A Time to Kill? (Conclusion)

In deciding whether it would be just to retaliate against an act of aggression, we should also consider the nature of the intended target.  Is it an old an honorable ally, whose current leadership has made a mistake or is it an inveterate enemy that has consistently transgressed the laws of nations?  It makes a difference, just as it makes a difference in our private lives, when we consider what steps to take when we are insulted or offended.  Has an otherwise good friend or loving wife, having a bad day, said things that should not have been said?  Surely that is different from a deliberate insult from a boss or colleague who wishes only to humiliate us.

Christ's admonition to forgive our enemies was not given as an invitation for the Huns to slaughter your neighbors, but to the extent we have an ethical relationship with another person--as friend, relative, spouse, and colleague--we should exercise as much restraint as we can, but there are many occasions, even in private life, where aggression left unchecked and unavenged will lead to further and more extreme acts.

The leadership of Iran has, since the ouster of the Shah, has matched the violence of its rhetoric with the violence of its actions and, while speaking as a voice of outraged morality and decency, has pursued policies that are as ruthless as they are unjustified.  Iran’s supreme religious and political leader has been very outspoken in condemning all the evils of Western countries—from slavery to the oppression of women to the economic sanctions imposed on Iran for its multifarious acts of aggression and hostility.  Such claims are odd coming from a leader of a religion whose leaders and followers were the greatest slavers in history and continue to outrage the world in their grotesque mistreatment of women, and they only fuel distrust in Western countries puzzled by such childish duplicity.

The simple truth is that our account books on Iran have been open since 1979, and any political leadership with a lick of sense would know better than to remind us of their outstanding moral debt.  Only the question of fact remains:  Is Iran’s military leadership complicit in the attack on our embassy?  I simply do not know.  People in private life cannot know, partly because the press is incompetent and corrupt but even more because our governments lie to us every day about even trivial matters.

The justice or injustice of  Soleimani's killing cannot, therefore, rest on the question of fact.  We do have a few things to go on:  Soleimani's career is not much in doubt, and Trump's erratic and testosterone addled intentions do not include any particular animosity against Iran. We are not, therefore, in  the same situation as that which preceded our conquest of Iraq, where the Bush family honor was at stake and the press was assisting the administration in manufacturing evidence.

The simple-minded non-interventionists insist on comparing Trump’s action with that of Bush II.  This comparison is as dishonest as it is stupid.  Not only have we not invaded Iran, but the allegations being made in this case do amount to a justification for retaliation.

If a cause for war or retaliation can be shown to be just, we have to ask whether or not our side can prevail in a conflict.  If anyone seriously has to ask that question, he knows little of American technological superiority today. Now, if China or Russia were to enter the conflict on the Iranian side, we should be in serious trouble, even if we won in the end. It is true, however, that American victories tend to be Pyrrhic, when they are not followed by a quick withdrawal.  Bush I's little war basically achieved its objectives through effective diplomacy in Europe and in the Arab world followed by a Blitzkrieg and rapid exit.  Bush II ignored his father's warnings about the need for consensus, and the result--in both Afghanistan and Iraq--has been disastrous for the victims of our conquest,  for Americans sent into combat, and for the American people as a whole. 

We must also bear in mind that Iran, as a result of botched foreign policy in the Carter, Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations, has been increasingly drawn into the Russian orbit, but relations have never been so cordial as to constitute a mutual defense pact.  If Trump has stated his intentions candidly, we are not going to war, and the Russians will have to swallow this just as we have swallowed cases of Russian involvement in the Ukraine.  Yes, the Ukraine. 

Putting the Iranian political leaders in their place is on the whole a good thing, if only to reveal to the Iranian people the incompetence and brutality of the regime.  To some extent, this appears to he happening already.  So long as Trump does not make the mistake of an invasion or a bombing campaign against civilian centers, his decisive action may have many benefits.

This leads us to a third criteria for a just war, which concerns means:  Are they proportional to the ends desired?  For example, a nuclear strike against Mexico in revenge for the criminal gangs that infest our border and for refusing to check the flow of illegal immigrants would be entirely disproportionate.  A polite take-over of several northern states, followed by the establishment of an American protectorate, would probably be the most extreme measures consistent with justice.

In general,  wars that target civilians are hard to justify on any moral grounds loftier than those advocated by war criminals like Lincoln, Halleck, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan.  The bombing of German cities and the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unconscionable, and the justifications that continue to be used are the language of kidnappers and extortionists whom circumstances, so they say, have driven to extreme measures.  In the aftermath of Soleimani's killing, Trump has acted with such great restraint--as in, for example, agreeing to call the shooting down of an airliner an "accident"--and if his prudence can be relied upon, we shall be happy that he has flexed American muscles against an open and declared enemy.  If not, then we are back to the policies of his predecessors.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Jeff Nyquist says:

    Strategic considerations, based on common sense, might lead to the conclusion that killing a leading figure in a regime might be seen as an escalation or an act of war. Consideration should always be given to the likely consequences of such an escalation. Do we actually believe ourselves to be invulnerable? Such a belief might be morally corrupting. However, if it is our intention to go to war with Iran we have made the right decision. This ought to do nicely.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, there is a risk. I am not in a position to evaluate the seriousness because I have no experience as a soldier nor any special expertise. I can only speak in general terms about the moral framework in which such decisions can be evaluated. Interestingly, I just received a private message from a veteran of our last attempt to confront the Iranians, and he expressed gratitude for the careful analysis. Even people who only followed the Iranian hostage crisis only through the news may have strong views about such a regime. Any attempt to evaluate such people and their motivations in conventional Western terms is misguided.

  3. Clyde Wilson says:

    Yes, but we cannot believe anything OUR leaders say or have any faith in their judgment or good faith. There is something unchivalrous and nihilistic about the act. We should be better than they are. Then there is the question of motive, cui bono, and the big Elephant in the room.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I agree with all that you say. I am trying to assess the action according to the prevailing standards. I am no position to predict the outcome. Fortunately, Trump is not much of a Republican. That is one of the best things that can be said of him.

  5. Clyde Wilson says:

    The General was targeted not because he was planning imminent terrorism but because he was a good general and a national hero. Iran doesn’t have the power to retaliate in kind. They can’t anyway because we do not have any comparable generals. Once again the U.S. helps the Sunnis against their enemies. It is said that the General (like Putin) helped prevent the U.S. from installing ISIS in place of the legitimate Syrian govt., something for which every American and every decent human being should be grateful. If our government had any statesmen they would be seeking gradual accommodation with Iran rather than escalation. But then, there are no statesmen buying Congress.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    It is difficult to pass judgments on the motives of people we don’t know and probably would not understand if we had known them for decades. Iranian Muslims have a long record of hating the Sunni and regarding them as worse than unbelievers. Iranian politicos, as leaders of the leading Shia power, foment trouble everywhere from Afghanistan to Egypt. US support for the rebels against Assad was particularly stupid and disruptive but that in no way gives legitimacy to Iran’s attempt to take over the Middle East. There are no nice people there, not the Saudis, not the Iraqi, not Iranians, not Israel. If we insist on playing games in that part of the world, we have no excuse for failure. We must play to win. That is what a world power does. There is nothing noble or honorable in the conduct of the Iranian leadership. To pretend otherwise could be highly misleading. If I had any influence, we should never have bogged ourselves down with a burdensome alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia, never invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, but Carter should have punished the Iranians for the seizure of diplomatic hostages and for their ingratitude: Without our acquiescence, the loonies would never have taken over their country. The history of empires–of Rome and Britain in particular–teach us that great power cannot afford to permit robber bands and thug nations to offend their majesty. A civilized nation would imitate the comparative restraint shown by Aurelian, when he conquered the Kingdom of Palmyra which had revolted from Rome. The US is not a civilized nation, and we cannot expect too much from the thugs who claim to rule in our name.

    As I have said, I don’t approve of our policy in the Middle East or of our military adventures. I strenuously opposed them. The argument I have been making was not designed to justify American aggression but to point out the bad logic and bad faith of those who, for example, supported the killing of Osama but are horrified by the killing of Soleimani, who justified the deliberate targeting of civilians in Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, and dozens of other places, but are repelled by surgical strike against an enemy commander. I might have this series, “Sauce for the Gander.”