recent Arab Spring. It cannot be denied that some wars are just such as those involving humanitarian intervention and self-defence.  The utility of non-violence is not assured and the specter of war is a reality in an uncertain world. Some ploughshares must be beaten into swords to ensure that tools are available for effective humanitarian intervention and the fulfillment of our responsibility to humanity.

Arguably one of the primary reasons South Asia is now relatively more peaceful than it was in the last five decades is due to the fact that India, China and Pakistan are all armed to the teeth in one of the most heavily nuclearised zones in the World. We also find it hard to believe that the Holocaust could have been prevented with Non-Violent resistance. The appeasement of Hitler during the annexation of Czechoslovakia was thought to be a major avoidance of war, which didn’t quite work out well. As Sir Winston Churchill said “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” The option of non-violence against a marauding force is always an option, just not a preferable or honourable one. To echo the sentiments of Thomas Jefferson, “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.”

The non-interference in Rwanda, Tibet and presently Syria, are not and will not be considered as the best moments of Humanity. Also, as already mentioned above, the success record of non-violent resistance against authoritarian governments is debatable, like Tiananmen Sq. There were ofcourse some instances where non-violence proved to be successful. And then there were Bosnia and Libya. As D. A. Clarke suggests that for nonviolence to be effective, it must be “practiced by those who could easily resort to force if they chose.” This argument reasons that nonviolent tactics will be of little or no use to groups that are traditionally considered incapable of violence.

The bottom-line is that there will always be times when war is an absolute necessity with just causes to fight. Non-violence is a noble pursuit, but the World is not a noble place, and we don’t visualise war to be obsolete in the near foreseeable future. The forces of geo-politics, economics, and the instincts of human nature are far too strong for that.

Acknowledgement: We would like to thank our colleagues, fellow students and Professor Robert Patman.

Hunter Davis and Sumantra Maitra are Post-Graduate students of International Studies, at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

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