The morality of war

01.09.06 Publication:

How fortunate it must have been to be a leader like China´s Mao Zedong. The man who in effect became China´s Communist emperor from 1949 until his death in 1976 succeeded because he was utterly devoid of moral feelings: he seems to have had no sense of pity, no empathy with the sufferings of others, no feeling that there should be any limit to the use of violence and terror other than the practical issue of protecting himself from a domestic or international backlash that might be capable of threatening his power and survival.

As a result, Mao wasted no time worrying, as Israel has had to do in Lebanon recently and America has in Iraq, about whether civilians might suffer alongside military opponents, or whether the families of dead soldiers would support the cause for which their sons or brothers had been sent to fight.

That placed Mao in a thankfully rare category of non-worriers, together with Stalin, Hitler, Cambodia´s Pol Pot and the Kim dynasty of North Korea—although their numerical rarity did not prevent them being responsible for an extraordinary numerical tragedy during the 20th century, with those six dictators accounting for the deaths in war, execution, terror, labour camps and starvation of well over 100 million people.

The rest of us do, however, have to grapple with the morals of war and violence, and the world is a better place as a result. Most of us grapple with it indirectly, having to think through our judgments about the morality of other people´s actions rather than of our own. But that doesn´t make it any easier.

Such thoughts were brought to my mind this summer by the conflict in Lebanon, and the associated international debate about whether Israel´s military actions in pursuit of the Hizbullah militia were morally justified, and whether the bombings and ground attacks were “proportionate” to the threat Israel faces, or (as critics claim) “disproportionate”. Those tragic events in the Middle East occurred while I was reading the excellent biography of Mao that was recently published by the Chinese-born Jung Chang and her British husband Jon Halliday. Hence my comments about Mao earlier.

The simplest way to deal with this issue is to say that all war is morally wrong, and to condemn it all. But while that view is theoretically correct, in reality it is an evasion of the issue, a self-delusion. Violence happens. How should you react when it happens to you? You might condemn the way Israel reacts when its soldiers are abducted and when rockets are fired at its towns, but how would you—how should you?—react if North Korea were to fire missiles at towns in western Japan? Simply by condemning war? By relying on someone else (America) to respond? The situations could become distressingly similar. The big difference would be that Japan would be under attack by a state not a private militia. But the issue of how much pain to inflict on North Korean civilians in response to the crimes of their regime would be the same.

One thing is clear: militarily, the immoral hold the advantage over the moral. That was Mao´s vital insight, as it had been for Lenin and Stalin before him. But while that advantage may be crucial in civil wars, as in China during the 1930s, it is less decisive in international conflicts. There, military success is necessary, but it is not sufficient to achieve all objectives. Politics and diplomacy, which bring with them longer-term benefits such as trade, financial support, international recognition and the free movement of people, also matter. That, quite apart from mere conscience, is where moral considerations come in.

For Israel throughout its 60-year history, the use of what others consider “disproportionate force” has more or less been a military doctrine. To ensure the country´s survival, in a region populated by enemies, successive Israeli governments have believed that displays of raw military power are vital. They push back immediate threats but also deter future attacks. Yet even for Israel there are moral limits to the casualties it is willing to inflict on civilians. Those limits exist for the same reason as do other moral considerations: that the opinion of others does matter.

It matters for Israel in many senses: the economic sense, because Israel´s prosperity depends on open trading relationships with other countries; the political sense, because Israel needs to retain international support, or at least acquiescence, in case future crises prove even worse and more dangerous than the present one; and the Jewish sense, because Israel also gains a great deal from the support of Jewish people all around the world, and that support could be jeopardised if its actions come to be seen as immoral. And all that is before mentioning the American sense, for American financial and military aid is vital for Israel and could also be jeopardised if Americans were to come to see Israel as an embarrassment.

In practice, therefore, Israel´s actions have been balanced between the Maoist desire to do whatever is required to win and survive, and the moral pressures of participation in an international society and international economy. Mao´s amorality was sustainable for so long because he chose to isolate China from most international exchanges, just as North Korea´s Kim family have done for their country.

Yet isn´t there some absolute moral rule that we can use? It would be nice if there were, but no one has yet come up with a way to avoid pragmatism in what remains a violent world. Even Mahatma Gandhi, India´s famously non-violent campaigner for independence, in practice benefited from the damage done to British rule by Japan´s imperial army all across Asia. And in the end our moral view of war is always coloured by an intensely practical question: did the war achieve the objectives set for it?

America´s bombing of Serbia in 1999 took place without backing from the UN Security Council, and was widely condemned for the civilian casualties it caused. Yet it succeeded in preventing Serbian slaughter in Kosovo and ended with the fall of Serbia´s dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. So it now seems “worthwhile”. The big problem for Israel this year, and for America in Iraq since 2003, is precisely this practical issue. A war that achieves little is surely the most immoral war of all.