The more I read, and think, about the Catholic Church's teaching on “just war”, the more I believe that this country – known for its high ideals – has seldom, if ever, fought a war that can be conclusively deemed as “just”. I have to admit, it took me a while to come around to this conclusion. Clearly, the “wars” (I call them “occupations”) in Iraq and Afghanistan do not meet the criteria – and the Church has said so in no uncertain terms. And no one's going to argue about Vietnam either – although, admittedly, an argument can be made that the Vietnam effort at least showed the communists how costly their expansionist ambitions were, which may have slowed them down a bit. But then we come to Korea – another battle against communism. Was it justified? I would not give one U.S. soldier for all the citizens of South Korea, quite frankly... but again, communism was rightly seen as a moral, or “existential” threat to Western democracies (and their Asian clones). So if America is internationalist in orientation, and obligated to play policeman to the world, then getting involved in Korea was obviously the right thing to do. If, on the other hand, the duty of American leadership, and its military, is primarily to the American people and not to the “world community”, then the Korean involvement was a terrible mistake – just like Vietnam.
Then we come to World War II, which very few people – saving Pat Buchanan -- are willing to argue was anything but a “good war”. After all, weren't we obligated to see to the utter defeat of Hitler and the Nazis... and to aid and abet the victory, on the eastern front, of Stalin and the Soviets? Well, um... But it wasn't only about Germany; there was also Japan, who seemed to think it was their right to dominate the Pacific, whereas any fool could see that it was our right. Well, um... See, the more you deconstruct the arguments the thinner and more lame they become. But actually, it's a disservice to separate World War II from World War I, which, if anything, was even more pointless. And if World War II was simply the “blowback” from a pointless war – namely World War I – then doesn't that render it pointless as well? How can something that was totally absurd give rise to something that had meaning?
Then, going back in time a bit farther, we have the Spanish-American War, which was just about the most trumped-up affair in American history, along with the Mexican War. OK then, how about the Civil War, which was “fought to free the slaves”? Well, of course, it was nothing of the sort – it was mostly fought in order to establish, once and for all, economic dominance of the North over the South. Freeing the slaves was, for Lincoln, no more than a political football, which he – let's admit – managed to kick through the goalposts with consummate skill.
Now, we've already mentioned the Mexican War, so what's left? Other than the revolution itself, that is. Only the War of 1812, and at least in that case one can say that we were invaded – for the first and last time! So was that our last “good” -- i.e., just – war? I would be willing to make the argument. And, I hasten to add, I am not a pacifist. If I see the Russkies (or the Chinese, or an army of social workers, whatever) coming over the hill toward my homestead, just hand me a gun, no problem. I think anyone who attacks America, or Americans, deserves to have their ass ground to fine power – despite any rationalizations they might manage to come up with. (The mistake we made in responding to 9-11 was that we fought back against the wrong people. We should have invaded Saudi Arabia. But that would have, you know, caused “problems”, unlike what we did do. Ahem.) You don't have to believe that this country is perfect in order to be willing to defend it – but, on the other hand, you also don't have to fall for just any cock-and-bull story told by a fat, lazy, corrupt politician as to what constitutes “national security”. Clearly, very little that we've actually done in terms of war has had anything directly to do with “national security”. I mean... let's take an extreme case. Let's say we didn't join up for World War II in Europe, and Germany had won. Would we have then “fought” the Cold War with Germany for 45 years? I tend to think not. I'll bet we could have come up with a gentleman's agreement with Adolf et al. -- except there would have been that awkwardness about the Jews. So OK, we didn't go that route. And we also didn't go the route of staying out of World War I, even though it was far from clear who was at fault and who was in the right. (Do you know there's a cause for sainthood of one of the leaders during the World War I era? Guess who – no, no one on “our” side. It's Emperor Karl I of Austria.)
So basically, one can argue until the cows come home about which of our wars were “just” or “necessary” -- and much of this is predicated on one's notion of America's “mission” in the world. Are we, in fact, fated to be the world's policeman? Is it our job to promote and protect “democracy” -- or any semblance thereof, even the most superficial and remote – at all costs? (And the other side of that coin is the obligation to fight to the death against “tyranny” -- which, for most people, includes any form of monarchy. So when do we invade England in order to get Queen Elizabeth II off the throne?) For if this is our mission, then any war/invasion/occupation can be justified, and there is, by definition, no such thing as an “unjust” or “unnecessary” war. Since we are the highest moral standard on earth (well, second to Israel I guess), we get to decide – and if we say a war is just, or necessary, then it is; case closed. And this is, in fact, the position nearly all of our presidents have taken over the years – not the least being Bush II and Obama. Yes, Obama! -- the peacemaker and peace prize winner. But he's following religiously in the footsteps of his supposedly despised, misguided,a dn war-mongering predecessor. And the amazing thing about the “America as cop” idea – which really got up to speed under Wilson, although there were precursors under Teddy Roosevelt – is that, as an idea, it is virtually indestructible, no matter how many times we fail at that mission. We're willing to literally go bankrupt and give up most of the benefits of democracy on the home front in order to spread it abroad. We're going to wind up like some senior citizen superhero in an “adult cartoon”, still proclaiming our divine right to go anywhere at any time and kick ass, even as we creep along with a walker, an IV, and a U-bag.
But here's what occurs to me. Even though one can define a spectrum of sorts based on how just, or unjust, our many and varied wars have been, one thing stands out in my own experience, which is that the Vietnam conflict is almost universally regarded as “bad” -- worse, in fact, than Iraq or Afghanistan. And this is most curious, because, as I said, one can argue that Vietnam was at least a way of raising the price of conquest so high that the communists were unwilling to do anything of quite that magnitude again. Iraq and Afghanistan, on the other hand, are examples of the wrong war being fought against the wrong people for the wrong reasons. There is, in short, no rational justification for our continued presence in those shitholes – and overwhelming justification for simply turning around and walking away, and leaving them to their own devices (which, ideally, would include them killing each other off in short order). And yet, Vietnam is “bad” -- in folklore, song, and story (especially film) – and Iraq and Afghanistan are strangely neutral. So why is this? One word – the draft. Vietnam was fought by guys who really, really did not want to be there... whereas Iraq and Afghanistan are at least being fought by volunteers... except when you run up against things like “stop loss”, the “volunteer” aspect starts to look a little thin. And here's another irony – returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are invariably welcomed home as heroes, whereas in the case of the Vietnam vets people turned the other way. And these were guys who didn't want to be there! They were victims! And yet they were treated like lepers when they got home – and this says something about how sick and demoralized our society was at that time – way sicker and more demoralized than it is now, in fact! I mean, the post-Vietnam era was, for those of us who remember, a case of societal and cultural depression – and no one exemplified it better than our president at the time, namely Jimmy Carter. This guy spent four years as, basically, a poster child for the Great American Hangover from Vietnam... and he did a damn fine job. Every time we started to snap out of it and feel good about ourselves again, all we had to do is look at his Puritan prune face and we'd go right back into a deep, black funk. Mission accomplished! I think Reagan was elected based solely on the votes of people who had barely avoided committing suicide.
See, the problem with Vietnam was... well, the draft was only the start. It was the beginning of the snowball, if you will. The draft got people thinking about just war -- but not in those terms. But still, that sort of thinking leads to skepticism about government... and sensitivity to corruption, and to the two-facedness of politicians... and to the absurdity of the Warfare State in general. Then you combine that with the hippie movement, free sex, drugs, etc. -- and you have a small-scale revolution on your hands, which is exactly what happened. By comparison, there are no “ancillary issues” connected to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts; they're wrong, but they don't necessarily indict an entire galaxy of other things as also being wrong. Plus, the casualty rate is lower. And the race factor is not there – or, at least, not considered important (volunteers again, remember?). Plus, it's not about communism, and let's admit, a lot of the Vietnam protesters were far more sympathetic with “the other side” than with ours (start with Jane Fonda and work down from there). Very few college and university professors and students these days are going to hold protests to demonstrate solidarity with Al Qaeda, or the Taliban, or Islam in general; political correctness doesn't go that far. Plus, those people are monotheists! And we certainly can't have any of that nonsense. So we are fighting, in effect, a neutral, faceless enemy, whose only offense is that they're fighting us – and that's a... well, not really the worst thing in the world, after all. I mean, they could be “racists”, or “sexists”, or “homophobes”, and that would be really bad. (At least they don't eat pork products!) But as it is, they seem to be, well, patriots in a way... defending their homeland and their way of life, and all that. Not like those dirty Nazis, for sure! So there's a certain flabiness, if you will, to the antiwar movement in our time. It's about money... and about people getting killed, but, again, they are, after all, volunteers... but it's really not about principle. And this is what ultimately separates war protesters into two distinct groups – those who protest a given war for highly temporal and situational reasons (Vietnam), and those who protest any war that violates the principles of “just war”, which most of them do. Most of the people who objected to the Vietnam involvement, for example, had no problem at all with our bombing of Belgrade. And now that Iraq and Afghanistan are “liberals' wars” they have no problem with those either. “Conservatives”, on the other hand, never see a war they don't like, no matter who's involved or who suffers. (You'll notice, for example, that they are totally silent about the ethnic cleansing of Christians from the Near East, mostly as a result of our efforts or our support of Israel.) But their love of war has nothing to do with the just war principle -- it's more a matter of American exceptionalism, which is, as I said before, a conceptual choice... but, I believe, doomed to failure in the long run.
So, basically, it's all relative, and it's all about politics. There are principled pacifists out there, and a small remnant of people who refer back to the Church's teaching on “just war”. Everyone else is being blown about by the winds of politics, emotion, impulse, and sheer greed.