The idea of a ‘just war’ has been around for a long time – since the fifth century, in fact, when it was formulated by St Augustine. One of the key criteria in judging whether a particular conflict can be considered ‘just’ is that war is not waged lightly: it has to be a ‘last resort’. It can be tricky to tell when you’ve reached the ‘last resort’, or the last of anything; you could easily jump too soon, or else wait too long and miss it altogether. Think of Father Ted, urging himself to confront the odious Father Fintan Stack and simultaneously rationalising his failure to do so before: “No, this is definitely the last straw. I thought that was the last straw, but obviously I was mistaken. This now, this is positively the last… bit of straw… left… in the thing, what I’m saying is there is no more straw!”
Of course, problems like this are what we have philosophers for. Michael Walzer is an international authority on ‘just war’ theory; a collection of his writings was recently reviewed by Corey Robin in the LRB. Here’s a slice:
Walzer wrestles with terrorists who claim that they are using violence as a last resort and antiwar activists who claim that governments should go to war only as a last resort. Walzer is equally dubious about both claims. But far from revealing a dogged consistency, his scepticism about the ‘last resort’ suggests a double standard. … Walzer refuses to accept the terrorist’s ‘last resort’ while he is ready to lend credence to the government’s, or at least is ready to challenge critics of the government who insist that war truly be a last resort.
Here’s Walzer, at greater length, on terrorists and the last resort; the essay, reprinted in the collection Robin reviewed, can also be found in a 2001 issue of the American Prospect.
In parts of the European and American left, there has long existed a political culture of excuses focused defensively on one or another of the older terrorist organizations: the IRA, FLN, PLO, and so on.
The first excuse is that terror is a last resort. The image is of oppressed and embittered people who have run out of options. They have tried every legitimate form of political action, exhausted every possibility, failed everywhere, until no alternative remains but the evil of terrorism. They must be terrorists or do nothing at all. The easy response is that, given this description, they should do nothing at all. But that doesn’t engage the excuse.It is not so easy to reach the last resort. To get there, one must indeed try everything (which is a lot of things) – and not just once, as if a political party or movement might organize a single demonstration, fail to win immediate victory, and claim that it is now justified in moving on to murder. Politics is an art of repetition. Activists learn by doing the same thing over and over again. It is by no means clear when they run out of options.
“Last resort” has only a notional finality. The resort to terror is not last in an actual series of actions; it is last only for the sake of the excuse. Actually, most terrorists recommend terror as a first resort; they are for it from the beginning.
And here’s Walzer on ‘just war’, adopting a very different position – although, oddly, the rhetoric doesn’t change that much. He wrote in 2003:
We say of war that it is the “last resort” because of the unpredictable, unexpected, unintended, and unavoidable horrors that it regularly brings. In fact, war isn’t the last resort, for “lastness” is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life: it is always possible to do something else, or to do it again, before doing whatever it is that comes last. The notion of lastness is cautionary – but this is a necessary caution: look hard for alternatives before you “let loose the dogs of war.”
The distortions and elisions in Walzer’s arguments are striking, and sometimes strikingly obvious. Take that (unchallenged) ‘easy response’ in the first paragraph quoted: even if we have tried every legitimate form of political action, exhausted every possibility, failed everywhere, it is better to do nothing at all than to take up arms. This is an extraordinary failure of imaginative engagement on Walzer’s part, which must put us on our guard relative to the arguments that follows.
Walzer also plays fast and loose with the key word ‘last’. When he’s dealing with terrorists, his argument is rigid and mechanistic: by implication, each individual group must try everything … and not just once before non-violent forms of action can be discarded. This seems counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. Let’s say that we’re in El Salvador in the early 1980s, and a local trade union organiser has just been murdered by a right-wing death squad. What’s our advice to other trade unionists – learn by doing the same thing over and over again?
When Walzer is dealing with regular armies, ‘last’ means something quite different. In fact [sic], war isn’t the last resort … The notion of lastness is cautionary. ‘Last’, in other words, means… what? ‘Worst’? But if starting a war is not merely an undesirable course of action but the worst option (which seems like a reasonable position), the distinction Walzer is trying to make dissolves. To say that something is the worst option is precisely to say – if you’ll excuse the pedantry – that it’s the last course of action one should resort to. Presumably ‘last’ here means no more than ‘quite bad’.
These two opposed redefinitions of ‘last’ meet oddly in a formulation from that 1992 essay:
we can never reach lastness, or we can never know when we have reached it. There is always something else to do: another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution, another meeting.
One must indeed try everything … and not just once. One must go to the UN Security Council, and not just once; one must sit through yet another meeting. Or rather, one mustn’t: just because it’s called the last resort, that doesn’t mean you’ve actually got to try it last.
Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, Walzer slips all too easily from discussing an argument from principle to challenging the good faith of those who invoke it: Actually, most terrorists recommend terror as a first resort. Well, one activist’s lifetime of experience is another’s starting point (unless every one of us needs to try everything … and not just once); it’s not hard to imagine situations in which a ‘last resort’ is the only resort. Besides – ‘most terrorists’? Has Walzer run a survey among veterans of armed struggle groups or analysed the copious literature these groups tend to produce? I suspect that this is a starting point rather than a conclusion: what purports to be a critique of ‘most terrorists’ is actually a statement about how Walzer imagines these groups to be, based on his antipathy to them. (Tellingly, Walzer describes the positions he’s attacking not as arguments but as excuses.)
Walzer detects bad faith in peaceniks as well as terrorists – always with another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution… He made the point more bluntly in 2004, in his contribution to a Radio 4 discussion programme:
Last resort is a metaphysical term. You never reach lastness, there’s always something you could do. If there is a massacre going on in Rwanda, the crucial thing is to stop it. As we saw, there were lots of things to do — or to pretend to do — in the face of the Rwandan massacre, but the use of force was, I think, the just response; and just because if we were interested in stopping the murders, there was no alternative.
there were lots of things to do — or to pretend to do. Terrorists lie – they talk about principle, but they just want to be violent. Peaceniks lie – they talk about principle, but they just want governments to be non-violent. The fact of it is, Walzer says – the philosophical fact of it is – that governments can cut ethical corners and may use violence, whereas citizens must act ethically and must not use violence. Because… because that’s how it is.
Comments made on the same Radio 4 programme by Vaughan Lowe, a professor of international law, show just how dangerous this idea is.
I think the general population is quite rightly concerned not simply with the question whether it’s lawful or not, but whether it’s right. And it’s certainly not the case that every lawful action is morally defensible. And I think that’s what they’re trying to get at when they talk about just war. They’re saying more than that it’s technically lawful. They’re saying it’s a good idea. And I think that people think that answering the legal question excuses them from answering the moral question and that they think it’s enough to concentrate on that. And I absolutely agree—the ultimately critical issue is the moral one: is it justified to use force or not?
Both Walzer’s readings of ‘just war’ theory are concerned with this three-way connection between legality, justice and violence, but they articulate it in very different ways. For Walzer I – Walzer on terrorism – a course of action can only be just if it is also legal, which necessarily precludes violence. Activists learn by doing the same thing over and over again. It is by no means clear when they run out of options. If armed struggle is unjust unless it is the ‘last resort’, armed struggle can never realistically be just. (Even if activists do run out of options for legal activity, they should react to this setback by doing nothing at all.)
For Walzer II – Walzer on war – “lastness” is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life. If war is unjust unless it is the ‘last resort’, war can never realistically be just; in a 1992 essay Walzer wrote that the upshot of the ‘last resort’ argument was to make war “morally impossible”. But Walzer is convinced that ‘just war’ is possible, which means that war cannot literally be the ‘last resort’. The circle is squared by divorcing justice from legality (which, in the case of international law, can only finally be determined by doing the same thing over and over again up at the UN). For Walzer II, the justice of a just war is an intrinsic property – and if there is a conflict between justice and the procedural minutiae of legality, justice takes precedence, in principle just as it does in practice.
As Lowe hints, Goldsmith’s legal advice on the Iraq war was, in effect, “It may not be a just war but it’s technically legal.” Under criticism, Blair has opted decisively for the opposite position – “It may not be technically legal, but it’s a just war.” Walzer I wouldn’t tolerate this type of argument for a second; Walzer II endorses it wholeheartedly. The result is that his arguments cease to be intolerable to the advocates of actually existing ‘just war’, at the cost of becoming dispensable. As David Gordon comments: “Walzer mocked overly rigid just-war thinkers: if one makes the standards for resort to war too demanding, those in power will not listen. … But the upshot of Walzer’s slippery standards is that policymakers will pay him no heed either.”
The yawning inconsistency between Walzer I and Walzer II – and, I would argue, the equal and opposite dodginess of both positions – highlights the limitations of the terms involved (what does last mean, after all?) A more nuanced – and hopefully more consistent – position might start from one of Roy Bhaskar’s more lucid observations. We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation, a leap “into a realm free of determination”; what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”.
Which brings us, indirectly, back to the ‘last resort’. Suppose that people and nations determine one another’s actions; suppose that some of these ‘determinations’ are acceptable and others not. The ‘last resort’ is then the point at which ‘unneeded, unwanted and oppressive’ determinations cannot be removed or alleviated, other than by force or the threat of force.
Where individuals are concerned, the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.
In the semi-imaginary land of international relations, on the other hand, it is not clear to me that the last resort is ever reached, unless the offending nation is either initiating a war or attempting to provoke the other into doing so. This suggests that the ‘last resort’ is always a defence against aggression – for otherwise it would always [be] possible to do something else, or to do it again – and hence that there is no such thing as a just war of aggression.
But in that case the Iraq war would not have been a just war. And we know in advance that that conclusion is intolerable (if one makes the standards for resort to war too demanding, those in power will not listen). And if Iraq was right, the model must be wrong. Simple.