Is war always wrong?
Catholics invented the term “just war” to give moral sanction to certain types of conflict.
The first American war of my adulthood was the Korean War. In those days it was called a “police action” sanctioned by the United Nations. The invasion of the South by the North seemed clear cut, though later historians questioned the script. Anyway, well protected from the military draft by my student status, I didn’t oppose.
It was also my first experience with a war that the U.S. didn’t win. And other than a cosmetic operation in Granada under Reagan, we haven’t won a war since…though we keep trying. Our worst defeat was in Viet Nam, and that humiliation turned me into a pacifist. Luckily I was discharged from the Army Medical Corps before I had to make a decision as to whether I would have accepted a deployment to Southeast Asia.
I relaxed my moral conscience a bit the first time the U.S. sent troops into Afghanistan to get Osama Bin Laden, whose Al Quaeda masterminded the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. When he fled to Pakistan, I no longer saw any reason for the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan.
The U.S. could have pursued him but Bush 2’s eyes were fixated on a shiny prize called Iraq, where he could redeem his father’s mistake and eliminate a major irritant in our support for Israel and opposition to Iran’s hostage takers.
One thing Iraq taught me was to reject all mutual defense treaties because they make war “automatic” - thereby bypassing the required moral deliberation as to whether we were in an existential situation. That’s how the two World Wars of the 20th century happened.
All I’ve written thus far is preamble to the evolving situation in Ukraine. Being outside the American bubble for the first time, a new set of personal circumstances and access to both sides of the partisan arguments weighed heavily.
Looking out from Moscow, I found that the American narrative was less convincing as mouthed in unison by officials, pundits, editorialists and journalists. Their version of course was for home consumption in order to throw red meat to the sanctionistas and more dollars to the defense industry hawks. Russians know their history well so the Western revisionist text about the origins of Ukraine made absolutely no sense. Despite Ukraine’s recently contrived nationhood, that is no justification for war.
Only the strong and dominant nations have inviolate sovereign boundaries. Weaker nations are always faced with shifting boundaries. Poland’s history shows a nation situated in varying locations, and sometimes totally disappeared. Likewise, Ukraine has been struggling to avoid a similar fate. A requirement of sovereignty is that other nations recognize yours. In this ephemeral moment, Ukraine is a state and the geo-political reality must be respected by all. While the legality of Russia’s invasion can be challenged, the failure of the West to stop it could be evidence of weakening sovereignty. President Biden’s blunder, in announcing no American troops to Ukraine, undermined its sovereignty and removed one of the restraints on Putin’s decision.
So I will not justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on historical or geo-political grounds. However now real politick must come into play. There was a brief moment when Ukraine’s sovereignty was in suspension - when the elected president, a Donbass resident, was forcefully deposed by nationalists and right wing forces. In that momentary sovereign vacuum, the Donbass counties declared their independence and Crimea welcomed Russia’s reassertion of its sovereignty over the peninsula. The situation was frozen in time by The Minsk Agreement which committed Ukraine to negotiating a solution with those groups that would not accept the “revolution.”
A bifurcated Ukraine declared its interest in membership in the EU and NATO, thereby inserting itself into the middle of a 20-year argument concerning the expansion of NATO. That was a game-changer that turned the argument into the reality of a decisive moment. Unless Ukraine reversed course, Russia felt challenged to act, especially as Western money and armaments started pouring into Ukraine.
Putin decided to create a legal basis, to be argued later, to act immediately. By recognizing the independence of the Donbass republics, he conceded their sovereignty over the territory that was once Ukrainian. He could now respond to their call for help to defend their civilians from constant Ukrainian bombardment, in violation of the “Gray Zone” as defined in the Minsk Agreement.
To Putin’s credit, he gave Ukraine one more chance to comply with Minsk, now adding the demand that they declare no interest in joIning NATO. It is this abandonment of Ukraine’s obligations and the desperate strait of the civilians in Donbass that leads me to believe that Russia had no other way to meet the intransigence of Ukraine and its enablers in the West.
I would have preferred that Putin wait a little longer, but Donbass refugees were already flocking into Russia. The Ukrainian Army had ramped up its attacks across the Donbass front with the tons of fresh armaments on a conveyor belt from Washington to Kiev.
Yes, the deliberate killing of civilians had to be stopped, and any local action to do that would have been justified on humanitarian grounds. Extending the action deep into Ukraine to destroy the military infrastructure and supplies that emboldened the frontline Donbass regiments - that needs further consideration.
In a few past columns I kept referring to the West’s gaslighting propaganda tactics, to their rhetorical provocations, to their disrespect for Russian concerns, to their 20 years of stonewalling - for their daring Russia to act by threatening draconian sanctions. These were not the policies or strategies of nations wanting a real solution. Imagine their surprise when all their bluster and arms rattling did not work their usual magic. Russia had spent years under Putin preparing for this moment. Putin was declaring an end to the mono-polar world and promoting a new multi-lateral world order.
That’s the real revolution. Now all have to decide if that is an ideal worth fighting for. Or better to strip away all our pre-conceptions and start with a blank slate.
I remember once shocking administrators and faculty at the New York Institute of Technology by signing all my memos in paper days with the word, “peace.”
If my attitude about war got lost in the ambiguities of the discussion, let me make myself perfectly clear:
The United Nations should have supra-sovereign powers over all wars.
A war is justified to end indiscriminate killing of civilians or end a genocide.
A war is justified in response to military aggression against you or a more vulnerable sovereign state.
A war is justified when administrative action, like sanctions, threatens the well-being of individuals or the ability of a state to maintain sovereignty.
A war is NOT justified when required by a mutual treaty.
A war is NOT justified to unite ethnic people separated by an artificial boundary.
A war is justified when a certified rogue nation is acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
A war is justified when a faction committed to the destruction of its neighbors or “the other” ascends to power in a sovereign nation.
A war is justified when a sovereign nation harbors a group that organizes terrorism on other sovereign nations.
A war is NOT justified to recapture a former territory that now has its own sovereignty.
A war is NOT justified on a nation in formation but not yet sovereign.
A war is NOT justified to solve a border dispute or forcibly change boundaries.
A war is NOT justified to change the leadership of a sovereign nation.
A war is NOT justified to intervene in another nation’s civil war, except for humanitarian reasons.
All other justifications are subject to the jurisdiction of the United Nations.
Any individual, without specific reason, can exempt him or herself from participating in a war, justified or not.
This list, which is not exhaustive, does not imply support for any one nation deciding to go it alone. If anything, the United Nations by means of global consensus should be the only entity that can declare a war just - and that only after pursuing all other alternatives. When I refer to “supra sovereignty” I am practically endorsing world government in which nations must comply of face real global sanctions or punishments.