From edition

Review of Raimond Gaita ed., Why the war was wr

This volume is a timely discussion designed to refute arguments presented by supporters of the invasion of Iraq both from the right and from elements of the left, with particular focus upon the only justification that still had any legs even at time of publishing, in late 2003 (before Abu Ghraib, before Fallujah, before Najaf) – namely, the argument from liberation of the Iraqi people.

Written from within a broadly liberal-democratic perspective, the contributors address the case for humanitarian intervention from a range of perspectives. The overall argumentative strategy of the book is summed up by editor Raimond Gaita in the introduction, where he states that the aim has been to argue that “this case has been rejected, but I do not think anyone could say it has not been treated seriously. It is rejected on its own terms.” (Gaita 2003, 5). That is, overall the authors of the chapters provisionally accept that the justifications offered for the invasion have prima facie validity – not because they are true in any meaningful sense, but because those are the arguments that are placed in the public realm as the arguments to be grappled with. My sense is that the overall purpose is to go beyond what some might regard as sloganising and to take on supporters of the war on their own terms. On the one hand that is a sensible argumentative stance: those arguments are the ones repeated endlessly in the mass media, and are the ones pressed into the public consciousness and so presumably have to be debunked, and so this is to be applauded. However, I suggest there are shortcomings.

In the paragraphs below, firstly I shall outline the approach taken in each of the chapters. After that, I shall suggest two areas in which, to me at least, the collection may lack practical effect.

The book itself
If I were to try to sum up the book for readers of this review, I would say that most of the seven contributions deal with variations on themes around international law, justice, intervention and so on. In fact, three of them (those of Gaita, Coghlan and Rundle) largely argue from or around Gaita’s summation of the issue (here, as summed up by Coghlan):

we have an obligation to wage a humanitarian war when our refusal to do so is rightly seen by those for whom we are fighting as abandonment and when they can justifiably claim that that refusal has wronged them (118)

So the contributors over all refuse to back themselves into a simple “intervention is permissible” versus “intervention is not permissible” dichotomy, preferring to discuss ways to determine the merits of intervention.

The volume starts with Raimond Gaita’s introduction, where he positions the volume as attempting to criticise the arguments of the proponents and supporters of the invasion in their own terms: taking the arguments seriously and refuting them, rather than attempting to (say) score cheap points for an audience that already agrees. This seems a suitable approach.

The first of the essays proper is that of Robert Manne, who attempts an explanation of why the invasion took place. The explanation mentions the Cold War in a couple of places, but never to make any particular strong causative point about it in the Iraqi context. Most of the discussion locates the immediate causes of the invasion with the rise of the neo-conservative tendency within the US political elite, through think tanks and so on. This is a useful summary.

Hilary Charlesworth provides a well-written and -argued introduction to Just War theory as a core source of international law, and goes on to apply it to the invasion of Iraq. The argument examines the role and (lack of) powers of the relevant UN Resolutions, and the challenge to the Westphalian international order (ie, the order built around state sovereignty and non-intervention, dating from the mid 1600s). This summary is a digestible and clear exposition of the issues around that. There may be areas where it requires prior knowledge of the concepts or the frameworks in which the concepts are embedded, but that will depend up individual readers.

Eva Sallis, an Australian-born writer, then examines the dynamics of sympathy, and in particular, sympathy in the context of quantities of deaths. In a situation where an unknown number of Iraqi soldiers died, and an unknown number of Iraqi civilians died during the initial invasions and since,1 what does it mean to ‘us’, a distant TV-based viewer, to experience sympathy with one, five, a thousand, unknown Iraqi deaths? Why do we make the distinction between ‘military’ and ‘civilian’ deaths, when the death of either remains a tragedy to those bereaved? I found this an interesting discussion, but couldn’t quite see where it fitted in the broader context of countering arguments put forward by proponents of the invasion; but then that’s probably just me. It’s context lies in Gaita’s claim in the introduction that “(l)iberated Iraq is presented for our contemplation, abstracted from the human cost of its achievement”(3). I personally couldn’t quite see the argument sufficiently clearly; but perhaps, having spent a bit of time in Iraq some years ago, I’m not sufficiently abstracted to experience this.

Next, moral philosopher Raimond Gaita’s contribution examines the moral consequences of the war in the context of the variables ‘legality’ and ‘justness’, and as such is effectively an extension of Charlesworth’s contributions on Just War theory. In a sense, where Charlesworth provides the institutional core of the book with her discussion of the UN and bodies of international law, Gaita’s chapter discusses the (perhaps primarily Kantian) underpinnings of these institutions, as seen within a liberal-democratic framework of understanding.

Following this, Peter Coghlan, another philosopher, provides the next chapter, which addresses directly the relationship between military intervention and liberation. His argument again revolves around refining the application of the terms rightly and justifiably: the remainder of the chapter is devoted to examining historical examples from 1991 or so onwards to refine our understanding of the application of these terms. I found this to be potentially the most useful chapter for most audiences I could imagine, in that it applied a couple of common-world words to situations most of us know about but perhaps haven’t had ways to think through in these terms, such as the 1991 attack on Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and so on.

Guy Rundle then shifts to the nature of the debates between the broad anti-war ‘left’ and those sections of the traditional left who supported the invasion in the name of liberation, most notably Christopher Hitchens. Rundle is editor of Arena magazine, and so presents what feels like a more “insider” look at the dynamics within social movements involved in this issue. For those readers who find themselves involved with arguing over these issues, this chapter is of use. It is also very well worth a think, given that the world may well be facing a series of further invasions over the next decade and more.

The final chapter is that of Mark McKenna at the Australian national University. It is one that might seem the most salient to many Australian readers, since it is a discussion of the political uses that Prime Minister John Howard has made of the invasion of Iraq – the ‘welcome home’ parades, the countering of the legacy of Vietnam, the invocation of ‘the ANZAC spirit’, and so on. As such, it is a brief take on the construction of Australian identity through militarism

Some comments: audience, power, legitimacy
In offering some form of critique of what is clearly a well thought-out and constructive collection of arguments, I naturally have to be careful. Am I merely setting up a theory-laden straw man to knock down so I can seem all knowing and arch and clever, and boast about it to like-spirited friends over a presentable (if slightly plummy) shiraz or six? Am I using this as an opportunity to tout the preferred line of whatever organisation I happen to belong to, to the presumed greater glory of that organisation? I hope to do neither of these. Instead, I want to take a similar analytical stance to that of the authors, and work in their terms. I’ll try to work out the intention of the authors of the volume (in terms of audience and effects on behaviour) and then to suggest there is a gap in the material; and further, that the gap in the material is implicit in their analytical stance.

What audiences, what changes in behaviour, might this argument collection have been directed at? Broadly, one could talk about a notional ‘general audience’: any person with adult literacy levels in a literate society (particularly in Australia). One could equally imagine a somewhat narrower ‘educated (presumably mainly tertiary-educated) audience’, familiar with the norms of specialist argumentation, particularly of the academic kind. Both audiences are presumably more or less politically active, whether in tea-rooms, parties, social movements, or perhaps in service organisations.

My sense is that the authors want the audience to be a general audience, but that the most likely audience is probably the latter. I get the sense that the aim is a more general audience on formal grounds. The book is short – 200 pages. There is no index, and footnoting is sporadic, with three chapters (those of Charlesworth, Sallis and McKenna) including footnotes, and the rest not. Only one (Charlesworth) concludes with a bibliography. If referencing and such forms of guarantees of checkability are markers of the set of pursuits traditionally requiring a degree of academic training (including law, medicine and so on), then omission of these markers suggests that there was at least the hope that the book might have reached a broader readership. But the contents of the chapters seem to me to belie that impression. To take Gaita’s chapter, which ties several of the chapters together, it seems like it is written for a readership of moral philosophers. Sources of points flow effortlessly from Socrates to St. Paul to Kant to Weber, which is probably fine if the reader knows who they all are and what they said and why they matter(ed). With due respect, I doubt that arguments from moral philosophy are frequent in tea-rooms; in my experience supporters of the war are often derisive of n
otions of morality except when it suits them, and are quite conscious (and often gleeful) that they operate on notions of power and capability.

I’ve wrestled to identify what didn’t quite work for me in this book, and it took me a while for some reason. But eventually my discomfort fell into place. No one emphasises history or property or power to the degree that could make the chapters fall together into one explanatory whole. Surely, the history of the last couple of centuries (at least that – some would say of all history) is conflict over property, conflict often expressed through wars. Surely, the necessary background to the current situation is that for nearly a century property owners have been frightened witless by ‘the spectre of communism’, the set of related ideologies that emphasise commonality of ownership for the good of all, and manifested most obviously in the USSR. Surely it cannot go unnoticed that the background to this current rash of military invasions is the creation and funding of fundamentalist Islamist groups in the 1970s and 1980s by the US as the local ideological counterweight to Communism.2

Whatever one might think of the USSR, however one might analyse its shortcomings, its relationship to capitalism, or the value of its interventions and strategies, it nevertheless constituted a counterweight to the total private ownership of the world’s resources for most of a century in the eyes of the main capitalist powers. That counterweight is now gone, leaving the one state that is the primary representative of private/corporate ownership of resources (the USA) free to do what it wishes in the interests of those owners – and so it is doing. At the same time its agents around the world on the one hand help with that military-economic project, and on the other dismantle whatever concessions to the forces of social ownership they had to make in the form of a welfare state while the USSR existed. While this is of course to simplify the matter somewhat, nevertheless it seems an omission to not discuss the forces that generated the invasion that is the topic of the book.

An example is in Manne’s mentions of the Cold War. It is true that supporters of the invasion of Iraq do not use mention the Cold War much in their arguments; and so in the context of this book, dedicated as it is to refuting the arguments of supporters of the invasion in their own terms, it is not necessary to dredge up arguments outside those terms. But it is surely in the interests of supporters of the war not to mention any wider background, since they wish to avoid mentions of control over resources, of oil, and the bigger picture of imperialism. If it is in the interests of supporters to hide or downplay such a background, surely it is in the interests of opponents to be offered grounds to both demolish the arguments of supporters of the invasion on their own grounds and be able to offer a counter-picture: the British mandate of the 1920s and the Arab revolt, Hussein and the Ba’ath as the US-funded bayonets in the Soeharto-like massacre of Communists in the early 1960s, the role of Israel; US opposition to the nationalisation of Iraqi oil, then paying Iraq to attack Iran with its further nationalisation of oil). Manne’s argument centres around the rise of the neoconservatives in the USA, and fair enough, to a point. But any description of the rise of the neo-cons makes more sense in the context of the changing international system – the removal of the constraints on US (and US corporate) action posed by the USSR.

Surely, too, to make sense of the arguments around international law, around jus ad bellum and jus in bello, and so on, it makes sense to point out the origins of law: the force of the state; and that the only guarantor of international law is the combined force of states, and no association of states is currently prepared to take on the USA. Further, that the United Nations is effectively a statement of the balance of power as it existed in 1945 (with pragmatic accretions such as China). That balance of power no longer exists, and any new balance of power is still in flux. Without that understanding, an argument based on a moral philosophy of international justice seems empty.

It could be argued here that I am setting up the straw man I claimed I was trying to avoid. “Presumably that was not a central concern of the authors, so why criticise them for not addressing it?”; or perhaps “The authors are emphasising the specific institutional arguments and what underpins them, which are true whatever broader analysis a reader may prefer”; or at least, “Perhaps the authors assume a general familiarity with this issue, and so didn’t feel the need to go into it explicitly”.

Maybe. All of these things are mentioned here and there – oil, capitalism, the Cold War, and so on. But my feeling was that their self-imposed aim of considering the arguments offered by proponents of the war in their own terms, while very much needed and desirable, in other ways restricted their ability to actually explain the war, or to help readers make sense of its ramifications.   It could be further argued that it would have allowed a brief linking-in, even just a footnote, to the broader current pattern – the rise of the anti-globalisation movement, for example, as the most recent challenge to private property, and so on. But that might be to stray too far outside of their ambit – besides perhaps making it hard to fit into 200 pages.

This is not to say that they should have ditched their aim and gone for an all-out historical analysis based around changes in world power structure and the competing demands of private ownership and social ownership (or whatever). Rather, it seems to me that providing a stronger structure in terms of a broader historical introduction, and then tying the other contributions into it, with a concluding chapter to link it all together, would have actually helped a general reader to see the connections and help the detailed philosophical and legal arguments. As it stands, the arguments are detailed and stand well on their own terms. But as a collection, especially a collection that seems in some ways directed at a general reader, there is little in the way of a clear connective thread, and it can come across as bitty, at least to my eyes.

That said, it is one of the better attempts to come to grip with the detail of the arguments as they are played out in some arenas, and I would recommend this book, both as a detailed set of institutional and philosophical arguments for those who work in areas where such arguments are of primary relevance, but also for readers who already work within a pre-established group or analytical framework, as a way to broaden the range of modes of analysis available to them.

Karl-Erik Paasonen is currently completing a doctorate in Political science at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is a long-time activist in the environmental, peace, union and non-violence movements. He is not (and has never been) a member of any political party, though he maintains a sometimes-fitful membership of Friends of the Earth (the above does not reflect FoE’s perspectives or positions).


Coghlan, Peter. 2003. ‘War and Liberation’. In Why the War Was Wrong, Ed. R. Gaita. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company. 113-145.

Gaita, Raymond, ed. 2003. Why the War Was Wrong. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company.


1. Unknown because in November 2003 the US-controlled ‘interim government’ was ordered to stop counting
2. As described recently in a number of detailed chapters by Tariq Ali (Ali, 2002)

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous and edition . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues