Since gaining nationhood in the 18th century, the United States has been directly involved in dozens of armed military conflicts. The standard that the government has used and still uses to justify military engagements is the just war theory, which posits that a nation can, morally, only become involved in a military conflict that adheres to a set of ethical criteria. Andrew Fiala, professor of philosophy and director of the Ethics Center at California State University, Fresno, addressed the Hamilton community in Dwight Lounge on March 1, discussing some of the issues presented for consideration in his most recent book, The Just War Myth. He was a guest in the Levitt Center Security program series.
Fiala became interested in the philosophy of war as a student at UCLA, where, when participating in the Naval ROTC program, he began to notice what he considered to be an unjust hierarchy. After going on to secure a degree in philosophy from UCLA and master’s and Ph.D degrees in philosophy from Long Beach State and Vanderbilt Universities, Fiala’s interest in the ethics of war continued to grow. He has since published five books on ethics and political philosophy.
War, Fiala said, has always struggled to reconcile an innate dualism—it can bring out the best and the worst in people. War can catalyze the most selfless acts of bravery and heroism as people dedicate themselves to a higher cause, but it can likewise inspire acts of ultimate cruelty and brutality.
The history of the United States has inarguably been a violent one, and in the American tradition, warrior sacrifice is celebrated. Every 4th of July, every Memorial Day, and every Veteran’s Day, citizens take time to observe and thank those who have served to protect and promote freedom. Fiala agrees that a life dedicated to service is commendable, but he thinks that the institution behind the cycle of violence and military intervention deserves scrutiny. That scrutiny, says Fiala, should be built on the just war theory.
The just war theory sets forward standards for what is and what is not ethically sound reasoning in preparing for war. Jus ad bellum teaches that, for a war to be entered into, there must be a just cause, right intention, legitimate authority, and probability of success; it must be the last resort; and there should be a consideration of proportionality (potential damage if entered versus potential damage if foregone). While actually at war, jus in bello mandates a clear distinction between enemy soldiers and enemy civilians, proportionality, and that there be no intrinsically evil means used to procure victory.
In doctrine, every American war should proscribe to the standards laid down by the just war theory. Fiala thinks, however, that some of the finer points of the just war theory have been overlooked to the point of its not even being applicable anymore. World War II is often referred to as “the good war” because of America’s “noble” reasons for engagement—ending Nazi tyranny and presenting fascist world domination. Fiala is weary to paint America as the hero of World War II, however, because of our use of atomic weapons and firebombings on Japanese and German civilians.
Fiala does not think that there is any one individual who can be held accountable for a recent lack of adherence to the just war theory. “The just war theory is the best theory we have,” he said, “However, when we apply it we find that wars rarely live up to the standards of tradition.” He advocates for a “just war pacifism,” which salvages the original just war ideals and emphasizes further consideration of a war’s justness before entering military conflicts.
Just was has been recently mythologized and has lost its legitimacy because of a rampant sentiment of American exceptionalism, which, within the United States, tends to justify all American military engagements as necessary, after-the-fact. Concepts, mutually reinforcing ideas, symbols and rituals have, says Fiala, given us a certain disposition towards the world which makes war seem, too often, like the right move. These myths are perpetuated by social institutions and heavily reiterated in presidential rhetoric.
In the end, there is no hard and fast way to say whether a war should or shouldn’t be fought. There will always be some measure of subjectivity in calculating a war’s legitimacy, and dozens of factors—economic interests, geopolitics, special intelligence—can serve to complicate the question. Fiala does think that we are making progress though, in advancing human rights with the overall cost of human lives decreasing. It’s important, though, he says, as we enter into the future, to carefully consider the just war theory in order to minimize unneeded violence in military conflicts.