As the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war approaches, here is another passage from Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle that is worth pondering. He writes:

Wars enter their most dangerous territory not when they lose touch with chivalry but when they aim to remake the world.

That suggests a second lesson: great risks for the law of war arise when we commit ourselves to grand campaigns in the name of good government, campaigns for regime change….The curse of modern warfare, and of the modern law of war, is that…our wars have consistently ended up raising basic, revolutionary questions about the organization of society and the legitimacy of states. We want to go to war only when there is something foul or evil or aggressive about the regime we fight. In America in particular we want to fight only “good wars.” Most especially we want to fight good wars that begin in self-defense and end in the revolutionary cause of spreading democracy through the world. Yet “good wars” easily become bad wars. (p. 251-252)

One of the problems created by this sort of thinking is that it encourages us to keep expanding what we mean by self-defense. We saw this during the Iraq war debate, when preventive war was sold to the public as a pre-emptive act of self-defense. Despite the fact that the U.S. was illegally initiating hostilities when it attacked in 2003, it was apparently very important to the administration that the war be perceived as one waged in self-defense. Of course, wishing to fight only “good wars” doesn’t necessarily mean that a government fights fewer wars. It usually means that it dresses up the wars that it does fight as if they were justified especially when they often aren’t. Explicit ideological justifications for war create another danger, which is the tendency to argue that the ends justify the means. The main problem isn’t that war supporters are insincere in their desire for democracy promotion, though they might be, but that a war with ambitious ideological goals is one that is very difficult to bring to an end and even harder to “win” in any meaningful sense.

Though they are not often discussed these days, because they proved to be so wildly unrealistic, the ambitions of Iraq war supporters for what the war would and could achieve were exactly the sort that Whitman describes. The invasion was supposed to mark the beginning of broad and radical political transformation that would affect the entire region, Iraq itself was going to be remade into a reliably “pro-Western” state and regional “beacon of democracy” that would be friendly to Israel, and the successful toppling of Hussein would revive the moribund peace process (“the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad“). Obviously, none of this happened, but the promise that it might seduced many Americans into supporting a war that was obviously unnecessary as far as American security was concerned.

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