Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Realism as a Last Resort

by Jeremy Page

Last week in class it seemed that I was among the minority in thinking that the best approach to war was somewhere between “Just War Theory” and realism. It would seem that this makes it known that I think pacifism is laughable. Anyways, the rest of the class seemed to fall between pacifism and “Just War Theory,” and that approach is fine, just not my style.

It seems that we ironed out the definition of pacifism quite well, except that it took 3 hours. I suppose that it might be harder to define pacifism than it would be to define realism (as is pertains to war). Following the practice of pacifism dictates that “no one may employ non-consentual physical force (including lethal force) with the intention of causing pain (or death), even in self-defense or in the defense of others against aggression. One may use other forms of force and coercion to resist violence.” Going with this definition, pacifism hardly seems practical- in fact, it doesn’t matter what definition of pacifism you go with for it to be impractical.

I would suggest that realism is the way to go, but only after it is completely obvious convention related warfare has ceased to be practical. Clausewitz stated that “war therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” War is not necessarily a human action, but a political one. Even so, war puts humanity at its worst, and in some sense that seems to justify realism. In any case, a defintion of realism as related to warfare is in order: anything goes. It’s as simple as that; the idea of inter arma silent leges (in time of war the law is silent) certainly seems to apply to warfare. As Walzer says, “what we conventionally call inhumanity is simple humanity under pressure. War strips away our civilized adornments and reveals our nakedness” (Walzer 4).


If a country is fighting for its survival, it seems pointless to follow “Just War Theory.” As long as a country/state seems to have a reasonable chance at successfully accomplishing its objectives it would seem prudent to follow “Just War Theory,” but once the country/state is at risk of losing a war it seems the proverbial gloves should come off. It is permissable to lose wars a country is fighting in other lands, as long as the country is able to cut its losses and run, but once a country’s sovereign land and liberty are being directly threatened the country should have every right to do whatever is necessary to procure its citizens’ safety: “men and women do what they must to save themselves and their communities, and morality and law have no place” in such circumstances (Walzer 3).


It seems to me that the information previously discussed brings up the issues with Walzer’s tale of the “Melian Dialogue.” The first problem that I see is that what really constitues a just war is fairly relative- each country sees exactly what it wants to see. And who should be the ultimate judge in deciding what endeavours are just or not? When the Athenians and Melians both see their causes as just, how can we really discern who is right? Walzer advances that both sides could appear to be right: “the Melians insist that their cause is just, they are saying only that they don’t want to be subject; and had the generals claimed that Athens deserved its empire, they would simply have been expressing the lust for conquest or the fear of overthrow” (Walzer 11).

The second problem requires us to say that the Athenians were just in their cause. In this case, Walzer questions the Athenians’ tactics, but never really arrives at a moral judgment (but much more of an observation): “The slaughter of the Melians is explained by reference to the circumstances of war and the necessity of nature; and again there is nothing to say. Or rather, one can say anything, call necessity cruel and war hellish; but while these statements may be true in their own terms, they do not touch the political realities of the case or help us understand the Athenian decision” (Walzer 8). It sounds like you may just have to bow to the idea of realism once in a while to get anything in war done.


During our discussion on pacifism, we discussed the status of non combatants. We concluded that non combatants are not to be killed, if they were to be killed, it would constitute a war crime. The only exception is the “double effect.” Double effect is a shoddy way of justifying the killing of non combatants. Those who fall in between pacifism and “Just War Theory” must consider it in this way, but those who tend to be in the realist camp will have to ask why non combatants cannot be killed. Even though non combatants do not directly help a country’s war effort, they are still part of the enemy camp. There is no point in singling out non combatants for slaughter, but if it helps bring about victory for you country why not do it?


Realism allows us to simply state that things are just the way they are; no amount of philosophical banter can help dull the brutality of war. All countries would like to keep up the appearance that they are completely interested in preventing inhumane actions during war- at least until they hit the bottom line: themselves. It does not seem rational to me to enter a contest such as war where you and your opponent both learn the rules and agree to abide by them, but you wind up in worse shape for playing by them while your opponent systematically breaks them. When it comes down to this, I believe that everyone is really lying to themselves when they believe that we should follow rules in a time of absolute terror and chaos that war actually is. Sure, it’s totally possible to follow rules when you are winning or when the war is so far removed from your sight that you couldn’t care less about it, but when you are involved in a struggle that is a direct threat to your own safety it seems fairly pointless to follow rules that are not completely enforceable. Walzer calls out this façade: “the truth is that one of the things most of us want, even in war, is to act or seem to act morally” (20).


It seems important that Walzer states that “the moral reality of war is not fixed by the actual activities of soldiers but by the opinions of mankind” (Walzer 15). This seems to make a case for realism in my mind; if what makes an action in war just or unjust is constantly under revision, why should we still bother adhering to moral principles? If actions in warfare are as subjective and situational as this, then why restrain ourselves with them? What really seems to make wars just or unjust is which side you’re on. It seems that mankind’s opinions on war have been evolving; war itself has been evolving as well, but the reality of war has remained the same.


I found Walzer’s conclusion to be interesting. He seems to think that if we were to all become realists, “we could simply tell one another, brutally and directly, what we wanted or have done” (Walzer 20). He seems to be correct, but it doesn’t seem like he takes into account that this is somewhat of a narrow conclusion. What about diplomacy? Surely if we were all realists we would not resort to immediately attack our foes whenever we had the slightest problem-it is simply inefficient to do. Being a realist during acts of war does not mean that you have to be ready to invade the next country that even thinks about stepping up to you. Being a realist does not mean that you meet every possible threat to your sovereignty with force, diplomatic or economic treachery might be preferrable in the long run.


It does not seem to be the case that people follow “Just War Theory” for the sake of mere morality. It seems to be the case that such opinions are tied directly to the idea that if “they” follow the rules, “we” will as well. The last time I heard anything akin to this thinking, was last semester in another class, where Dr. Miller labeled the majority of the class “suckers.” There is no real reason to be a sucker; it is wise to follow “Just War Theory” as long as it benefits you and your cause. “Just War Theory” is completely disposable once you become a sucker in practice, and not just ideaology. It seems that those countries who do follow some sort of moral code do so to keep up the appearance that they are on the moral high ground. They do this because it is has been fairly acceptable to use philosophical launguage to spin their stories, but what happens when this no longer works? I suggest, again, that those countries will eventually have to give up their spin stories and act in whatever way will further their cause. It would follow that pacifism is acceptable until it is no longer useful, at that point “Just War Theory” should replace it, once “Just War Theory” is no longer useful a country should be able to do whatever it needs to do to secures its objectives (realism). I suppose saying that each idea is acceptable as long as it is useful is what realism is in a nutshell.

I do not advocate strict realism; I approach it with the assumption that “Just War Theory” has actually been given a chance. Once a country has entered a defensive war, or in some cases initiated a pre-emptive strike, it is presumably fighting a just war. Only after an exhaustive attempt to follow the seven conditions listed by Joseph McKenna, may a country/state follow through with total war waged from the approach of a realist. It seems that this would still keep me between realism and “Just War Theory.” Well it seems that I have elaborated on my opinion when compared to Walzer's; hopefully you readers have been screaming "What the hell?!"


12 Comments:

Blogger Wesley Gibbs said...

I think that you make really good points about how a country will talk of moral standards and just war until it is that country that is at war. I think that is a common case among nations. They will willing critique another's actions, but if you were to point out something about their own then their walls go up. In my opinion, a nation will always seek to justify its own actions, while attacking that others.

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Jamie McCall said...

I think you make several good points, however, I do think it is important to perhaps acknowledge that Realism can be, and usually is, confined to warfare - generally I would say realists would abide by a "moral system" during non-war time spans. Its only when we reach war that they claim we have reached a state beyond morality. Still, great analysis I think.

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

This, along with Jamie's comment, touch on exactly what I have been saying about Realism. Ethics is not a shirt you take off for a fight, lest you soil it. It is a set of rules you live _and_ die by. Anything less is a lie that people tell themselves akin to the boogieman stories told to children in order to keep them in their beds.

While I may not wholly believe in Free Will, I also don't consider myself cattle to be herded. What I mean by this is... I don't think I'm lying to myself by attempting to formulate a system of ethics.

Jason, I hope you are reading this... perhaps you could chime in on whether ethics exist (or matter even if they do).

3:23 PM  
Anonymous Wesley Frazier said...

To compliment Mitch's point...

It is all well and good to say this is how ware "actually is" when it is being executed. But the question is ought it be this way when executed. After all people don't awlways behave morally in real life, this does not neccisarily mean there is no morality.

Are there ANY lines we are not allowed to cross, in the sake of defending a nations soverinty ?

If the answer is no. Then one may be forced to equate morality with convention . ( there being no meta-government war lacks convention )

If the answer is yes then total warfare may never be justified, even if it means the destruction of yourself or your country.

An elegant moral system will remain roughly consistent between domestic conflicts and war one would imagine. One can not easily say that morality is convention based durring war and not so afterwards. Not that convention morality is inconsistent when taking to the whole of a moral system. But I would think it would be unpleasant.

3:55 PM  
Anonymous Wesley Frazier said...

Another point.

I recently heard a really quotable phrase which may be relevant. Some might think it's meaningless.

"It is not enough to survive. One must be worthy of survival."

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Kim Morrison said...

You made several good points throughout this paper. I felt the same as you did last week, pacifism basically seems like a waste of time. I especially agree with you when you say that countries play by the rules until either they become directly involved or it's no longer beneficial to their cause to do so. Those on the outside of a situation can afford to be unbiased in their opinions. And your point about applying the same rules to warfare that's continuously evolving is ridiculous. I mentioned something similar in my paper last week. Modern wars cannot follow old fashioned guidelines that have not been updated. Personally, a line somewhere between JWT and realism seems to be the more logical place to address warfare.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Steven Grueshaber said...

People keep referring to JWT as some sort of rulebook for a war. I think that this view is a bit mistaken. JWT is used to define the morality of a war. Furthermore, I do not believe that morality fades from play during a war, as if a war is some sort of alternate reality far removed from our own.

To say that you are justified in performing whatever actions you see fit during a situation, so long as you are in the situation, is a lack of moral standards. Suppose somebody was to steal something of moderate value from my front lawn and then goes into hiding. Am I justified in harming his family and friends in an attempt to draw him out? I think not.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

If other countries are able to see what otehrs are doing then hopefully it will allow countries to think before going to war. realism and its acts of warfare tend not to be the same in my view point

2:23 PM  
Blogger Adam Johnson said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Adam Johnson said...

I can't help but agree with the rejection of morality as a part time thing. A state beyond morality doesn't make much sense to me. Rather, aren't these states the exact situations that morality attempts to tackle?

3:35 PM  
Anonymous Jason said...

Someone here mentioned that it would be ridiculous to go out and beat up someone's family because he or she stole some of your stuff. Similarly, a "morality of scale" would probably be reasonable even in times of war.

For example: tomorrow, Mexico claims to annex Texas, sends their police forces there, startd imposing their laws, and forcibly collects taxes from Texans. Predictably, America declares war on Mexico. Is it then reasonable to launch a nuclear bombardment on the country? Is it reasonable to specifically target schools, daycares and nurseries with air strikes? These are certainly effective ways to win wars, but they seem to be a little over the top.

Now, that's not really fair to the original post, which pointed out that it's one thing to play nice when you know you're going to win, but that a situation where you really might lose is very different.

So let's say that Canada forms a coalition with all modernized, thoroughly-Westernized European states, and they all attack the U.S. with the intention of making it a Canadian province. (So it's a goofy scenario - that's not important.) Let's say that America is in serious jeopardy of being beaten by this coalition. Is America in this case justified in nuclear bombardment and targeting children as a deterrent to continued attack? Should America institute a policy of "torture and rape every single prisoner, whether combatant or non-combatant?"

Consider the consequences of losing- these are modern, Westernized states, so even if the U.S. is conquored by them, there will still be a democracy - it's just not going to be America's democracy anymore. Quality of living would probably drop for several years. But mostly losing is just a matter of injured pride - you're proud to be an American, and you don't want anyone to take that away. But would having America destroyed, absent any other serious consequences, really hurt us SO MUCH that we would be justified in committing every atrocity our most sadistic citizens could think of in order to retain national sovereignty?

If you answer "yes" to that question, what you are basically saying is "American national pride is MORE IMPORTANT THAN any amount of rape, genocide, torture and nuclear fallout inflicted on any number of non-combatant human beings."

If you answer "no" to that question, then you're saying that some kinds of moral standards still hold even in times of war, and even when your side is in real danger of losing. Which is the core of a jus in bello (Just In War) position.

One interesting question, though, might be: how far do the limits of morality extend? What are you justified in doing if, say, a raping, genocidal, torturing maniac is about to conquor you, with the intention of sending your population into death camps afterwards? Are you then justified in committing atrocities in self defense?

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Zeus "Jimmy Moore" said...

I agree that pacifism is lacking in practicality, but I not so sure that I agree that morals get thrown at all together pertaining to war. Yes, sometimes countries tend to do whatever it takes to win a war. This does not mean that morals aren’t present it just means that the particular country is lacking these morals. I can’t think of anything else to say. Insert Steven’s and Adam’s comments.

9:07 PM  

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