Debating the morality of going to war

Do you wonder how the operatives of ISIS sleep at night? No problem, I think. After swallowing the double narcotic of killing unbelievers and promised sensuality they sleep the peace of the just, despite the lack of approval for such beliefs in Islamic theology.

A more interesting question is how George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky get a good night’s sleep. What have they imbibed? There are no virgins in the sky awaiting them and their wars fell well short of the Augustinian principles of the just war. Yet they are men of a religious conviction, and it cannot be easy to switch off the light knowing one has given the orders for a greater slaughter of innocents that happened at the World Trade Centre on September 11th, 2001. In our Western culture one is judged to be either fully engaged with one’s emotions and one’s deeds or one is dangerously pathological.

No one has epitomized this dilemma more than Robert McNamara whose steely tenure as U.S. Secretary of Defence under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnston is still the subject of awed conversation. Imagine the sang froid of the Bush-appointed incumbent of the defence ministry, Donald Rumsfeld, and then square it. He presided over the Pentagon during both the Cuban missile crisis and during the great build up in Vietnam when he initiated the concept of “body counts” to measure the progress U.S. forces were making.

He obviously did sleep at night, despite his self-confessed “moral tension”, until one day on November 2nd, 1965, a young Quaker, a father of three, burned himself to death within 40 feet of McNamara’s office window. This act, McNamara, later confessed, took him to “the breaking point”. McNamara wrote: “Norman Morrison’s action dramatized for me the tremendous discrepancy between the moral imperative- the prohibition on the killing of other human beings that I had subscribed to all my life- and what was occurring daily in Vietnam.”

From that tragic moment on McNamara changed gears. He continued to run the war, but he devoted more of his attention to negotiations. At his initiative a month after the suicide the U.S. decided on a 37-day bombing pause. In the end McNamara quietly resigned. Looking back, he admits, “We thought we were acting in the interests of mankind, but the cost in lives was far greater than we or others had predicted.” He realized later that the U.S. could have ended the war as early as 1962, ten years before it was finally concluded with an American retreat, if it had explored more fully non-military ways of achieving U.S. goals. In that case we might have “saved our soul”, he concluded.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, has answered the question I have always wanted to pose to great power leaders. In an interview with Jonathan Schell who asked if he could ever have initiated a nuclear war he replied, “Even during training, although the briefcase was always there with my codes I never touched the button.” By his actions, for all his compromises with the brutal hand of the communist system, it is clear that Gorbachev drew his personal line at violence. He refused to authorize the deployment of troops in the Baltic states despite formidable pressures from his military in the lost cause of preventing their independence.

Neither was he prepared to use force to stop the breakout of refugees from Eastern Europe, the opening of the Berlin wall and later the break-up of the Soviet Union. Nor was he prepared to put his country through a civil war when Boris Yeltsin made his grab for power. Gorbachev is by far and away the most remarkable of all twentieth century leaders. “You can destroy your enemy”, Gorbachev once observed, “You can destroy your ideological foe. But historically this does not win.” One cannot imagine Gorbachev countenancing today’s war with Ukraine.

“And there is this earth, this mud where the flesh rots, where eyes decompose. These arms, these legs that crunch in the jaws of the boars. The souls ulcerated and foul from killing, the bodies so starved of tenderness they haunt stables in search of pleasure. There is this gangrene that eats at the heart…” writes Duong Thu Huong in her book, “Novel Without a Name”, based on her own experiences as a fighter on the side of the Vietcong. But equally it could be about Iraq or Ukraine. After putting the novel down you feel your own eyes have been gouged out, your own corpse hung from a branch, and the “dizzying sense of carrion and gunpowder”. To sleep is very difficult.

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power has been an international foreign affairs columnist for over 40 years and has interviewed over 70 of of the world's most famous and influential presidents, prime ministers, and political and literary icons including Ignacio Lula Da Silva, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Willy Brandt, Julius Nyerere, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Paul McCartney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eldridge Cleaver, Jimmy Carter, Olusegan Obasanjo, Georgio Arbatov, Dilma Rousseff, Olof Palme, Helmut Schmidt, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Jose Saramago, Ben Okri, Manmohan Singh, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barbara Ward, Valeria Rezende, Pranab Mukherjee, Ben Mkapa, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, George Weah and Angela Davis. Many of these were full-page broadsheet interviews. For 17 years Jonathan Power wrote a weekly column on foreign affairs for the International Herald Tribune. He has also been a frequent guest columnist for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He has written eight books on foreign affairs and, in his early days as a journalist, made films for the BBC, one of which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. Previous to his journalistic career, he worked on the staff of Martin Luther King. Jonathan has probably been printed more times in American newspapers than any other European. He is also listed in Who's Who.

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