The Just War

From the late Harvard political philosopher, John Rawls, we get (amongst a many other great things), the idea that genuinely democratic societies can under certain conditions enter into conflict with other societies. Rawls is very careful to distinguish his arguments as founded on the relations of peoples, rather than on the relations or actions of governments, regimes or military commanders.

This brief analysis will center entirely on the arguments presented in “The Law of Peoples” (Harvard U. Press, 1999) one of Rawls’ later works which builds explicitly on his conception of justice (A Theory Of Justice, 1971) and his conception of Political Liberalism (1993) which it is worth noting at this point can not be simply taken as comprehensive liberalism, which is a doctrine that essentially pits itself against political conservatism.

Rawls theories are a long and complex extension of contract theory in political thought. He extends the concepts of the veil of ignorance and the original position beyond the state and into the international realm. While some would argue that this sort of approach to politics is simply an extension of utilitarianism, Rawls modern treatment of international relations (as would not have been possible in say Mill’s or Bentham’s time) shows that his theory approaches more of a rational pacifism. International relations, Rawls states, guided by reasonably pluralism, must have the bottom-line of primary goods (“basic rights, opportunities, income and wealth, and the social bases of self respect” Law of Peoples, §1).

Much of the break of a Rawlsian ‘realistic (international) utopia’ and utilitarian maximization of the good come out in his discussion of Just War (§ 13 and §14).; especially prevalent in his treatments of the 1945 firebombing of Dresden, all acts of bombing of Japanese civilian centers during WWII and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

“Dropping the bombs, it was claimed, was justified in order to hasten the end of the war. It is clear that Truman and most other allied leaders thought it would do that and thereby save the lives of American soldiers. Japanese lives, military and civilian, presumably counted for less.” (§ 14.4)

Here Rawls is contrasting a nationalistic utilitarianism with a criticism common within our modern discourse of human rights; that in the military evaluation of the situation, “Japanese lives . . . counted for less.” Yet within a broader, more international interpretation of utilitarianism; “to hold fast to the aim of gaining a just peace”  §14.2, alongside Rawls conjecture that “Well-ordered (essentially democratic) peoples do not wage war against each other” (§14.1), form the basis for the following criticism, leveled in historical context:

“As a liberal democratic people, the United States owed the Japanese people an offer of negotiations in order to end the war.” §14.4

Just as now, in the interest of world peace, it would not be reasonable for the Japanese people to react punitively against the American people for their transgression during these last days of the second great war, so then the American people as such were not justified in the extreme actions that culminated in the use of the atomic bomb.

Rawls accusations are reminiscent of those made by Robert McNamara himself, the logistical mind behind many of these operations, who would later go on to command the Vietnam War.

“We lost one wingman and we destroyed Tokyo. Fifty square miles of Tokyo were burned.” (Fog of War, 38:45)

Here is the ‘utility’ as seen by the military-industrial complex McNamara warns us against, and leads into his 5th lesson: “Proportionality should be a guideline in war.” From here the fog of war goes into a detailed discussion of the completely disproportionate destruction wrought on Japan over the course of WWII.

Is it really mere coincidence that America was so ready to take an active hand in the rebuilding of Japan? In his chilling assertion that we  “beware the military-industrial complex” McNamara is voicing a concern more detailed in Rawls criticism; that the waging of unjust wars, or by allowing wars to turn unjust in their practices, peoples open themselves up to an endless cycle of retaliatory conflict. Weather by letting ourselves be caught up in oligarchic underpinnings or in vendetta discourses about supposed terrorists seeking to vanquish our way of life, we close ourselves off to the only long-term means of seeking and sustaining peace; reasonable international discourse and the compromises it entails.


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