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The Just War Principle: A look at the rules of war and how they applied to Iraq and Afghanistan

Updated on June 8, 2012

Was the US Attack on Afghanistan and Iraq justified?

In any time of war there are certain principles, rules that one must follow to keep some semblance of order in all the chaos. Naturally when someone is attacked they have a strong need and desire to exact revenge. But when and under what conditions is it justifiable to go to war with another entity? Over the ages people have come together to put in effect a set of rules for engaging and conducting war on a group of people. In recent events, President Bush has been the center of many debates over his justifications and tactics for the attack on Afghanistan, the war with Iraq, and the war on terror. Don’t be seduced into thinking that they all fall under one category, because they don’t. Did he really follow the rules of war when he declared war?

First, we should look at what exactly are the rules of starting and fighting a “just war”. We must first establish that “Legitimate Authorities” are waging war on one another. Which means only declared governments have the right to wage war with each other. Second, there must be a “Just Cause”, which means that the only acceptable reasons for going to war is self-defense, defense of another nation, to protect innocent lives/civilians, and/or regaining something wrongfully taken. Third, the attacker must have the “Right Intention”. Meaning the ultimate goal must be for general peace rather than personal gain. Fourth, you can only wage war as a “Last Resort”. You must expend all other means before using military force to achieve your goals. Fifth, there must be a “Reasonable Chance of Success”, which is fairly self-explanatory. And lastly the attacker must observe the practice of “Proportionality”, meaning the damage inflicted by our counter attack cannot exceed the damage done by the initial attack.

The attacks on Afghanistan are mostly viewed favorably. It was right after September 11th and the American people wanted to strike back. That was considered a proportionate response for the damage that was done to our own. On the other hand the war on Iraq is in no way justified. On October 7, 2002 President Bush gave an address discussing his reasoning and intentions regarding Iraq and terrorism. The reason Bush gives for going to war with Iraq is that they are “a grave threat to peace” because of their “history of aggression.” (Bush, Pg 185) He also goes on to say how Saddam is in direct violation of their treaty with the UN. That “the conditions for ending the Persian Gulf War, the Iraqi regime was required to destroy its weapons of mass destruction… and to stop all support for terrorist groups.” (Bush, Pg 185) While this can be considered a good reason for going to war with a country, a Just Cause, the war itself is in direct violation of the just war tradition in almost every other aspect. First and most importantly, is that there is no reasonable chance of success to stop terrorism in the world. When one terrorist leader falls another will always take their place. It is not worth the civilian sacrifice to use military force. In fact, the way the terrorists work it would be easier to take them out covertly than out in the open. Another of the rules for waging war is that the civilian casualties be kept at a minimum. However it has been proven that civilian camps have been targets because it was believed that there could possibly be terrorists there. In one case an entire wedding was wiped out because it is the culture to fire weapons in the air to symbolize the marriage. While I don’t really understand the custom, it is not my place to. The troops nearby thought they were being attacked and fired without warning or investigation. And that is only to name a few reasons how Bush is in direct violation of the just war tradition. “A just cause, not a just war.” This is what Howard Zinn argued in December of 2001 about Bush’s plan to go to war with Iraq and Afghanistan. For the reasons above Zinn believed that the ends did not justify the means, and while it is a noble idea to put an end to terrorism it is not realistically feasible. Zinn places specific emphasis on the civilian casualties due to the government’s errors. According to jus in bello (moral conduct once engaged in war) regarding noncombatant immunity, the aggressor must distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. While people appreciate that casualties are an unfortunate side effect or war, they should be the exception not the rule. Zinn gives references to red-cross stations that were attacked by accident leaving hundreds without food or water. He criticizes the government’s use of the phrase “military targets” claiming, “the reality is that the term ‘military’ covers all sorts of targets that include civilian populations. When our bombers deliberately destroy…the electrical infrastructure, thus making water purification and sewage treatment plants inoperable and leading to epidemic waterborne diseases, the deaths of children and other civilians cannot be called accidental.” (Zinn, pg 215) It is not unreasonable to ask a government to not use military action if it is going to make so many “mistakes” in their targeting.

According to the just war tradition a just cause is not necessarily enough, nor should it be enough, to declare war on a government. The rules set were written to keep a sense of peace and order in a chaotic situation. President Bush used the people’s emotions and one of the principles of war to declare war on a people so he could gain political leverage. The attack on Afghanistan was morally justifiable in the eyes of the people and the just war tradition, but no matter how much Bush claims he is striving for world peace, nothing will justify the chaos he has erupted in that country.


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