Can War Be Both Reformed AND Abolished?


Photo of Kunduz Hospital in Afghanistan via The Intercept.

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, October 2, 2021

A recent article and a recent book have raised this familiar topic anew for me. The article is a super uninformed dud of a hatchet job on Michael Ratner by Samuel Moyn, who accuses Ratner of supporting war by trying to reform and humanize rather than end it. The critique is terribly weak because Ratner tried to prevent wars, end wars, AND reform wars. Ratner was at every antiwar event. Ratner was at every panel on the need to impeach Bush and Cheney for the wars as well as for the torture. I’d never even heard of Samuel Moyn until he wrote this now widely debunked article. I’m glad he wants to end war and hope he can be a better ally in that struggle.

But the question raised, which has been around for centuries, cannot be dismissed as easily as pointing out that Moyn got his facts about Ratner wrong. When I objected to Bush-Cheney-era torture, without ever ceasing for an instant my protests of the wars themselves, plenty of people accused me of supporting the wars, or of diverting resources away from ending the wars. Were they necessarily wrong? Does Moyn want to denounce Ratner for opposing torture even knowing that he also opposed war, because the greater good is most likely achieved by putting everything into ending war entirely? And might that be right, regardless of whether it’s Moyn’s position?

I think it’s important in these considerations to begin by noting where the major problem lies, namely with the warmongers, the war profiteers, the war facilitators, and the vast masses of people not doing a goddamned thing either to halt or to reform the mass slaughters in any way whatsoever. The question is in no way whether to lump war reformers in with that crowd. The questions are, rather, whether war reformers actually reform war, whether those reforms (if any) do significant good, whether those reform efforts help end war or prolong war or neither, whether more good could have been done by focusing on the need to end either particular wars or the entire institution, and whether war abolitionists can accomplish more good by trying to convert the war reformers or by trying to mobilize the inactive uninterested masses.

While some of us have tried both to reform and end war and generally seen the two as complementary (isn’t war more, not less, worthy of ending because it includes torture?), there is nonetheless a marked division between reformers and abolishers. This divide is due in part to people’s varying beliefs about the likelihood of success in two approaches, each of which has been showing little success and can be criticized on that basis by advocates of the other. It is due in part to personality and attitude. It is due in part to the missions of various organizations. And it is accentuated by the finite nature of resources, the general concept of the limited attention span, and the high regard in which the simplest messages and slogans are held.

This divide parallels the divide we see every year, as in recent days, when the U.S. Congress votes on a military spending bill. Everyone tells each other that in theory one can urge Congress Members both to vote in favor of good amendments that stand hardly a chance of passing in the House (and zero chance of getting through the Senate and the White House) and also to vote against the overall bill (with hardly a chance of blocking and reshaping the bill, but no need of the Senate or President to do so). Yet, all the inside-the-Beltway, follow-the-Congress-Members’-lead groups put at least 99.9% of their efforts into the good amendments, and a handful of outside groups put the same share of their efforts into demanding No votes on the bill. You’ll virtually never see anybody do both things evenhandedly. And, again, this divide is within that sliver of the population not pretending the military spending bill doesn’t exist in order to obsess over the Two Biggest Spending Bills Ever (which are actually, combined, much smaller than the military spending bill in annual spending).

The book that has raised this topic for me is a new one by Leonard Rubenstein called Perilous Medicine: The Struggle to Protect Health Care from the Violence of War. One might expect from such a title a book on the health threat of war itself, the role it plays as a major cause of death and injury, a major spreader of disease pandemics, the basis for the risk of nuclear apocalypse, the senselessly reckless bioweapons labs, the health struggles of war refugees, and the environmental devastation and deadly pollution created by war and by war preparations. Instead it’s a book about the need to manage wars in such a way that doctors and nurses are not attacked, hospitals are not bombed, ambulances are not blown up. The author wants health professionals protected and permitted to treat all parties regardless of their identities or that of the health service providers. We need, Rubenstein rightly contends, an end to fake vaccination scams like the CIA’s in Pakistan, an end to prosecuting doctors who testify on evidence of torture, etc. We need to carve out of war a safe, respectful, humanitarian zone for those trying to patch up the fighters to continue killing and being killed.

Who could be against such things? And yet. And yet: one can’t help but notice the line that is drawn in this book, as in others like it. The author does not go on to say that we must also stop diverting funding from healthcare into weapons, must stop shooting missiles and guns, must stop war activities that poison the Earth and heat the climate. He stops at the needs of healthcare workers. And one can’t help but note the predictable framing of the issue by the author’s early, fact-free, unfootnoted assertion that “given the human propensity for cruelty, especially in war, this violence will never entirely cease, any more than war itself and the atrocities that too often accompany it will end.” Thus war is something separate from the atrocities that constitute it, and they supposedly do not always “accompany” it but only “often” do. But no reason whatsoever is offered for war never ceasing. Rather, the supposed absurdity of that idea is simply brought up as a comparison to illustrate how certain it is that violence against health providers within wars will also never cease (though it can presumably be reduced and the work to reduce it be justified even if the same resources could have gone into reducing or eliminating war). And the idea on which all these assumptions rest is the supposed propensity for cruelty of “humans,” where humans obviously means those human cultures that engage in war, as many human cultures now and in the past have not.

We should pause here just to recognize that war will of course cease entirely. The question is merely whether humanity will do so first. If war does not cease before humanity does, and the current state of nuclear weapons remains uncorrected, there is little question that war will put an end to us before we put an end to it.

Now, I think Perilous Medicine is an excellent book that contributes vital knowledge to the world by expertly chronicling endless attacks on hospitals and ambulances during wars by a wide variety of different wagers of wars over many years. Barring belief in the impossibility of reducing or eliminating war, this is a book that can’t help but make one want even more than before to reduce or eliminate war, as well as to reform what remains of it (barring belief in the impossibility of such reform).

The book is also an account that is not grossly biased in favor of a particular nation. Very often war reforming correlates with the pretense that war is waged by nations and groups other than the U.S. government or Western governments, while war abolitionists sometimes overly minimize the role played in war by anyone other than the U.S. government. However, Perilous Medicine leans in the direction of blaming the rest of the world by claiming that the U.S. government is partially reformed, that when it blows up a hospital full of patients it’s a big deal precisely because it’s so unusual, whereas other governments attack hospitals far more routinely. This claim is, of course, not put into the context of the U.S. role in selling the most weapons, starting the most wars, dropping the most bombs, deploying the most troops, etc., because of the focus on reforming war no matter how much of it.

At times, Rubenstein suggests a great difficulty in reforming war, asserting that until political and military leaders hold troops accountable for attacks on the wounded, those attacks will continue, and concluding that violence against healthcare in war is not a new normal because it’s a longstanding normal. But then he claims that there are times when public pressure and the strengthening of norms have prevented attacks on civilians. (Of course, and there are plenty of times when the same factors have prevented entire wars.) But then Rubenstein goes Pinkerish on us, claiming that Western militaries have greatly reduced indiscriminate bombing with the result that “civilian casualties from bombing by Western air forces are mostly measured in the hundreds, not in the tens or hundreds of thousands.” Read that a few times. It’s not a typo. But what can it mean? What war has a Western air force been engaged in that did not have tens or hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties or even of civilian deaths? Can Rubenstein mean the casualty count from a single bombing run, or a single bomb? But what would be the point of asserting that?

One thing I notice about war reform is that it is sometimes not based purely on a belief that trying to end war is pointless. It’s also based on the subtle acceptance of the mindset of war. At first it doesn’t seem so. Rubenstein wants doctors to be free to treat soldiers and civilians from all sides, to not be constrained to give aid and comfort only to certain people and not others. This is incredibly admirable and the opposite of a war mindset. Yet the idea that we must be more severely offended when a hospital is attacked than when an army base is attacked rests on the notion that there is something more acceptable in killing armed, uninjured, non-civilian people, and less acceptable in killing unarmed, injured, civilian people. This is a mindset that will seem normal, even inevitable, to many. But a war abolitionist who sees war, not some other nation, as the enemy, will be exactly as horrified by killing troops as by killing patients. Similarly, the war abolitionist will see the killing of troops on both sides as just as horrific as each side sees the killing of the troops on its side. The problem is the murdering of human beings, not which human beings. Encouraging people to think otherwise, for whatever good it may do, also does the harm of normalizing war — does it so darn well in fact that extremely intelligent people may assume that war is somehow built into some unidentified substance called “human nature.”

Rubenstein’s book frames the important debate, as he sees it, as between the Franz Lieber view that “military necessity” trumps humanitarian restraint in war, and the Henry Dunant view to the contrary. But the view of Lieber’s and Dunant’s contemporary Charles Sumner that war ought to be abolished is not considered at all. The evolution of that view over many decades is missing entirely.

For some, including myself, the reasons for working to abolish war have come to include prominently the good that could be done with the resources devoted to war. Reforming war, just like reforming murderous and racist police forces, can often involve investing even a bit more resources into the institution. But the lives that could be saved by redirecting even a tiny fraction of military spending out of militarism and into healthcare simply dwarfs the lives that could be saved by making wars 100% respectful of health providers and patients, or even the lives that could be saved by ending wars.

It’s the tradeoffs of the monstrous institution that sway the balance toward the need to focus, at least principally, on ending war, not humanizing it. The environmental impact, the impact on the rule of law, the impact on civil rights, the fueling of hatred and bigotry, the spreading of violence to domestic institutions, and the incredible financial investment, as well as the nuclear risk, give us the choices of ending war (whether or not mending it) or ending ourselves.

Lieber wanted to reform lots of wonderful institutions including war, slavery, and prisons. With some of those institutions, we accept the obvious fact that we could choose to end them, and with others we do not. But here’s one thing we could do very easily. We could frame war reform as part of an effort to reduce and end war, step by step. We could talk about the particular aspects we want reformed out of existence as reasons for both the proposed reform and for total abolition. Such complex messaging is well within the capacity of the average human brain. One good thing it would accomplish would be putting the reformers and abolitionists on the same team, a team that has often seemed on the edge of victories if it could only have been just a little bit bigger.

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