Psychology Of How War With Islamic State Becomes A Just War

Do leaders use psychology when justifying military action to their electorate?

Posted Nov 18, 2015

A leading authority on deciding whether a war can be ‘just’, explains whether the Western fight against Islamic State, is indeed a ‘Just War’, and to what extent psychology is involved in how we get involved in 'just wars'.

Is this battle being sold by politicians to the public as ‘just’ or ‘moral’, exploiting the understandably strong emotions in the wake of the Paris atrocities, when in fact a more dispassionate analysis might suggest it's still possible such a conflict could escalate into an unjust war?

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Do we need to understand the psychology of anger and rage about the terrible and murderous attacks in Paris, in order to see through the propaganda from both sides, and come to a clear conclusion?

Does an attempt at a more reasoned analysis about a war against Islamic State seem provocative and unfeeling, when our emotions are understandably heightened following the sorrow and grief of the Paris victims?

Does the natural need for retaliation and revenge involve a psychological reaction to feeling vulnerable? Do we seek military solutions to re-establish a sense of power and control? But might the craving for a temporary 'psychological fix' end up causing more problems, and yet even more innocent victims, on both sides, in the longer term?

Nicholas Fotion, Professor of Philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta USA, has published a book entitled ‘War and Ethics – a New Just War Theory’, published by Bloomsbury Atlantic, and a chapter entitled ‘Just War Theory’ in the ‘Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics’.

Professor Fotion points out arguments over whether a war is just, seem to have existed perhaps as long as wars have endured.

In a sense both sides always believe their fight is ‘moral’, or just, but who in fact is right when it comes to deciding that a war is ‘just’, and how can we work this out definitively for ourselves?

Professor Fotion argues that attempts to define a ‘just war’ date back to Confucius (552–479 BC). In a surprisingly prophetic analysis, which appears to have anticipated current parts of the Middle East conflict, when asked what to do if a rebellion break outs in a province of a country, Confucius declared that an emperor should dispatch virtue rather than soldiers. The ancient Chinese philosopher was arguing that a ‘just’ response to a conflict requires a coherent analysis as to causes.

Confucius was contending that as rebellion most likely was triggered by exploitation and brutality from local leaders, the remedy then was not to inflict even more harm by crushing the rebellion, but rather, to replace bad rulers with virtuous ones.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

Deciding whether Western military intervention in the Middle East is just, partly hinges on your view of whether the West installs one bad leader after another, with little concern on the impact on local populations? Or whether in the long run corrupt governance is replaced with better? This outcome of such warfare, crucially determines whether battles like this are ‘just’.

Professor Fotion points out that another ancient Chinese philosopher, Mo Tzu (470 – 391 BC) distinguished between three kinds of war, which again ominously, but unerringly, predicts modern hostilities in the Middle East. Mo Tzu contends that any analysis of whether a war is ‘just’ or not depends on whether you are engaged in a war of aggression, punishment or self-defence. Mo Tzu pointed out that aggressive wars have unfortunate consequences – invading soldiers are harmed because, in their absence, their farms at home are not cared for, they suffer casualties, while society back at base will not be well governed.

So one key psychological reason why our leaders might prefer foreign military adventures, is whether they tend to distract from intractable problems back home. In fact, as Mo Tzu anticipated, foreign wars can exacerbate difficulties at home, through neglect. But perhaps it is precisely because the electorate becomes distracted from more pressing problems at home, so our leaders might choose to divert us with an overseas conflict. National issues for which our leaders have no palatable solution, mean they may prefer to look effective, by engaging in combat overseas.

This argument suggests a population or an electorate needs to become more vigilant to the possible psychological manipulation involved in the various ways leaders can exploit tragedies to 'sell' wars.

Nicholas Fotion quotes Mo Tzu making the point from thousands of years ago, such costs to our society can be especially high, because in wars of aggression, a long and costly occupation follows the military victory. In addition, those who are victimized by invasion suffer, as described by Mo Tzu in again an amazing yet grim anticipation of the modern Middle East conflict.

They endure death, illness, enslavement, rape, and loss of property. Their suffering, Mo Tzu contends, will likely be more costly than that experienced by the trespassers, which explains why these wars can appear just to the invaders, but overall, might not be ‘just’. Generally, then, Mo Tzu concludes, aggressive wars cause much more harm than good and so should be avoided.

These are definitely therefore not ‘just’ wars.

Mo Tzu contends that wars of self-defence are also costly, but because the costs of being occupied are so much greater than the price of fighting a defensive war, justice is on the side of that kind of war. A war is ‘just’ if in self-defence, but there must be a realistic prospect of being occupied by the enemy, if warfare would not halt them.

Much therefore hinges on whether a war is in self-defence or not, and this illuminates the key psychology of how politicians sometimes endeavor to sell a war to the public.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

Leaders always try to defend military action, or disguise it, as self-defence when in fact it might indeed be a war of aggression.

Professor Nicolas Fotion adds that an essential, yet seemingly neglected principle of determining whether a war is ‘just’, is likelihood of success. The psychology of selling a war might be to render the electorate so anxious about the need for ‘self-defence’, they don’t properly examine this vital issue. Professor Fotion points out that if we project that becoming engaged in a war will accomplish nothing except bring about casualties, then ethics forbids, indeed even condemns, engaging in such a war.

The problem then becomes what does ‘success’ mean?

Professor Fotion poses several possible definitions of success. Total victory? Throwing the invader out completely? Removing the enemy from most of the occupied territory? Inflicting excessive casualties on the enemy?

It makes matters even worse to argue that perhaps the standard of success should really be set by the victim nation or group.

Professor Fotion notices that those setting the standard for success have a tendency to change it as the war progresses. At first, when the war starts, there is brave talk of total victory. Once reality sets in, Professor Fotion points out, a much more modest sense of how success is defined, usually emerges.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

Did this happen in both Iraq and Afghanistan? Does this change the balance as to whether these turned out ‘just’ wars? Might the same process be starting with the conflict against Islamic State?

Perhaps the standard of success in fact always has to be weakened as a war progresses.

Then the nation involved in the struggle does not have to admit to itself that there was no triumph in such a war, and thus, has not pointlessly squandered lives and resources.

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