John Pilger: ‘Breaking the Australian silence’

Most people know about John Pilger and his crusading journalism through the years, so I won’t dwell on his many achievements.

Pilger has just been awarded a Peace Prize by a Sydney-based organisation and gave a speech at the Sydney Opera House to mark the award.  It’s a long speech and whilst I could post the whole thing, it is freely available elsewhere on the Web, notably here:

It’s the kind of thing that should be distributed to schools, given away with breakfast cereals, discussed, analysed and shouted from the rooftops.  But it probably won’t be – partly because Pilger is routinely praised then ignored or tolerated but dismissed as a barmy leftist/idealist. 

I’ve seen films he produced on Captain Bob and the Decline/Destruction of the ‘Daily Mirror’ and a shocking film on the Indonesian genocide in East Timor and I’ve also read many articles he has written over the years.  There are some things I don’t like about him – he can be terribly overbearing at times, but his instincts for stories that the ‘Establishment’ would rather we ignored are usually spot-on.

Here’s a taste of his speech … on the link above to read the full text – believe me, it’s worth the time you will spend reading it…..

“………Since the second world war, the arsenal of freedom has overthrown 50 governments, including democracies, and crushed some 30 liberation movements. Millions of people all over the world have been driven out of their homes and subjected to crippling embargos. Bombing is as American as apple pie.

In his acceptance of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, Harold Pinter asked this question: “Why is the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought of Stalinist Russia well known in the West while American criminal actions never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it never happened. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”

In Australia, we are trained to respect this censorship by omission. An invasion is not an invasion if “we” do it. Terror is not terror if “we” do it. A crime is not a crime if “we” commit it. It didn’t happen. Even while it was happening it didn’t happen. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.

In the arsenal of freedom we have two categories of victims. The innocent people killed in the Twin Towers were worthy victims. The innocent people killed by Nato bombers in Afghanistan are unworthy victims. Israelis are worthy. Palestinians are unworthy.  It gets complicated. Kurds who rose against Saddam Hussein were worthy. But Kurds who rise against the Turkish regime are unworthy. Turkey is a member of Nato. They’re in the arsenal of freedom………”


7 responses to “John Pilger: ‘Breaking the Australian silence’

  1. (I preface my comment by saying that I have not read the whole text of the speech. But if the quoted section is at all representative, my comment should remain relevant. Also, I hope html code works.)

    War is a terrible thing. As an American myself I am all too aware that my country has not always acted in a morally blameless manner. However, this kind of speech-making, although it is useful to a certain extent, is also dangerous, precisely because in the interest of polemics it erases the moral distinctions necessary to talk about war. The author is upset about the deaths of innocents. That can only be a good thing. But to fail to recognize that there *is* a distinction between the victims of terrorism and the (always tragic) deaths of innocents in war (assuming that in the case in question the nation fighting was “fighting well”) is not only ignorant, but harmful to the very cause the author claims to support (broadly speaking). This is because unless we recognize the moral distinctions that apply to war, we cannot talk about war in moral terms: we cannot say that one war is just and another unjust; we cannot say that one action in war is right and another wrong. Pacifism leaves us no more able to cope with war than Realism: the one uniformly condemns all wars, the other uniformly approves of them. Unless we hold on to these moral distinctions, the product of a long and very careful intellectual tradition, we cannot concerning war make any moral judgements, and hence, no moral progress. Faced with the reality of war, we are unable to talk about wrongs and rights: not only are we unable to try to do *right* in war, but also (and more to the point) we are unable to try to avoid wrong.

    The book to turn to here is Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars. I will save the superlative praise as to *why* Walzer’s book is so important, but it is uncontested that his treatment of just war theory is the most important of the 20th century. It takes a couple reads to latch on to just what he’s arguing, but his book is well worth any effort put into it.


  2. Thanks for the comments, Joe. I think it might have been useful had you read the whole of Pilger’s speech. As a journalist I think Pilger is very much concerned with the way our perceptions of what constitutes a ‘just’/’unjust’ war are managed by modern media conglomerates and to some extent, his speech is a plea for a specific group – Australians, in this case – and, by implication the rest of us as well, to have the courage/clarity to see things as they really are and refuse to have our perceptions manipulated in this way.

    Pilger has long railed against the likes of Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch and their attempts to sanitise the news and I read his speech as an attack on media manipulation far more than any discourse on the morality of war. Personally, I’m not sure that I believe in a ‘just war’ anyway – if it’s not quite an oxymoron, it probably should be.

    If Pilger’s speech is about anything other than this, it’s probably a critique of US hegemony on the world stage and an attack on the current Australian Prime Minister’s stance in this respect. This is something we know all about here in the UK, having seen Blair almost tripping over himself to do Bush’s bidding in the 2nd Gulf War. The whole WMD farce and the subsequent occupation has left Blair a reviled and discredited figure in his own country; most people feel that he conned us into this war and we must all look hard at ourselves and ask why we went along with Blair’s manicured half-truths.

    As I recall, Pilger doesn’t refer to this squalid episode in his speech, but he would have been justified in using it as an example of how we allowed ourselves to be anaesthetised by pro-Blair/Bush media coverage into believing that Iraq’s cause would be best served by this invasion/occupation. Very few people in the UK believe that this was a ‘just’ war any longer but, of course, we’re all now benefitting from the wisdom that comes with hindsight.

    What we probably should be doing (and some leftist groups are) is mobilising public opinion to get our troops out of Afghanistan, which for most people here has now become another expensive and futile overseas adventure that is achieving very little.

    Looking at the history of this country, wouldn’t you have thought that we’d have got over this kind of thing by now? Go figure…..

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Agentcoop,

    I have now had the time to read the full text of Pilger’s speech. You are right, of course, that it is not a “discourse on the morality of war.” Nevertheless, it is at least in part concerned with war, and concerned with judging war morally. These parts are what most interest me, taking a theoretical view of things. Leaving aside the justice or injustice of particular wars, perhaps we can consider the matter further.

    You write:
    I think Pilger is very much concerned with the way our perceptions of what constitutes a ‘just’/’unjust’ war are managed by modern media conglomerates and to some extent, his speech is a plea … to have the courage/clarity to see things as they really are and refuse to have our perceptions manipulated in this way.

    That is true.

    But what concerns me is that while he protests this manipulation of perception, he is himself at the very same time engaged in it, at least to a certain extent. This is inevitable inasmuch as his speech is a political polemic, but it should be identified and kept in mind while reading it.

    Let me explain.

    Pilger writes:
    Since the second world war, the arsenal of freedom has overthrown 50 governments, including democracies, and crushed some 30 liberation movements. Millions of people all over the world have been driven out of their homes and subjected to crippling embargos. Bombing is as American as apple pie.

    The effect of this one statement is to sweep up indiscriminately and condemn uniformly military actions spanning over fifty years. This is itself a manipulation (or an attempt at one) of our perceptions—precisely the kind of manipulation which he is complaining about in the mainstream media.

    There are only two ways which such a statement could avoid constituting such a manipulation: (1) if it came at the conclusion of a careful consideration of each individual military action which it condemns; or (2) if the facts of each of these and the moral judgement thereof were so commonly accepted that they can be taken as self-evident. The second is simply untrue, and it would be strange to expect the first of a polemic. We must, then, recognize what Pilger is up to and read him accordingly.

    My first comment was concerned with the moral danger posed by statements such as this one:
    In the arsenal of freedom we have two categories of victims. The innocent people killed in the Twin Towers were worthy victims. The innocent people killed by Nato bombers in Afghanistan are unworthy victims.

    I think I was sufficiently clear as to why this is a morally dangerous statement. But in addition to being morally dangerous, it is also (again) this kind of political manipulation: it ignores the (very real) moral criteria by which war is judged—what we might call the moral facts of the case—and instead imposes the author’s own (morally dangerous) criteria upon the reader. This is no different from some crazy on Fox news uniformly approving of the civilian deaths which are Pilger’s concern: in both cases the facts (material and moral) of the case are ignored and the moral judgment itself presented as a fact.

    Pilger writes that citizens need to be highly critical of media pronouncements upon war. This is true. Citizens must also—and for the very same reasons—beware of political polemics such as Pilger’s.

    You also write:
    Personally, I’m not sure that I believe in a ‘just war’ anyway-–if it’s not quite an oxymoron, it probably should be.

    My first comment implied the answer that might be made to this comment, but allow me to make it more explicit.

    Presumably you would say (rightly, and with Pilger) that the bombing of a wedding party is a tragedy, and you would (rightly, and with Pilger) place moral blame on the pilot/commander/general/state involved for the civilian deaths (this assumes a couple things about the facts of the case, primarily that the bombing was deliberate or avoidable).

    But that very act of moral blame admits of an idea of just war. If an action is wrong in war and it can be avoided, then right here we have at least this one idea of “fighting well”—namely, that wedding parties ought not be bombed. We now have a moral criterion to judge the conduct of war: if a state bombs wedding parties (again, assuming some things about the facts of the case), we say that it is acting unjustly in war; if a state does everything humanly possible to avoid bombing wedding parties in war, we say that it is acting justly in war.

    Our alternative is declare that all wars are unjust (let us not entertain that reprehensible doctrine which is realism). But to do this is to morally disarm ourselves. If all wars are unjust, we are no longer able to discriminate between fighting well and not fighting well. Bombing that wedding party is just as unjust as not bombing it: it makes no difference whether it is bombed or not. But that’s nonsense! Clearly, we do in fact believe that the bombing of the wedding party is wrong and that to not bomb it would be the right thing to do. Ideas of just and unjust war are not only morally desirable, but they are also unavoidable: we do in fact have these ideas, whether or not we recognize that we have them.

    Your objection—I’m not sure that I believe in a ‘just war’ anyway—is not an uncommon one, and it stems from a basic moral insight: war is hell. St. Augustine said that war is the greatest of all human evils. He was right. But to say that a certain war is “just” is not really to approve of it; rather, it is to say that (insofar as the war is in fact just) it is not morally blameworthy. “Justice” in war is about avoiding moral blame, it is not about seeking moral commendation.


    I think I have gone on more than long enough. If you are interested in thoughts about right and wrong in war, I would again encourage you to read Walzer. He is not some jingo—his primary motivation in writing the book was to explain why the American war in Vietnam was wrong (and I think explains that quite well), but his argument is much broader than any specific war.

    Be all that as it may, I hope my comments haven’t bored you too terribly. A failing of mine. I’ll try to restrain myself in the future.

    Joe M.

  4. Not bored at all Joe; deeper waters than I envisaged sailing on my humble blog, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Plus, it was me that ‘upped the ante’ by posting excerpts from Pilger’s speech in the first place. If I’d stuck to my cosy domestic homilies and jazz reviews, we probably wouldn’t be having this exchange of views.

    However, I have to say that in some ways I’m uncomfortable debating ‘the morality of war’ with someone whose views on the subject are clearly much more thought out and joined up than mine.

    Still, let’s give it a go and see where it gets us….. let me say straight away that I am not blind to what Pilger is trying to do here – he, as you suggest, is a footsoldier (at least) in the same deception and thus is not averse to using the same tactics in an attempt to redress what he sees as an imbalance in public perceptions. He may like to portray himself as the romantic ‘lone voice crying out in the wilderness’ but he is of course a skilled media operative whose ‘rep’ enables him to open more doors than 90% of journalists.

    Nonetheless, I think he is articulating views that are not heard often enough. In this country at least, as my last comment suggested, there is a good deal of inchoate anger against those perceived as the architects of Gulf War # 2 – Bush and Blair in particular – and much of what Pilger has to say would address that anger and give it shape; no bad thing in my view.

    I was thinking this morning about my 85-year old Dad, who lied about his age at 17 to join the Navy and go off to far-flung corners of the world (previously, he had been to London – once) from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Sydney, Australia in order to fight Hitler and his fellow travellers. He never wasted a minute wondering about whether or not this was a ‘just’ war, he just knew ‘in his bones’ that what the Nazis were doing was ‘wrong’.

    How did he know this? Through great dollops of ‘moral certainty’ (or propaganda) dished out by the BBC and reinforced by ‘word of mouth’. The BBC were seen as a paragon of moral rectitude at this time and few, if any, questioned the ‘truth’ of what the radio was telling them. People somehow forgot that Churchill had already used the BBC for anti-union propaganda during the General Strike of 1926. The (rhetorical) question ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ became a sort of carte blanche to justify anything and Churchill was not slow to recognise the power of radio and used it to deliver ‘addresses’ that are quoted to this day. Politicians like the Bushes must think back nostalgically to the days where the population just jumped to it like willing stooges and weren’t prone to asking all those awkward questions.

    So, when did moral certainty about wars go out the window? I suppose it would have to be during the Vietnam War, where we saw for the first time the degradation, the futility and the sheer waste of it all. If I ask myself whether there has been any conflict since about which I have felt any sense of ‘conviction’, the answer is (unequivocally) ‘No’. Yes, there have been ‘bad guys’, but to put Saddam on the same level as Hitler would be farcical.

    In fact, Saddam was like some pantomime villain and, what’s more, we know that he was originally ‘one of the good guys’; funded, supported, propped up by Western cash and resources. This is where Pilger and his like have really put a spoke in the wheel of those who seek to depict war as morally ‘just’ – thanks to Pilger et al, we now know that Saddam was a Western stooge seen as a bulwark against the crazy ayatollahs over the border in Iran. We also know how the USA spent billions propping up corrupt dictatorships like Batista in Cuba and Somoza in Nicaragua, to name but two and how the British did just the same in post-colonial Africa.

    It’s perhaps the curse of my generation (or maybe it’s a blessing) that we have come to view foreign affairs not as a noble process of discussion and compromise over tea & sandwiches, like in some Edwardian costume drama, but as a murky sub-007 world of shifting alliances and dirty deals, where today’s ally is tomorrow’s enemy, where money talks loudest and where the needs of the poor, the needy, the oppressed and the vulnerable trail in well behind the rest of the field. My perception is that any politician or other public figure who tries to invoke a call to war on moral terms is usually using morality as a convenient smokescreen for their real agenda – or maybe I’ve just seen too many movies.

    One more thing – and I will be honest with you here – I get nervous when people start using terms like ‘a ‘”just” war….as I may have suggested, I’m not sure that I even acknowledge the concept; it comes too close to the whole idea of ‘jihad’ for me.

    My perception of war (and I’m lucky enough never to have experienced one at first hand) is that far from being some surgical process where, like Jack Bauer in “24”, you ‘take out’ the bad guys and go home, war is actually an out-of-control process from the very start and quickly leads to greater and even more compromised actions where ‘collateral damage’ is accepted as some kind of ‘norm’.

    Then again, unlike my Dad, I don’t live in an era of unalloyed Churchillian convictions where good and evil are as clear as the nose on one’s face. I grew up in a world where, thanks in some part to the likes of John Pilger, I have learned to be suspicious of the intentions of any politician who thinks that killing people in a far-off country can be justified on ‘moral’ terms. In my experience, it’s rarely a good idea, it squanders lives and money that would have been better used for humanitarian purposes and it tends to leave a legacy of other (and more serious) problems for future generations to deal with.

    So, I am uncomfortable with the idea of ‘morally-justifiable warfare’, if you like; I am not sure that any warfare, any taking of human life or large-scale destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods can be justified on moral grounds. As for ‘avoiding moral blame’ in wartime, if I look back at the Gulf (x 2) , the Falklands and all the way back to Vietnam, I cannot think of any world leader or political/military figure who has emerged with any real credit, or without any moral culpability from these wars. I also think that there has been a ‘sea change’ in public opinion in the West and these days, kids are raised to admire non-violent figureheads like Mandela or Gandhi rather than miltary ‘heroes’ like Wellington or Patton. Personally, I have no problem with that.

    The bombing of wedding parties is actually not something about which I would make any specific moral judgement. This is a reported tragedy or set of tragedies and no doubt very real to those directly affected. However, as we know from previous conflicts, there are thousands of other brutalities that go unremarked or unreported and are possibly only recounted once the conflict is over. Because we know this to be so, I think any sense of ‘moral’ repugnance has to return to first principles and ask who started this conflict and who decided the troops or the drones or the cruise missiles or the bombers should go in.

    It’s the people who stand there and claim that they are doing this in the name of God or Allah or Democracy or Truth or their country and who have the power to bring suffering mayhem, misery and brutality to the lives of ordinary people in countries far from their own who I think should be held morally responsible for what they inflict on others. Personally, I find that any ‘moral’ gap between state-sponsored wars and ‘terrorist’ violence is narrowing all the time. In this sense, I agree with Pilger – it’s OK if ‘we’ do it; it’s war and collateral damage is inevitable. If they do it, it’s morally indefensible ‘senseless violence’ and we are all supposed to assume a mantle of moral indignation at these mindless psychopaths with their extremist views. I’m afraid this selective view of ‘the truth’ becomes harder to swallow with each passing year.

    Ironic that as I’m writing this, the TV is screening footage from the Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph in London where we honour those who gave their lives in 2 World wars……

    At least for those people, black was black and white was white; they did what they had to do unfettered by the moral panics that have afflicted my generation. For me personally, none of this is straightforward and I still find the idea of a ‘Moral war’ fundamentally suspect.

    I think we are condemned to live in a world where there are no certainties to unite us, just shades of opinion to divide us….

    As you said, Joe..I think I’ve gone on long enough…

    Thanks for the discussion….

  5. Agentcoop,

    I don’t think of this as a debate at all! You seem like a reasonable person, and in my experience discussion between reasonable people is rarely much more than a clarifying of misunderstandings and making an honest effort to understand each other’s positions and the facts of the case. If we are at a disagreement concerning just war theory, it is likely just because I have failed to explain it well enough. As you can tell, just war theory is a subject of interest to me: I have found my study of it to be revelatory in the way it has enabled me to better understand war. All I’m trying to do is communicate some of the insights I’ve come across in my studies, in case you find them useful in your own thinking about war. I also find that responding to your (and Pilger’s) criticisms of war has been greatly helpful in clarifying some of my own thoughts.

    Unfortunately, there are limits to the reasonable length of any discussion over the internet, particularly via blog comments. Because of this, I’ll limit myself to trying to make one big point: the reality and importance of morality in war.

    To limit myself won’t be too hard: I agree completely with most of what you say! You’re entirely right to be suspicious of talk of “just” war, and your historical narrative is spot-on. I think the biggest difference between our comments has been a different approach to the question at hand: you’re looking at wars and seeing a heap of very real injustices; I’m looking at the theory of war and trying to explain why we call those injustices unjust. I hope to show why your very suspicion of talk of “just” wars itself stems from ideas about the morality of war: your objection to just war theory is itself a proof for the reality of the theory. If I manage to explain things clearly (and that can be a big if!), I doubt we’ll find ourselves at any fundamental disagreement.


    (1) The pretexts of politicians.

    You write:
    My perception is that any politician or other public figure who tries to invoke a call to war on moral terms is usually using morality as a convenient smokescreen for their real agenda

    Yes, this is often the case. The most recent example that comes to mind is Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. Because of this, we should be highly skeptical of any call to go to war. We should examine the facts of the case carefully, and only go to war reluctantly. Our duty as citizens is to be skeptical—it is to engage in this moral examination.

    I say “moral” examination, because the question—”should we or should we not go to war?”—is a moral one. You are suspicious as to whether there can ever be a truly just cause to go to war. This brings me to my second point, which may help address some of your concerns.


    (2) jus ad bellum and jus in bello

    In thinking about the morality of war, theorists make the distinction between jus ad bellum (when it is just or unjust to go to war) and jus in bello (what is right or wrong to do in war). Now these are fancy Latin terms made up in the 20th century, but the categories of morality which they describe have been present in talk of war as long as it’s been going on (which is as long as humans have fought, which is as long as humans have existed). There’s also jus post bellum, but I’ll leave that off the table for now.

    These are not simple or straightforward categories. As you point out, war is very much not a question of “bad guys” and “good guys”, of white and black—nor does just war theory treat it as such.

    The distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello is important for precisely this reason. If the “good guys” have a just cause to go to war against the “bad guys” (and any nation in any war will characterize itself as such, whether or not it be true), this does not then mean that anything goes in the actual conduct of the war.

    This might address your concern that talk of “just war” is too close to “jihad.” That “don’t you know there’s a war on?” serve as a “carte blanche” for power-hungry politicians.

    With this distinction in mind, we are able to say of Britain in WWII that although it justly went to war against Germany, the fire-bombing of Dresden was an unjust act. We are able to say of the U.S. that while it was right (or at least not wrong) to go to war against Japan, the bombing of Hiroshima was wrong.

    You express the idea (again, not an uncommon one, and not even a senseless one! I don’t want to sound as if I’m making you out to be a fool or otherwise insulting you. I’ve just found these moral theories enormously helpful in my own understanding of war and hope that you too may find them of interest) that because war involves horror, tragedy, brutality, the only way to make any “moral” judgement of the war is to return to [the beginning] and ask who started this conflict and who decided the troops or the drones or the cruise missiles or the bombers should go in.

    But while it is surely a very important question who fired first, the answer to this question is not the end of our moral concern with the war. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They “started” the war with the U.S. But that does not absolve the U.S. of the guilt of Hiroshima. If we lay all the blame for atrocities in war at the feet of those who started the war, then the U.S. was perfectly justifiable in wiping Hiroshima off the map. If anything, it is the Japanese who should be blamed, for they brought it upon themselves when they attacked the U.S. But that’s ridiculous! We cannot point our fingers and say “they started it! war is hell! it involves horror, tragedy, and brutality! we only did what we had to do to end it!” Now politicians and everyday Americans who do not want to admit that our country did something so horrible try to justify the bombing in precisely this way. But their justifications fail. I will explain precisely why they fail later. For now it is enough to point out that they do in fact fail: we don’t believe them when they say it wasn’t wrong—we don’t “buy it.” And if we don’t buy the conclusion, the principle on which it rests—here, that the initiating nation is morally responsible for any war-acts which are committed in the following war—is probably no good either.

    To make this point even more pointed, let us consider a hypothetical:

    If State A, having committed no offense, is invaded by State B (some analogues: Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia), we would rightly say that State A, having a right to self-defense, has a just cause to go to war against State B. But that doesn’t give State A the right to do anything at all in the war that follows.

    Our first reaction might be “sure, State A has a right to go to war, but only to push State B out”—that is, to say that State A has a right only to a limited war. And in (moral) fact, all wars are limited in this way (what those limits are need not concern us here, just that there do exist some limits).

    But these are limits on the ends of a war. Let us consider the conduct of the war itself—the question of jus in bello. If State A (which has a just cause to go to war) were then in the conduct of the war to indiscriminately bomb villages in State B (let’s say by means of white phosphorous to make it even more horrifying), or even worse, to capture civilians of State B and torture them to death on national television (perhaps as a terror-tactic to break the resolve of State B, or even as propaganda to boost the morale of the citizens of State A—go get those bad guys!) we would rightly say that State A has done wrong.

    We do not lay the blame on State B for any act done in the course of the war, even though State B started the conflict. If that is our moral principle, then the only option available to us is to say that the torture of civilians, while regrettable, can only be blamed on State B, and State A is in no way blameworthy for its own actions. Even worse, we might commend the torture as an effective means of bringing the war to an end! But what we are unable to do with that as our moral principle is to say that State A’s acts of torture are wrong and that State A is blameworthy for engaging in them.

    So we must (and we do) distinguish between justice going to war and justice within a war.


    Hopefully I’ve persuaded you that talk of “just war” isn’t just talk of “good guys” and “bad guys”, black and white, us and them. I’ve only scratched the surface, but I hope it’s enough to show you that just war theory is not that simple, not that ignorant. You’re right—war is nothing at all like Jack Bauer in “24.” It is not “taking out” the bad guys. To characterize it as such is not only morally ignorant, but perhaps even morally blameworthy. It is to erase distinctions, to attempt to give oneself or one’s nation a carte blanche for whatever atrocities. It is this kind of talk that you (and Pilger) object to, and you are both entirely right to object to it.

    But just because war is not a question of black and white does not in any way mean that it is totally “out-of-control.” This will explain why we don’t buy the defenses of Hiroshima or Dresden that politicians tend to give.

    (3) We are committed to moral discussion of war.

    War is not totally out of control. Here is why. You object to the acceptance of “‘collateral damage’…as some kind of norm.” To make this objection is to make the claim that “collateral damage” is not a “norm,” to claim that it could have been otherwise—and that it should have been. We could target our bombs more carefully. We could have not bombed Hiroshima. Britain could have not bombed Dresden. The very fact that we condemn these actions shows that we believe that things could have (and should have) been done differently. And as soon as we make that judgement, we’re talking about war in moral terms. We’re talking about right and wrong. We’re talking about just and unjust war.

    This assumes that one does make that judgement: that things could have (and should have) been otherwise. To reject that judgement is to claim either (a) that it should have been done or (b, and much more likely) that it could not in fact have been done differently.

    But we do not claim that actions in war are “inevitable,” that war is in fact out of control, that the actions of war could not have been done otherwise. I say that “we” do not make that claim—what I mean is that I do not believe that you would make that claim. And I believe you would reject this claim precisely because you talk of “brutalities” in war, and are uncomfortable with the facile acceptance of “collateral damage,” and distrust claims of absolute right and wrong for fear that they be a carte blanche. All of these discomforts rely upon an idea of war that is not deterministic, an idea of war that is (at least in some small degree) controllable, and idea of war in which actions can be otherwise. If one does make the claim that war cannot be otherwise, then he is unable to protest any act in war: it is just as good (or bad) to torture as to not torture; it is just as good (or bad) to drop the A-bomb as to not drop it; it is just as good (or bad) to fire-bomb Dresden as to not fire-bomb it.

    But we reject the claim that war is out of control precisely because we reject the torture of prisoners or the bombing of Hiroshima or the bombing of Dresden: because we believe that it could have been otherwise The justifications of the politicians—we had to do it—fail because we did not have to—the act was not determined, it was not necessary. It was convenient. And convenient is not the same as right.

    The fact that we protest these actions, the fact that we talk of “brutality” and dislike the idea of “collateral damage,” the fact that we experience moral discomfort or revulsion in the face of torture—these facts in themselves admit morality into the discussion of war. If we do not admit morality to talk of war, then we are left helpless in the face of such acts, unable to say that they are bad, that they are wrong, that they ought to have been otherwise. All we are able to do is to shrug our shoulders and say “war is hell.” All we can do is say “war is out of control, we only did what was necessary, what we had to do.” All we can do is ask “who started it?” And these are not good enough.

    And I think you would agree. We are right to be distrustful of politicians. We are right to be skeptical. We are right to reject blacks and whites and good guys and bad guys. But the fact that we are distrustful, that we are skeptical, that we do reject such morally reductionist talk does not remove war from the realm of morality: it only proves that war is firmly within that realm, and our own commitment to the moral discussion of wars.

    Joe M.

  6. Thanks again, Joe. I don’t want to sell you short here but I think that I have pretty much reached the limit of what I can bring to the table in this discussion. If it helps, I have read your latest post and find myself in agreement with most of what you say. So, if, as you say, we are not involved in a debate but a simple appreciation of one another’s views, then – to use a colloquialism – I can see where you’re coming from.

    I suppose that somewhere inside me something recoils from the idea of trying to morally justify massive violence such as we have seen in wars throughout history, yet I can see that the very fact that I feel that way is in itself a moral response.

    Also, I suppose like many people here I have felt a sense of disillusionment about the whole Gulf 2/Blair affair. I had no great expectations of Dubya, to be honest, but I suppose I actually believed pre-WMD that Tony Blair was a fundamentally decent man who could on some level be trusted. That’ll teach me, eh?

    My daughter (19) is very high on the whole Obama thing right now; her boyfriend worked for him as an intern during the Election and after Bush I can understand anyone in the USA feeling slightly more optimistic about the future, especially as someone (the media, I betcha) are trying to tie Obama in with Clinton and Kennedy as part of that whole Democrat dynastic thing which seems to obsess so many Liberals in the States. I keep reminding her that Obama is a politician and that he, too, will have made some ugly choices to get where he is and is well capable of making even uglier choices in future. So, maybe my sense of affinity with John Pilger’s speech stems from my own sense of disillusionment with swallowing ‘the company line’ – I think I probably function better as a terminal cynic, anyway!

    I want to thank you for all your thought and input on this topic – I have learnt much, not least about what defines my own attitudes. Thus I move on, hopefully somewhat the wiser…..

  7. Before we conclude there is one very small clarification that I ought to make. It’s nothing new, and won’t require that we open any of these questions back up, but it was a glaring oversight on my part to fail to cover it in my last comment: in pursuing my point I was too eager, and forgot to cover something very basic! My apologies for that.

    I mentioned the distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello. When talking about justice in war, we call a war “just” if it lives up to the moral criteria ad bellum, but we say it is “fought justly” or “fought unjustly” depending on whether it lives up to the moral criteria in bello. So a just war can be fought unjustly (U.S. v. Japan, Britain v. Nazis), or an unjust war can be fought justly (can’t think of any examples here, but I’m sure there are some), &c.

    (It’s worth noting that no war is ever going to be spotless in bello. There’s always going to be the soldier who commits a brutality. But–thankfully–we recognize those brutalities as crimes and prosecute them as such. The most we can ask of a nation in bello is that it do everything in its power to fight well and acknowledge and handle in an appropriate manner any case in which it fails to do so.)


    someone (the media, I betcha) are trying to tie Obama in with Clinton and Kennedy as part of that whole Democrat dynastic thing which seems to obsess so many Liberals in the States.

    That hasn’t been my experience at all. Although I don’t have as much time as I would like to follow the news, from everything I’ve seen the media (in general; there are of course exceptions–FOX being the big one here) is very much in favor of Obama and his policies.


    So, if, as you say, we are not involved in a debate but a simple appreciation of one another’s views, then – to use a colloquialism – I can see where you’re coming from.

    Great! That’s all that can be asked. I’m very glad that we’ve had this discussion: it’s certainly been profitable for me, and I hope it has been for you as well.

    Joe M.

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