Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s

Bad arguments about war

Every so often, in Britain, we find ourselves discussing whether it might be a good idea to go to war against the latest hapless victim—or, if you prefer, to take military action against the latest wicked aggressor. Personally, I tend to decide it wouldn’t. But I think any fair-minded person (let me know if you meet one) will admit that many of the arguments made on both sides of the question are usually extremely bad. By ‘bad’ I do not mean they are necessarily put forward in bad faith, although they may well be. I mean they are bad in at least one of two ways: either they are so wrong-headed or morally grotesque that they should not be taken seriously by anybody, or else they manifestly fail to establish or even to advance the conclusions that the people making them hope they will. This state of affairs seems on the whole to be a regrettable one.

But do bad arguments really matter? Is it not, in fact, sheer ivory-tower formalism to label arguments as ‘bad’ when they do actually work: when they persuade waverers to back our side instead of the other side, or (if they sometimes don’t do that) when they gee up our own supporters so nicely? Well, maybe. Myself I am open to the idea that issues of life and death merit being debated a little bit more seriously than they are, even if the lives and deaths in question are mostly those of foreigners in distant countries. But there is also the consideration that support based on very bad arguments is unlikely to be at all solid or durable. You may be able to convince somebody to oppose the Iraq war by pointing at George W. Bush and saying ‘Look! The man’s an idiot!’ You will not, however, have made it any likelier that they will adopt an anti-war stance again a few years later, when the case for war is being fronted not by President Bush but by President Obama. Bad arguments work in the short term—but they depress public consciousness instead of raising it, they do nothing to promote an informed and competent democratic opinion, and they commit you to making bad arguments again and again every five years or so forever.

So I have decided to list here a few of the commonest very bad arguments on the subject of war, with a line or two pointing out what makes each one bad. I haven’t argued against them more than briefly, because they don’t need it: any argument that can’t be refuted pretty definitively in a couple of sentences does not belong on this list (however strongly I may still disagree with it). The arguments are presented in no particular order.

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“The people we’re attacking are the good guys!” —— OK, so what happens when they aren’t? Britain has participated in airstrikes against both the Syrian government and IS; you may think that one or (who am I to judge?) the other are the good guys, but you’ll struggle to think they both are. If—like most anti-war activists—you would in fact oppose war even if you didn’t support the particular target politically, keep things simple: use arguments that work either way.

“We can’t just do nothing!” —— as the burglars said when I asked them why they were breaking into next door. ‘We can’t just not bomb’; perhaps we can’t, but are we sure we’re trying our very hardest?

“It’s all about oil pipelines!” —— Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. But imagine for the sake of argument that this time there wasn’t a pipeline: would you support war then? If you wouldn’t, you should probably focus on arguments that remain valid even without a hypothetical pipeline.

“We have a Responsibility to Protect!” —— This one might get out of the ‘obviously monstrous’ category if the famous Responsibility were vested in some representative international body; as things are, it just means that rich countries with strong armed forces should sit in judgement on all the rest. Nobody debates whether Togo has a responsibility to invade the United States so as to protect US citizens from being shot by the police. The doctrine that being wealthy and armed to the teeth makes you necessarily more moral than you would be if you were poor and defenceless has the advantage of being original (quite a rare thing in ethical theory), but it isn’t too easy to defend.

“Spend the money on the Health Service, not bombs!” —— Either this particular war is a moral obligation or it isn’t. If it is, perhaps we should find some non-essential spending we can cut to enable us to fight it and fund the NHS at once. If it isn’t, it’s a crime and an abomination—and in that case ‘We’d love to bomb your cities and kill your people but unfortunately things are a bit tight for us right now’ is a strange message to be sending.

“If you’re so anti-war, why don’t you condemn wars waged by countries other than Britain?” —— I do, sometimes; but if you’re serious about peace you concentrate on threats to peace from your own government. In the summer of 1914 you could have stood up in Berlin and preached a sermon about British colonialism and Tsarist tyranny and Belgian crimes in the Congo, and every word of it could have been true—but you wouldn’t have been doing much for peace.

“The people we’re attacking didn’t do the things they’re accused of!” —— So you fully agree that Britain and its allies are entitled to be judge, jury, and executioner, but in this particular case you think the accused should be found not guilty? That’s not really an anti-war position, and it certainly won’t help anybody to oppose the next war—maybe next time the charges will stick.

“The people we’re attacking are just like the Nazis!” —— This argument (made with tedious regularity to justify every British act of aggression at least since Suez) does imply a slightly troubling level of ignorance about the Nazis.

“Bombing the bad guys will only make them stronger!” —— That must be why Saddam Hussein is so strong these days.

“We need to bring democracy!” —— The kind of democracy we brought to Libya, you mean?

“Britain is only doing this because it’s been manoeuvred into it by the Americans / the Israelis / the Saudis!” —— Yes, quite. This country has always needed to be tricked into starting wars and invading places. I wonder which nefarious foreigners beguiled the East India Company into taking over large chunks of a subcontinent at a time when neither the United States, nor Israel, nor Saudi Arabia even existed.

“You’re not anti-war, you’re anti-West!” —— I hope I’m anti-Britain—or at least always prepared to be, when the British government does things that ought to be opposed. You see, I live in Britain, and I have the vote in Britain, and my taxes fund the British military (however infinitesimally); my influence over what Britain does may be small, but it’s considerably more than the influence I have over any other country.