Belated Remembrance Day post

by John Quiggin on November 12, 2010

Over the fold is the piece I wrote for the Fin which ran yesterday, on Remembrance Day. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the last couple of paras, referring to the present and future, so I need to spell them out a bit more.

First, while I was, in 2002, a fairly enthusiastic supporter of the decision to go to war in Afghanistan, subsequent events and the evolution of my own thinking have led me to qualify that view, and to conclude, in particular, that Australia should withdraw its troops in the near future.

First, some general thoughts

* War is justified only in self-defence, and only to the extent that there is a reasonable expectation that going to war will yield a better outcome than not doing so
* Even when war is justified by self-defence, it should not be used as a pretext for securing benefits that go beyond restoration of the status quo ante bellum (bearing in mind that war changes things, so exact restoration is often not feasible).
* Political and public thinking is biased in favor of the belief that military force is an effective way to deal with political problems and a successful use of military force (even if justified) reinforces this bias. So it is important to create whatever institutional constraints are possible, such as requirements for Parliamentary approval of decisions to go to war
* Even when justified ex ante, war is unpredictable and likely to go badly. The idea that having started on a war that has turned out badly, we should “see it through” is a mistake

Coming to Afghanistan, I think the self-defence case was clear-cut. The US was attacked by terrorists trained in and led from Afghanistan, by a group supported by the Taliban government. It’s possible to make a hypothetical case that absent the incompetence and malice of the Bush Administration (backed by Blair and Howard in the decision to start a new war in Iraq) that there was a reasonable expectation of success. However, I observe with some discomfort that much the same case is put forward by many on the left who backed the Iraq war, where, however, the self-defence case was a transparent sham. In any case, we are past the point where continuing the war can be expected to produce benefits for either Afghanistan or the world. It would be better to withdraw and spend some of the money saved as a result (many times Afghanistan’s annual national income) on aid.

I concluded my post by saying “On this Remembrance Day, we should honour the sacrifice of all those who died by giving up, once and for all, the belief that war should be part of our national policy.” To be clear, I am not a pacifist and do not oppose fighting in self-defence. The idea that “war should be part of our national policy” means to me, that the use or threat of military force can and should be used to advance our perceived national interest. This idea, which forms the basis of military policy in most countries, appears to to both morally wrong and factually false.

Finally, I collected a fair bit of flak not long ago for writing that the outbreak of the Great War was the critical disaster in the history of the 20th century. I don’t step back from that, but I don’t really want to re-argue the case here, so I’m not going to respond to disputes about it.

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