Dover and Just Wars

Mark Benjamin of Salon points out that former Vice President Dick Cheney and retired Gen. Tommy Franks just aren't that bright.

Benjamin didn't put it that starkly himself, but that's the inescapable conclusion. He recently spoke with Bob Garfield of NPR's On the Media about what Franks called the "Dover effect" (see "The True Cost of War"). The occasion for this conversation was the Obama administration's reversal of the policy, in place since 1991, prohibiting the publishing of photographs of flag-draped coffins from Dover Air Force Base. Here's Benjamin on the background and alleged rationale for the former policy:

DAFB
The original policy was actually written in 1991 by someone everyone’s heard of, Dick Cheney, who at that time was Secretary of Defense. He put that policy in place under the first Bush administration, just on the eve of the first Gulf War, to prevent photographs of those caskets. …

Early in the Bush administration, [Gen.] Tommy Franks coined the term “the Dover effect,” and what he was referring to was he believed that there was only a certain number of images of flag-draped coffins that the American public was willing to see, willing to put up with, before support for a war begins to fade.

Franks' notion of the "Dover effect" was shaped by Vietnam and applied to Iraq. Reflecting on both of those wars, Lt. Gen. William E. Odom suggested a very different lesson: "There is no way to win a war that is not in your interests," he said.

That's not a difficult or a theoretical concept. It's just a simple statement of a basic principle like "Fire is hot" or "water is wet." Yet somehow Franks and Cheney were not — are not — able to grasp this. They still think that the U.S. can win a war that is not in its interest if only it tries really hard. Matt Yglesias calls this the "Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics" — the notion that anything, even self-contradiction, is possible with sufficient willpower.

"There is no way to win a war that is not in your interests."

You can almost picture Franks and Cheney dimly staring at that written on a chalkboard, trying and failing to comprehend.  "I guess what it means," Cheney says finally, "is that it's difficult to maintain public support for a war that is not in your interests." And from there the two men go on to theorize about the "Dover effect" and the best ways to hide the sorts of images that might lead to public protest.

An important corollary to "There is no way to win a war that is not in your interests" is this: There is no way for a just nation to win an unjust war. Franks and Cheney, like all adherents of the Green Lantern Theory, can't tolerate the idea of just and unjust wars. The just war tradition arose as an effort to restrain evil and suffering. Such restraint, these willpower worshippers believe, inhibits the unrestrained force of will required for victory. In the words of the leading philosopher of this movement, all such restraints lead to a scenario in which "Somebody wouldn't let us win."

But while the just war tradition is primarily concerned with morality, that is not its only function or benefit. For the purposes of our discussion here, the just war tradition is less important as a means of restraining evil and suffering and more important as a means of restraining self-defeating and counterproductive stupidity.

Appreciate that Franks' notion of the "Dover effect" only makes sense if one believes that war is an option — a choice that a supposedly fickle and weak-willed public may choose to stop choosing.

If this were actually the case — if a given war really were optional, then it would also be a war that we should not have been fighting in the first place. It would be, in other words, an unjust war. And, therefore, it would be a war that a just nation cannot win — a war for which "victory" is not one of the possible outcomes.

This is true regardless of public opinion. No amount of public support can make an unjust war winnable.

And just as an unjust war is unsustainable, with or without public support, so too protest against a just war tends to be unsustainable, with or without success on the battlefield.

Consider the basic criteria for what constitutes a just war: a just cause/redress of wrong (not merely that a wrong has occurred or exists, but that this particular action — i.e., war — will redress that wrong); right intention; legitimate authority; last resort; probability of success; proportionality.

A just war must meet all of those criteria. When that is the case, the images of flag-draped coffins at Dover tend to reinforce and redouble the public's support.

A unjust war is any that fails to meet one or more of these criteria. When that is the case, public sentiment will turn against it no matter how well you hide the wounded and dead or how many flags you wave. And this will not happen because the public is weak-willed or fickle, but because the public will correctly conclude, eventually, that any cost is too high for an unjust and therefore unwinnable war.

Take those principles one by one and this becomes clearer.

If a given war is demonstrably due to a just cause/redress of wrong, then the public will tend to support it. You'll still have conscientious objectors and pacifists, of course, but they'll be more likely to be driving ambulances and rolling bandages than to be organizing sit-ins or marching in the streets.

If a given war is demonstrably the last resort then not only is widespread public opposition unlikely, such opposition is moot. Such opposition would mean calling for an alternative that has been shown not to exist.

(The trickiest of these principles for what we're discussing here may be the matter of legitimate authority, about which more later.)

The impulse to hide the cost of war from the public is an indication that the war in question is unlikely to receive the support of the public. It is an indication, in other words, that the public is likely to recognize that the war is not in its interest — and that it is unjust.

Attempts to deceive the public into supporting such a war may succeed in the short term, but that won't matter one way or the other when it comes to the outcome of such a doomed and counterproductive war.

  • http://thinkingmeats.blogspot.com Froborr

    Me!: It was clearly impossible to negotiate with the guy at that point and the choice really was let him rampage around Europe or fight back.
    That would be the “last resort” part of “last resort of the incompetent.” Eventually, if one fails enough, one does indeed have to fall back on the last resort.

  • Longstreet63

    “WWII was unjust? Wow! Not sure what definition you are using for the term “just war” but I think stopping Germany and Japan from killing millions more was a good reason to go to war. What more do you need?”
    Well, yeah, except that those are not the reasons any of the major allied combatants entered the war. The US, in particular, was attacked directly by Japan. Germany declared war on the US in support, a particularly foolish mistake. We’d have probably sat out Europe for the next few years if Hitler had not done so. Britain and France came in in support of a treaty ally to maintain their international prestige (there was no possibility of them seriously aiding the Poles) and the USSR, of course, got invaded.

  • Jessica

    The Americas don’t count — they came from Asia. — Froborr
    Not according to wikipedia. South America was closer to Africa than Asia
    Or am I not helping things? =)

  • Hawker Hurricane

    Not guarding the weapons depots was a foolish thing… but only if you’re going to dismantle the enemy army totally and occupy the country long term. If your objective is a Sudden Regime Change Raid, the new President For Life is going to need that stuff, and he can use his own men to guard it…
    Again, a problem of the military forces for one plan, and objectives from a different plan causing failure.

  • inge

    mike.timmonin, mmy: I believe your quote comes from Sethra Lavode
    Gah, of course. I had been checking Bujold. Would have gotten to Brust soon…
    Baker: The initial argument was that the US was no longer a just nation based on the actions of our military at Abu Graib and a few other spots based on previous comments.
    If we ignored, dunno, everything from the Native Americans over the Philipines to Pinochet and forwards, the US would still have given up its claim on being just (or the claim for this decade) when they made clear that they would not persecute their own war criminals and not let anyone else do it. They made clear that they intended to commit war crimes before the war even started. Abu Gharib was whatever the opposite of a surprise is.
    You want a just country, try Monaco or something of similar size. For a just war, I suggest Poland or Yugoslavia in WWII. I don’t hold with “all actions have to be pure”, because people are not angels, so I’d add every nation defending against the Germans invading on the list. There is a lot to be said about the Soviet Union’s actions, little of it good, but the war itself was just. But then, “just” != “good”.
    Mabus: It is a malicious injustice to allow people’s rights and freedoms to be stripped from them if we have the capacity to prevent it.
    IMO the US tends to be vastly overoptimistic when it comes to its power to prevent something. I’d put the bar way lower and say that not assisting in taking people’s rights and freedom, and not putting them under the thumb of violent dictators would be laudable restraint.

  • mike.timonin

    We’d have probably sat out Europe for the next few years if Hitler had not done so.
    We would have been involved in the European War by the end of 1942 at the latest – the US and Germany were involved in a non-declared sea war by the point that US ships were taking goods to Iceland, and German u-boats were sinking US destroyers. Essentially, the Pacific and European wars are only related because a) Japan and Germany were allied (for convenience – they had no aims in common) and b) they happened at the same time.

  • Jeff

    If your objective is a Sudden Regime Change Raid, the new President For Life is going to need that stuff, and he can use his own men to guard it.
    I would think that you would still want to guard them until he could get his men in place. Even with SRCR, there’s going to be a bit of chaos, and you don’t want the PFL’s enemies to get their hands on shiny new weapons.

  • Hawker Hurricane

    Well, Jeff, the plan for the SRCR was for the new PFL to use his troops to guard things that he’d like to keep out of the hands of enemies (after the U.S. army had secured them, of course).
    But, plan one or plan two… pick one and only one.
    Oh, and for the record, both plans have majorly immoral elements. Neither would count as a “Just War” I think.

  • Longstreet63

    “We would have been involved in the European War by the end of 1942 at the latest – the US and Germany were involved in a non-declared sea war by the point that US ships were taking goods to Iceland, and German u-boats were sinking US destroyers.”
    True, but the point of this is that we were not going to go to actual war over it. Or we would have. FDR couldn’t have made it pass without the kind of direct attack on the nation that Japan committed. The US was, by any means, poorly prepared for war in 1941, and even with a war, not in very good military shape in 1942. Being occupied against Japan would have further reduced the chances of war with Germany by splitting resources. That was Admiral King’s assessment in any case. After the Japanese were trounced, not before 44, almost certainly, the European war would probably have been over one way or the other, and Americans sick of casualties. If we did decide to go after Hitler next, though, we’d have ground up the Soviet-decimated Wermacht like sausage.
    “Essentially, the Pacific and European wars are only related because a) Japan and Germany were allied (for convenience – they had no aims in common) and b) they happened at the same time.”
    Well, the Dutch and Commonwealth might have disagreed. Had the Japanese gone in against the Russian east, as their army leadership traditionally was inclined to do, the commonality would have been much more obvious. Japan quite sensibly screwed the germans in that regard, though, and so you can call them separate. But the fact that the same people were fighting on one side of both significantly influenced the courses of each, so distinction really doesn’t hold up.

  • Zyzzyva

    Not sure about the arguments upthread that it’s impossible to conquer Afghanistan. Alexander the Great did it. Oh, sure, he spent 3/4 of his time fighting out in the ‘Stans, knocking down an endless respawning succession of hill tribes, but the end result: two hundred years of Greeks ruling in Afghanistan followed by another hundred ruling the Kabul Valley. Alexander conquered Afghanistan. There’s no other word for it.

  • mike timonin

    Longstreet63 – I may not have presented my argument well, but what I’m suggesting is that Japan did not declare war on England and Holland and France because Germany did; and Germany did not declare war on England and Holland and France because Japan was attacking China. They were willing to take French Indo-China from Germany, and that was a factor (among many) in deciding to “go south,” but had the war in Europe not happened, the war in the Pacific could easily have taken place. Or, for instance, Japan holds off on attacking the US until 1944, but the US gets dragged into Europe – how many US sailors needed to drown before FDR could have convinced the American people that a declaration of war was necessary? I still say the US and Germany would have been at war by the end of 1942. Hitler falls, and Japan, seeing their chance slipping away, hits Pearl while the Americans are still distracted in Europe… Wait, did I just undermine my own argument? Or, perhaps, as long as I’m playing counter-factuals – the US, in an effort to prevent the third rise of the Germans, transfers much of their Pacific fleet to the Atlantic – after all, the Japanese have been quiet – and then, in 1946, as the US begins ramping back down their military, the Japanese hit Pearl. Or Russia. Or India. Under that situation, we would not consider the Pacific War part of WWII.

  • mike timonin

    Zyzzyva – you say conquest, but some might view that as a protracted uneasy occupation. The Brits did that too. You can hold Afghanistan if you are willing to leave a huge force there, but only for as long as you are willing to do so. The Greeks were just more willing to leave soldiers on the ground; but they were still occupiers. Alternatively, you can remove the troops, but re-invade on a regular basis – the Brits tried that as well.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p01156e58e6e8970c McJulie

    Postulated: Every war in recorded history is a consequence of population pressures and migrations in (or from) the Asian steppes. Discuss.
    Postulated: The only thing it is even *possible* to accomplish with war is to claim territory, or to prevent that territory from being claimed by others.
    When we overthrow foreign governments, as in Iraq or Afghanistan (or WWII Germany) we are claiming that territory. It is no different from the action of a colonial power. The only difference is our presumed aim — what we intend to do with the territory once we’ve claimed it.

  • GDwarf

    About “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.”, I disagree.
    In an ideal world that would be the case; any problem could be solved by talking about it with enough people for long enough. However, this is not true in the real world. Eventually you will come to some issue that cannot be negotiated, some leader who won’t “see reason”, some idiot with his finger on the trigger and no sense of morality.
    At some point words will fail, since negotiation only works if you have something to bargain with; and if your opponents can take that from you without a fight then you don’t really have it.
    And war is not innately “unjust”, I would say, but that depends on how one defines “just” and “unjust”; everyone seems to have their own idea about what these mean.
    In this case I’d say a “just” action is one that’s utilitarian: It does the most good and the least harm. By that metric war can be just. Indeed, Hiroshima and Nagasaki may very well be just by that standard, as the lives lost to them may very well have been much less than the lives lost to a conventional attack of Japan.

  • Tonio

    Eventually you will come to some issue that cannot be negotiated, some leader who won’t “see reason”, some idiot with his finger on the trigger and no sense of morality.
    While I agree in principle, it’s very easy for person or nation who stands to gain from a war to characterize the potential opponent that way as a persuasion tactic. Even if the person honestly believes that about the opponent, there’s still a conflict of interest, because the gain to be realized may unconsciously distort the person’s perspective of the opponent. (By “gain” I mean power in general, not just financial gain.) I might be less skeptical about such a characterization of the opponent if it came from people or nations that didn’t stand to gain or lose from the war in question.

  • GDwarf

    Oh, of course it’s easy to fabricate such a justification for a war, no argument here, but it’s easy enough because it’s perfectly plausible. Such people do exist, and will get in the way.
    At some point you need to have arms to fall back on, if only so that those others who have armies don’t just sweep you out of the way because you don’t.

  • Tonio

    Such people do exist, and will get in the way.
    I’m not arguing that point. I’m simply arguing for skepticism whenever someone applies that description to a specific opponent. That application seems like an attempt to reduce the conflict to pure good versus pure evil, which would be really about trying to portray one’s own motives and intentions as pure.

  • mike.timonin

    In this case I’d say a “just” action is one that’s utilitarian: It does the most good and the least harm. By that metric war can be just. Indeed, Hiroshima and Nagasaki may very well be just by that standard, as the lives lost to them may very well have been much less than the lives lost to a conventional attack of Japan.
    A highly debatable point. Historian continue to argue over how many soldiers and Japanese civilians might or might not have died in a conventional attack on Japan. I think the current thread of debate has one side arguing that the entrance of the Soviet army would have been sufficient to cause the Japanese to surrender, while the other side contends that a failure to use the atomic bomb would have extended the war well into 1946 with a costly invasion of Japan. On the one hand, the debate is counter-factual; the bomb was used, and it did result in a surrender without an invasion, and so we’ll never know what might have happened. On the other hand, I think the response to the atomic bomb – incredulity and amazement at a previously inconceivably destructive weapon – indicates that the bomb was highly influential in the conclusion of the war. On the gripping hand, there are strong indications that Japan was on the verge of surrender, such that continued pressure, with or without the Soviets or the A-bombs, might have caused the surrender regardless – indeed, the Japanese government had already offered to surrender if they could be allowed to retain the emperor. So, I don’t know. The debate is unending.
    Beyond that debate, however, I contend that the atomic bomb is an inherently immoral weapon, because it has no military application – it can only be used to target civilian populations. Indeed, it is the ultimate culmination in a series of such weapons – the bombs, and especially the fire bombs, used during WWII by all sides were likewise only of use in a strategic sense. That is, they could never reasonably have been deployed against soldiers in the field, but only against targets in the rear, and, ultimately, civilian targets.

  • Tonio

    The debate is unending.
    Sounds like the best course is to be agnostic on the issue and dismiss either argument as speculation.

  • mike.timonin

    Sounds like the best course is to be agnostic on the issue and dismiss either argument as speculation.
    Except that it’s the sort of debate upon which careers are made, not un-akin to the questions about taking communion on a Friday or the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. (one, if there’s a partner, with the proviso that the partner know how to gavotte.) So I cannot throw my hands up and say “a plague on all your houses”; I must at least be informed of the terms of the debate as it currently stands.

  • GDwarf

    I did say “may have” in regards to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I really don’t know which way I lean on that issue, there are too many factors and too little information.
    I…am not certain that atomic bombs are innately immoral, though.
    The one situation in which I think using them would be justified would be in a End-of-WWII situation, where it seems likely that using them would result in less loss of life than not doing so.
    However, the targeting of civilians does, indeed, throw that off quite a bit.
    So, perhaps, only if the civilian deaths caused by the bombs are less than expected civilian deaths from a conventional invasion. (But then, what of the lives of soldiers? Are they worth less than Civilians? Worth nothing? Worth more? There are, alas, so many factors going against an easy answer.)

  • danAlwyn

    Nuclear weapons don’t quite have “no” military applications; anything that blows up has military applications. Nuclear weapons, however, are balanced out by the massive collateral damage they do, both to civilians and to the environment, and sometimes just as importantly, to the user’s public image. There has been no situation since their debut where a military target has been judged worthy of the massive costs of using a nuclear weapon on it. This does not, however, mean that there is no military application – just that so far the stakes have been low enough in all wars that those powers who could use nuclear weapons have instead tried to hit those targets the old-fashioned way. It does not mean that they can only be used against civilian populations. They are very effective against military targets; you just have to be very, very careful before you use one to understand the consequences.
    Yes, I know it’s mostly a semantic difference, but I think in this case it’s important to be particular.

  • mike.timonin

    The problem is that there are very few purely military targets. I suppose you could use a nuclear weapon on a fleet at sea in the middle of the Pacific, and claim that there was little chance of “collateral damage”, but military bases attract civilian communities, because military bases need civilian infrastructure, as well as goods and services.
    It comes back to the debate over destruction of the Death Star II – that ship wasn’t finished yet, so there had to have been civilian contractors still on board. (This is assuming that the workers in the Death Star I Canteen were military service personnel, and not the Empire’s equivalent of KBR).

  • Tonio

    Except that it’s the sort of debate upon which careers are made
    Careers in what field, history or theology?
    So I cannot throw my hands up and say “a plague on all your houses”; I must at least be informed of the terms of the debate as it currently stands.
    My attitude is somewhat different than that – I regard both sides as hunting snipes. Since the question can never be answered, debating it seems pointless except possibly as entertainment or intellectual exercise. I might feel differently if we had a means for testing the scenarios. The problem with such questions is that both sides seem to operate from different starting assumptions. I would suggest that both sides at least start with the same assumptions, but I don’t realistically expect that level of discipline.

  • mike.timonin

    Careers in what field, history or theology?
    History, in the case of invasion v. a-bomb.
    I regard both sides as hunting snipes.
    You’re right, of course – but so many of the debates which are current in the field of history are intellectual exercises. If we view history as a science (which is, in and of itself, debatable – I prefer to place it within the arts), we’re in the midst of a very lengthy experiment which, thankfully, hasn’t ended yet. The experiment is self-aware, thus it is difficult to construct scenarios, because the scenario constructors and the people involved in the scenario are aware of the scenario, and of the original event, and will be influenced by both.
    That being said, there was an invasion, by the Russians, of the Kuril Islands, post Nagasaki. Which is to say, post surrender. This has been presented as a scenario for the invasion of the home islands. Unfortunately, both those in support of the atomic bomb and those who argue that it was unnecessary present this invasion to support their argument. The no-bomb group argue that the invasion shows a Japanese army in disarray; poorly armed and led, and thus unable to defend their territory. The pro-bomb group argue that, even in a state of disarray, poorly armed and led, the Japanese forces in the Kurils were able to give significant pause to the Russian forces invading – and that this disarray was primarily a response to the surrender conditions created by the bombs. So, you see – unending. But, at the same time, fascinating as an intellectual exercise, and occasionally entertaining in its own right.
    The problem with such questions is that both sides seem to operate from different starting assumptions. I would suggest that both sides at least start with the same assumptions, but I don’t realistically expect that level of discipline.
    Also true. It would certainly help if all of the participants were willing to have the same conversation at the same time. Or at least agree on the parameters of the various conversations they were having, if only within their own groups.


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