Thursday, February 12, 2004

Can Soliders Die in Vain in a War of Liberation?

In an earlier post I objected to a question Wolf Blitzer asked of Howard Dean and Wesley Clark last weekend on Late Edition. Specifically, when those candidates pointed out that Iraq posed no threat to the United States, Blitzer asked them whether that meant that they thought that American soldiers who died in the war had died in vain. Some people, including Ezra Klein, responded by arguing that they had not died in vain, since their efforts had freed the Iraqi people from oppression even if they had not made the U.S. safer. [oops. Turns out I misinterpreted Ezra (see comments section). My bad. Others made the same response though (see comments to first post.)] This is a plausible response. I didn’t discuss it in the earlier post since I thought that it was clear that the same kinds of considerations I discussed there applied to this response. Now I realize that’s not so obvious, so here I state the argument explicitly.

If our president tells us falsely that another country poses a threat to us and I believe him, go to war, and am killed in battle, then, although my intentions were good and my action was right, and although I acted in accordance with my duty, my death is pointless—it is a waste. It is not entirely clear what it means to say that a person has died in vain, but it seems to me that to die a senseless death of this kind would be to die in vain. If this is correct, then to say that a person has died in vain is not to draw a conclusion about that person’s moral status, it is to draw a conclusion about the efficacy of the efforts he was engaged in at the time of his death. A good person can die in vain—even while attempting to do the right thing—if he is, for example deceived into fighting for a futile cause.

But even if the threat to the U.S. was fictitious, the oppression of the Iraqi people was real. So there is a moral argument for the conclusion that our soldiers do not die in vain. Ezra’s argument is such an argument, and it’s an argument that I find plausible. However, considerations similar to those in (2) threaten the cogency of this argument. A war of liberation is just only if it has a reasonable chance of improving the lives of the people it aims to liberate. If we aimed to liberate an oppressed people knowing full well that they would all starve to death immediately after the war and we did not take reasonable steps to prevent this, then the war would not be just. But, more to the point--by reasoning parallel to our reasoning in (2)--any soldiers who died in such a war, no matter how heroic their actions, would have died to no effect. That is, they would have died in vain.

Is our war in Iraq such a war? It threatens to be. The administration did not plan adequately for the post-war period, and they seem to be intent on pulling our troops out of Iraq prematurely, apparently for political reasons. If Iraq descends into civil war, and if this is a foreseeable consequence of our actions, then it is likely that our invasion of Iraq will have been futile. If this turns out to be true, then one can make a plausible case that our soldiers have died in vain.

This is not a pleasant conclusion, and I take no satisfaction in drawing it. I direct your attention to this line of reasoning not simply in order to score points against the administration; in fact, I believe that many liberals have exacerbated the problem by putting pressure on the administration to withdraw from Iraq. Rather, I draw your attention to this argument in order to emphasize how profound is the decision to go to war, and how profound the consequences of doing so for ill-considered reasons. If we go to war unwisely, it is far more likely that we will do so to no good effect. And if we go to war to no good effect, it seems plausible that those who die in that war—Americans as well as non-Americans—die in vain.


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