Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Justifications of the Iraq War Examined (1)

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Justifications of the Iraq War Examined (1)

Article excerpt

Imagine three cases:

Corporal Greene returns to the United States in a body bag having been killed by an elite armed guard in a war that had been officially authorized as a defense of her country against foes who have the capability and desire to attack her fellow citizens and soldiers at home and abroad with acts of terrorism. Such foes may either be planning eventually to launch their own attacks or to facilitate attacks by others who have an established record of using terrorism against U.S. soldiers and citizens.

Private Smith returns to the United States in a body bag having been killed by a roadside bomb in a war that had been authorized as enforcing international law against a rogue state with a recent history of ignoring or avoiding U.N.-authorized inspections to track and dismantle weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Sergeant Jones returns to the United States in a body bag having been killed by a suicide bomber in a war that had been officially described to him as a rescue operation aimed at saving citizens in another country from human rights abuses carried out against them by a despotic regime.

The deaths of Greene, Smith, and Jones are equally tragic. All three soldiers had been fighting in the same conflict, Operation Iraqi Freedom. Assume for the sake of argument that they were motivated by the causes for which they each understood themselves to be fighting. Are their deaths, then, morally the same?

I raise this question in part to frame an ethical analysis of the war in Iraq. I ask that we imagine Greene, Smith, and Jones for two reasons: one, their cases reflect different rationales offered for the Iraq war; and two, their deaths are arguably not morally the same. The goods for which they have been asked to risk their lives not only differ, they are not on par with each other. Nonetheless, they have been sent to war on the premise that the goods for which they are risking their lives are of the same gravity. In the ensuing discussion I will assume that taking risks to protect goods that redound to one's collective interests is more intelligible--and easier to motivate--than taking risks for altruistic reasons. Stanley Hoffmann puts the point succinctly: "The peaceful citizens of democratic countries, even when they are stirred by compassion and shocked by atrocities, are reluctant to wage war 'for others'--self-defense is another matter." (2) Nonaltruistic actions join duty and interest in ways that altruistic actions do not. On that premise, the risks taken by Greene, Smith, and Jones shoulder different burdens of proof. That fact raises meta-theoretical questions about practical reasoning and the justification of war.

In this essay I will do two things in light of these ideas. First, I will critically assess claims on behalf of the Iraq war made by the Bush administration and by various defenders of the war. These claims will move us into careful considerations of the Iraq war as a form of self-defense, law enforcement, and rescue, which will thereby take us into moral and practical implications of U.S. foreign policy. Second, I will step back from the specifics of these three rationales to ask whether they are in fact of the same sort. One of my points is that debate about the Iraq war has been muddied by the notion that these rationales stand on the same footing. On the assumption that nonaltruistic risks are more intelligible than altruistic risks, we can presume that each set of risks shoulders different burdens of proof. Put more abstractly, reasons for war are not interchangeable, not convertible to the same currency. That fact, I will argue, ought to frustrate those who wish to substitute one rationale for another in the effort to provide a retrospective justification for the Iraq war.

In the argument that follows, I defend these ideas by evaluating the case for the Iraq war within the framework of just war doctrine, concentrating on ad bellum issues. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.