I’ve been watching this debate about different kinds of wars (Erik, Erik, Will, Erik, Erik, Will) get muddier and muddier, and I want to try to clear things up if I can, but without getting into any complicated issues of Crusades historiography.
Erik’s original claim was that “[t]here are only two kinds of wars: Defensive wars and wars of Plunder.” Then, faced with examples like Vietnam and WWI, he adds the category of “wars of folly” for wars where nobody will possibly be able to plunder enough to make up for the costs of war. Given these three categories, “There is no just war except a war fought in self defense – not preemptive defense, not some abstract defense of freedom.”
It seems to me that the concept of “legitimacy” is pulling a lot of weight underneath Erik’s claims. See, for example, his argument that some revolutions are wars of defense and others are wars of plunder: “Either a legitimate group is splintering off from an illegitimate state and thereby defending their right to sovereignty, or an illegitimate group is breaking off from a legitimate state thereby plundering land and resources from their own country.”
So if I’m correctly reading between the lines, a state or people group is fighting a war of defense if its claims (territorial or political) are legitimate, and it is fighting a war of plunder if its claims are illegitimate. Furthermore, I assume Erik would say that if a nation or people group enters a war on behalf of an ally, legitimacy is transitive, though I’m not clear on this. Was the first Gulf War a war of Plunder? If France invaded Canada, would it be legitimate for the USA to send troops to help our northern neighbors? Either way, wars in which no claims over territory or resources seem to be at stake or in which original claims have become irrelevant are wars of folly.
There are at least three related problems with this view of war:
- Legitimacy is not a straight-up objective thing. There’s no legitimacy directory to which we can appeal when there’s a dispute. There are cases that would probably be construed as ambiguous under any theory of legitimacy: for example, it’s easy to see how a badly translated treaty could make a huge mess of territorial claims or rights to resources. (The Treaty of Waitangi is a real-world example of a mistranslated treaty that comes to mind; happily, the resulting conflicts have been handled judicially rather than militarily.) While territorial sovereignty is now a well-established principle and we can regard any military attempt to take over another nation’s populated territory as illegitimate, we can’t easily apply that principle in the case of revolution or civil war.
- The claims for which a nation fights can shift during the course of a war. I think Erik acknowledges this, but it’s pretty crucial for understanding what was at stake for the United States during the Civil War: Lincoln shifted the official aims of the war with the Emancipation Proclamation. Another example would be Roosevelt’s declaration during WWII that the Allies would accept nothing less that unconditional surrender from Germany and Japan, which arguably made WWII something other than a purely defensive war. So claims can be both mixed and modified, and this makes the task of moral analysis more difficult.
- Not all military action is best understood as having to do with things that can be conceived of as claims. So the USA’s fighting in Vietnam had a lot more to do with trying to restrict the USSR’s sphere of influence than any claims about the legitimacy of the government of South Vietnam. (But note that there was a relevant dispute about legitimacy.) If Erik wants to think of wars for geopolitical advantage as wars of plunder, that’s OK, though I think there’s some use in drawing a distinction. But I think we shouldn’t close the door on the possibility of a humanitarian intervention that’s both non-defensive and justifiable. I don’t particularly want to defend any of the USA’s interventions under Clinton, and I’m definitely not in favor of willy-nilly military incursions into troubled nations, but at the same time I don’t think invading a country if there’s there’s a real chance of halting genocide is wrong in principle.
(One final note: the “war on drugs” is not actually a war in any sense that’s relevant here. It’s a sustained campaign of anti-cartel foreign policy and stringent domestic law enforcement. The phrase is metaphorical. I wish I didn’t have to say this.)