Video of Debate #2: Is War Ever Justifiable?

Our first debate was February 12th. This was our second, held February 13, 2018, at Eastern Mennonite University, moderated by Lisa Schirch.



The two speakers’ bios:

Pete Kilner is a writer and military ethicist who served more than 28 years in the Army as an infantryman and professor at the U.S. Military Academy. He deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan to conduct research on combat leadership. A graduate of West Point, he holds an MA in Philosophy from Virginia Tech and a Ph.D. in Education from Penn State.

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie and War Is Never Just. He is a 2015, 2016, 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. He holds an MA in philosophy from UVA.

No comprehensive effort was made to survey the audience as to the debate’s impact. Indicate your response, please, in the comments section below.

These were my prepared remarks:

Thanks for hosting this and being here. Pete and I debated last night at Radford. A video is at And we agreed, as the majority of this country has agreed for years, that military spending should be reduced. I want it gradually reduced to zero. I don’t know where Pete wants it, but he doesn’t want it at zero. However, I am certain that if military spending were significantly reduced, you would see a reverse arms race, a reduction in threats and hostility abroad, and consequently greater public desire to go on reducing it further. So, in a sense, we don’t need this debate, we just need democracy rather than wars in the name of democracy and a government that goes on year-after-year moving more money out of almost everything else and into militarism. But to build a movement powerful enough to influence the U.S. oligarchy we do need this debate, we do need a clearer understanding that no war can ever be justified, and therefore that dumping over a trillion dollars a year into preparing for a possible just war has to stop. After all, 3 percent of that money could end starvation on earth, 1 percent could end the lack of clean water, a bigger chunk could give us a chance against climate change (rather than serving as the leading cause of climate change). So it’s the institution of war that kills far more than the actual wars, and we can’t build the strength to reduce it as long as people imagine there might be a just war some day.

Pete and I also agreed that numerous wars have been unjust. I’ll talk a little about why the wars he claims were just were actually unjust on their own terms and in isolation. But I think the burden for a just war is even higher than that. I think a war, to do more good than harm, has to do so much more good than harm as to outweigh the damage done by all the admittedly unjust wars as well as by the diversion of funding from where it could save and improve millions of lives rather than wasting them. War is an institution, and for any war to be justified it has to justify all the damage done by the institution.

But Pete only named a couple of wars just and a couple unjust without ever giving us a method that would allow us to determine which are which when we turn to all the wars he didn’t label one way or the other. Those include wars he took part in: Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2006 Pete claimed the war on Iraq was doing Iraq lots of good. I asked him repeatedly what that good was and never got an answer. He did call the 2003-begun war “imprudent” and a “mistake.” If that’s what you call a war that radically increases the use of the term sociocide (meaning the total destruction of a society), I wonder what level of slaughter is needed before a war gets labeled something harsher like “bad” or “unpleasant” or “mildly regrettable.”

One current war that Pete agreed was unjust was the U.S.-Saudi war on Yemen. But will Pete join me in urging U.S. troops to refuse the immoral and illegal order to participate in that war? Isn’t that a moral duty comparable to that of encouraging participation in supposedly just wars? Doesn’t it expose one of the many problems with calling the U.S. military voluntary? Anything else you’re doing voluntarily you’re permitted to quit doing. What is the point of teaching soldiers morality if they aren’t supposed to act on it?

Pete will say that he has explained what a just war is, it’s a war fought because you’ve been attacked. Except that he’ll then readily admit that the United States has been fighting all these wars without having been attacked. So what he actually means is that someone else has been attacked, allowing the United States to step in as a gesture of generosity and assistance. But, as a rule, this stepping in is not appreciated, not requested, not actually helpful, on the contrary catastrophically counterproductive, and also, by the way, illegal. Who died and made the United States the world’s policeman? Nobody. But millions of people have been killed by the policing. The publics of most countries polled in 2013 by Gallup called the United States the greatest threat to peace in the world. Pew found that viewpoint increased in 2017. To begin to grasp why, just imagine if some other country began bombing several nations at a time out of the goodness of its heart. The shrieks of “Rogue Nation!” and “War Criminal!” would echo across every corporate news outlet.

Imagine if some country put missiles just inside Canada and Mexico aimed at the United States, the way that the United States does to Russia. Imagine if they justified this as defensive and pointed out that it was being done by their Defense Department which proved it. There’s a video of Vladimir Putin asking former U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock about U.S. missiles near Russia, and Matlock tells Putin not to worry because the missiles are purely a jobs program for back in the states. Would such an answer satisfy us if the case were reversed? Never mind that the studies done by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst show quite clearly that military spending costs us jobs rather than adding to them.

Although the one relatively recent U.S. war that Pete says was just cannot possibly outweigh the damage done by all the U.S. wars we agree were not plus the diversion of funding, the risk of nuclear apocalypse, the war machine’s environmental damage, the political and cultural damage, the counterproductive endangerment rather than protection, etc., let me look at that one war very briefly.

This is the Persian Gulf War. Recall that the United States had worked to bring Saddam Hussein to power and had armed and aided him in an aggressive war against Iran for years. A company called American Type Culture Collection in Manassas, Virginia, supplied the biological materials for anthrax to Saddam Hussein. Only later, when it was clear Iraq had no significant biological or chemical much less nuclear weapons, the pretense that it had new vast stockpiles of them was somehow a justification to bomb a nation full of human beings, 99.9 percent of whom had never shaken hands with Donald Rumsfeld. But first came the Gulf War. Like every war, it began with a period of threats, which bore no resemblance to the immediacy and urgency of a mugging in a dark alley or similar analogy that Pete likes to use. In fact, during this particular drawn-out period, a public relations company coached a girl to lie to Congress that Iraq was taking babies out of incubators. And meanwhile Iraq proposed to withdraw from Kuwait if Israel would withdraw from Palestinian territories illegally occupied, and Iraq proposed a weapons of mass destruction free Middle East. Numerous governments and even a guy who’s supposedly never wrong called The Pope urged the U.S. to pursue a peaceful settlement. The U.S. preferred war. At further odds with irrelevant analogies to personal self-defense, the U.S. in this war killed tens of thousands of Iraqis while they were retreating.

Do you know why recent presidents other than Trump have not proposed big military parades? It’s because none of the U.S. wars since the Gulf War has been able to even remotely pretend to a “victory.” The point is not that we need a victory after which we should want a parade, but rather that there is no such thing as a victory — the Gulf War wasn’t one either — and we need to recognize that basic truth before we’re all turned into fire and fury. The endless bombings and sanctions (who remembers Madeleine Albright saying that killing a half million children was justified?), and the new wars, and troops in Saudi Arabia, and terrorism aimed at getting troops out of Saudi Arabia (what do you think 9/11 was, exactly?), and the further militarization of the Middle East, and horrible illnesses among veterans, and all the other horrors that followed from the Gulf War render grotesque the notion that it was a “victory.” Do you know what Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh said to excuse blowing up a building in Oklahoma City? Like a perfect Just War Theorist, he said that he had a higher purpose, so that the building and the people killed in it were merely collateral damage. And do you know why people didn’t fall for that line? Because McVeigh did not have effective control of any television networks.

By the way, I do believe we should offer Trump a deal: one parade for each war he ends.

Pete’s candidate number 2 for a Just War is Bosnia. As every war has a Hitler, the man Tony Blair labeled Hitler this time was Slobodan Milosevic. While very far from an admirable leader, he was lied about, the war failed to overthrow him, the creative nonviolent Otpur movement later did overthrow him, and the UN’s criminal tribunal later effectively and posthumously exonerated him of his charges in a lengthy ruling on another defendant. The U.S. had worked vigorously for the breakup of Yugoslavia and intentionally prevented negotiated agreements among the parties. Then-U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said, “In its first weeks in office, the Clinton administration has administered a death blow to the Vance-Owen plan that would have given the Serbs 43 percent of the territory of a unified state. In 1995 at Dayton, the administration took pride in an agreement that, after nearly three more years of horror and slaughter, gave the Serbs 49 percent in a state partitioned into two entities.”

Three years later came the Kosovo war. The United States believed that, unlike Crimea, Kosovo had the right to secede. But the United States did not want it done, like Crimea, without any people getting killed. In the June 14, 1999 issue of The Nation, George Kenney, a former State Department Yugoslavia desk officer, reported: “An unimpeachable press source who regularly travels with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told this [writer] that, swearing reporters to deep-background confidentiality at the Rambouillet talks, a senior State Department official had bragged that the United States ‘deliberately set the bar higher than the Serbs could accept.’ The Serbs needed, according to the official, a little bombing to see reason.” Jim Jatras, a foreign policy aide to Senate Republicans, reported in a May 18, 1999, speech at the Cato Institute in Washington that he had it “on good authority” that a “senior Administration official told media at Rambouillet, under embargo” the following: “We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing, and that’s what they are going to get.” In interviews with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, both Kenney and Jatras asserted that these were actual quotes transcribed by reporters who spoke with a U.S. official.

The United Nations did not authorize the United States and its NATO allies to bomb Serbia in 1999. Neither did the United States Congress. The U.S. engaged in a massive bombing campaign that killed large numbers of people, injured many more, destroyed civilian infrastructure, hospitals, and media outlets, and created a refugee crisis. This destruction was accomplished through lies, fabrications, and exaggerations about atrocities, and then justified anachronistically as a response to violence that it helped generate.

In the year prior to the bombing some 2,000 people were killed, a majority by Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas who, with support from the CIA, were seeking to incite a Serbian response that would appeal to Western humanitarian warriors. At the same time, NATO member Turkey was committing much larger atrocities, with 80% of their weapons coming from the United States. But Washington didn’t want war with Turkey, so no propaganda campaign was built around its crimes; instead weapons shipments to Turkey were increased. In contrast, a slick propaganda campaign regarding Kosovo established a model that would be followed in future wars, by connecting exaggerated and fictional atrocities to the Nazi holocaust. A photo of a thin man seen through barbed wire was reproduced endlessly. But investigative journalist Philip Knightly determined that it was probably the reporters and photographers who were behind the barbed wire, and that the place photographed, while ugly, was a refugee camp that people, including the fat man standing next to the thin man, were free to leave. There were indeed atrocities, but most of them occurred after the bombing, not before it. Most of Western reporting inverted that chronology.

Last night Pete also labeled the Israeli Six Days War of 1967 as the quintessentially justifiable war on the part of Israel. Israeli General Matti Peled, popular hero of that war, has a son named Miko Peled who wrote this six years ago:

“In 1967, as today, the two power centers in Israel were the IDF high command and the Cabinet. On June 2, 1967, the two groups met at IDF headquarters. The military hosts greeted the generally cautious and dovish prime minister, Levi Eshkol, with such a level of belligerence that the meeting was later commonly called ‘the Generals’ Coup.’ The transcripts of that meeting, which I found in the Israeli army archives, reveal that the generals made it clear to Eshkol that the Egyptians would need 18 months to two years before they would be ready for a full-scale war, and therefore this was the time for a preemptive strike. My father told Eshkol: ‘Nasser is advancing an ill-prepared army because he is counting on the Cabinet being hesitant. Your hesitation is working in his advantage.’ . . . Throughout the meeting, there was no mention of a threat but rather of an ‘opportunity’ that was there, to be seized. Within short order, the Cabinet succumbed to the pressure of the army, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

A so-called preemptive mass-slaughter, followed by decades of illegal genocidal occupation, justified by a danger 18-months away, I propose, bears zero similarity to what you should do if you see someone confronted by a mugger in a dark alley in Harrisonburg. As mugging victims and surgeons and good Samaritans never justify their behavior with war analogies, how about we do them the same courtesy and not justify war with analogies to such unrelated endeavors?

In 2011, so that NATO could begin bombing Libya, the African Union was prevented by NATO from presenting a peace plan to Libya.

In 2003, Iraq was open to unlimited inspections or even the departure of its president, according to numerous sources, including the president of Spain to whom U.S. President Bush recounted Hussein’s offer to leave.

In 2001, Afghanistan was open to turning Osama bin Laden over to a third country for trial.

Go back through history. The United States sabotaged peace proposals for Vietnam. The Soviet Union proposed peace negotiations before the Korean War. Spain wanted the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine to go to international arbitration before the Spanish American War. Mexico was willing to negotiate the sale of its northern half. In each case, the U.S. preferred war. Peace has to be carefully avoided.

So when someone asks me what I would do instead of attacking Afghanistan, I have three answers, progressively less flippant.

  1. Don’t attack Afghanistan.
  2. Prosecute crimes as crimes, don’t commit new crimes. Use diplomacy and the rule of law.
  3. Work to create a world with systems of justice and dispute resolution and economies and politics that do without the institution of war altogether.

PS: All the questions will be about World War II regardless, so I’ll just save that one for the Q&A.

Thank you.


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