War is bad.
That should be a pretty non-controversial statement (depending on who you are, that is), I’d like to think.
However, if you’ve stuck around this long in reading through my various ramblings, you should know by now that I believe war is a constant factor that isn’t going away, and something a leftist government will have to contend with whether leftist adherents like it or not. Just because something is bad, doesn’t mean you can avoid having to deal with it.
So, as I continue to repeat that over and over throughout these pieces, that raises the question: under what circumstances should a theoretical leftist government go to war?
I began broaching that topic when I discussed how being anti-war does not mean you should not fight back against an aggressor, putting that against the backdrop of the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. I didn’t have a chance to go into greater detail on that at the time as I was simply trying to drive that point home, but now I’d like to take the time and energy to examine that in greater detail as we consider what would be the “good” war under a leftist administration.
I should probably point out right away that “good” war is purely relative and put in comparison to wars of empire, conquest, aggression and so on. There is no “good” war per say when it comes to war in general, as war is horrifying and bloody and destructive. But here we’re talking more about intent, necessity, ultimate objective and so on.
I should also point out that this isn’t an original line of thought by any means. I’m far from the first to consider these questions. There’s a whole school of thought based around “just war” theory, dating back to the writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Seeing that there are volumes you could read on that theory, I’m not going to waste time and words going into an in-depth explanation of it. But know that while what follows are largely my own thoughts, they are also informed by the parts of just war theory that I know and understand, seen through a window of leftist thinking, with a splash of common sense and decency mixed in for good measure.
The Defensive War/ War of Liberation
As I touched upon in my explanation of the “Don’t Start None, Won’t Be None” Doctrine – alternatively, the “Fuck Around and Find Out” Doctrine if you’re so inclined – my assertion was that the only real large-scale war that a leftist government should become involved in is a war of defense and/or war of liberation. This would be a war involving either a country defending itself directly from an aggressor, or a country protecting or liberating a like-minded ally from an aggressor after it has been defeated and is being subjugated
With that idea recapped though, what would that look like in practice? How would such a war be carried out? Luckily for you I have an example. Unfortunately, that example is the 1990/1991 Persian Gulf War.
Yes, I know this is a potentially problematic example for a whole host of reasons. But please, bear with me on this one, ok? I swear there’s a good point at the end of this and I have a lot of caveats and context to go along with this. We’ll get there. Stick with me.
Let’s disregard the main reasons why the United states and the U.N. coalition went to the defense of Saudi Arabia and then liberated Kuwait (COUGH-OIL-COUGH) and focus on the overall operational execution of the Gulf War , because that’s the key part to understanding the utility of this example. Kuwait was invaded and annexed by Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein in August of 1990. The United Nations condemned this act and the United States and a U.N. coalition deployed military forces to protect Saudi Arabia from attack when it looked as if Saddam may have his sights on that country as his next target. Eventually, the U.N. authorized its member states to remove Saddam’s military from Kuwait by force – which they did in early 1991 following five weeks of sustained airstrikes and a short ground campaign.
It is especially important to note that the Coalition plan to liberate Kuwait and push back Iraq didn’t involve invading Iraq to topple its government. While Coalition Forces did invade part of Iraq itself, they did so temporarily in order to outmaneuver Iraqi forces in Kuwait and neutralize them as a threat against Iraq’s neighbors in the future. Coalition forces were never authorized nor intended to continue the invasion and depose Saddam’s regime wholesale. Admittedly, President George H.W. Bush did later make a half-hearted attempt to promote the overthrow of Saddam by the Iraqi people, though certain decisions by U.S. commanders allowed Iraq to put down a widespread uprising against Saddam (ultimately, H.W.’s son George W. Bush and others finished the job years later under false pretenses). But at the end of the day, the goal of Operation Desert Storm was never to invade, overthrow, and occupy a nation.
This execution of the Gulf War is what makes it stand out as how a “best case” leftist war of defense and liberation could be conceptualized operationally. Obviously, in the case of a leftist United States or coalition, such a war would clearly A.) not be undertaken for oil and business interests; B.) not be done to assist and authoritarian absolute monarchies; and C.) try not to commit any gruesome war crimes in the process. In the case of a theoretical leftist government following this model, we would (hopefully) be going to war for better reasons and carry it out in a better way.
Though the aims would be different under a leftist government, the execution of such a war would likely be in much the same fashion as it was done in 1990/1991: to defend or liberate an ally from an aggressor and ensure that the aggressor was unable to further threaten them in the future – while stopping short of full-on counter-invasion and regime change that would inevitably end in a bloody and prolonged occupation and counter-insurgency campaign and a betrayal of the very values we claim to uphold in the first place. We would have a clear and (hopefully) righteous goal in mind, clear limits placed on how far we would go, and would aim to do it all as quickly and efficiently as possible while minimizing the bloodshed necessary and the suffering of innocent people – among other things.
Make no mistake, it would still be war. Just as I said there is no such thing as a truly “good” war, there is no such thing as a “clean” war either. Wars are bloody and destructive. Lives will be lost, damage will be done, and scars will remain. No matter how good the intent, there is no war that will be free of innocents lost, or wrongs inflicted. But the most we can hope for in the cases where we have an obligation and a duty to take up arms is do our best to minimize those incidents to the greatest extent possible, while going to war for a just purpose in line with the principles we believe in.
The Lesser Included Cases
Now, the defensive war/war of liberation is the main case I can think of in terms of what the “good” war looks like for a hypothetical leftist country, in terms of a major conventional war between states. However, it is almost certainly not the only type of war we could potentially get involved in. There are many other scenarios where the use of military force could be applied or even should be applied in the name of upholding leftist principles and international solidarity, though maybe not at the same intensity or scale of a major regional conflict.
The most obvious example I can think of here is military intervention for humanitarian purposes. This covers a potentially wide umbrella of reasons, but there are a couple obvious ones that stand out: intervention to stop a genocide or some other form of wholesale slaughter of innocents, and intervention to ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies or aid to an affected population.
Here we again have precedents from the immediate post-Cold War era, when the United States did a few things that were kind of sort of good with its hyperpower status before getting on a superhighway to the suck. The United States, U.N. and NATO intervened in Bosnia in 1992 in order to stop the ongoing genocide there. While Bosnia still has systemic issues that need addressing today, the intervention at least stopped the violence, and did so while avoiding being dragged into a protracted conflict and without a single U.S. soldier being killed in combat.
For those who would still feel unsure about the use of military power in these instances, even under a leftist government, I would draw attention to all the instances in history – some fairly recent – where intervention may have saved countless lives. An obvious example is if the UN and the West had conducted a true intervention in Rwanda in 1994, the horrific genocide that occurred there may have been stopped. While I can understand the hesitance that some leftists may feel about the application of force, I still fully believe intervening to stop wholesale mass murder and ethnic cleansing really shouldn’t be a controversial use of military power.
Likewise, I feel intervening to ensure that essential supplies get to a deprived population should also be pretty uncontroversial. The United States – later assisted by the U.N. – intervened in Somalia in late 1992 to create a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Eventually, however, mission creep set in. Lacking a clear agenda, both the U.N. and United States both attempted to engage in nation building while a multi-faceted civil war still raged throughout the country, culminating in the death of eighteen American soldiers in the now infamous Battle of Mogadishu – made known by the book and movie Black Hawk Down. It can be argued whether the mission creep that set in for the U.N. mission was avoidable or not, but the point was the intervention in an attempt to stop starvation and deprivation of innocent civilians in Somalia was a just one and probably still the right thing to do in the first place.
Less controversial still should be the concept of peacekeeping. Sending in troops who have been invited in to enforce an agreed upon peace settlement and ensure that further conflict does not re-ignite between formerly warring parties – and be armed and enabled to stop it if conflict does re-emerge – seems like a good and just thing. U.N. peacekeeping forces deployed to Cote d’Ivoire from 2004 on to keep the peace following a prior civil war were able to intervene when violence was sparked during the 2010-2011 election crisis and launched offensive actions to protect civilians and eventually assist in bringing an end to the violence, finally withdrawing in 2017.
There are almost certainly instances I’m not thinking of. This is part of war, in that you can never accurately predict all the possible ways in which you may end up going to war or otherwise have to make use of military power. But just be listing off a few in addition to the main case I described earlier should demonstrate there are many other reasons why a leftist government could and arguably should use military force in the interest of doing the right thing, and why maintaining the forces needed is necessary even under a leftist government.
As Good as it Gets (no, not the Jack Nicholson movie)
I said it at the onset of this essay and I’ll say it again: war is bad. There is no truly, unambiguously “good” or “clean” war and there never will be. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The instances I’ve described in this essay of where a hypothetical leftist government gets involved in a military conflict? The “good” in all of these is very much relative. They are, essentially, as “good” as you’re going to get when it comes to a war being fought for the right reasons. They are as “good” as you’re going to get for a phenomenon that while terrible, is something that is not going away and will remain a constant in our existence.
War will never be fully “good” or “clean”. In fact, wars have a tendency of often being longer, bloodier, and more destructive than anyone predicts that they should be – the big instances of short, highly successful conflicts are more often outliers when you look at the long and bloody annals of military history. If there are alternatives to war via negotiation and compromise, they should always at least be explored before differences comes to blows. While one shouldn’t sacrifice everything to avoid a war, a government owes it to its people to attempt due diligence to see if there is any feasible away to avoid a conflict before the first shots are fired.
That being said, war often can be unavoidable. Sometimes nothing you can offer an aggressor will be enough to dissuade them from attacking you – especially if their idea of winning revolves around your country – or you yourself – not existing anymore. Sometimes all aggressors want is a reason – however flimsy – to justify their aggression while hiding their true goals. Austria-Hungary handed Serbia a list of demands that the small country couldn’t possibly agree to in the Summer of 1914, the Austrians knowing full well that it would give them a reason to declare war on and invade and annex Serbia – further moving along the chain of events that resulted in the outbreak of World War I.
The point here is that war will sometimes be forced upon you, or upon other innocents who may not be able to fully defend themselves on their own. Sometimes the impetus to act will fall upon you, because no one else can or will stand up for those who are in danger. In these situations, despite the natural anti-war sentiment of the left that is good and just to have, leftists may find themselves having to take up arms despite the inherent badness of modern warfare.
Why do leftists need to do this? For the same reasons that they feel a need to engage in any act of mutual aid or direct action in service of a cause that they believe is right and just. Because even if there is no “good” war, helping people who stand to lose not only their freedom but their very right to existence to an aggressor is the right thing to do. And while it may seem like an empty platitude, this is still true: doing the right thing is never easy.