April 1, 2011
It’s Just War:
Can War Be Just?
What justifies war has been debated for centuries. Usually, and especially in the United States, a “just” war is a moral war. Principles to measure the morality of our military actions and motives are defined in a universal philosophy called Just War Theory. This theory has acted as a guide to justify the purpose of violent force between feuding nations. A just war, defined by this theory, “is morally justifiable after justice, human rights, common good, and all other relevant moral concepts have been consulted and weighed against each other.” (Humanities notes) In considering war as a legitimate form of resolving conflict, the just war principles enable us to translate the atrocities of war on a moral scale comprehensible to an everyday man. In “normal” society people live according to moral values, war should not be an exception. With the United States as the biggest advocate for fighting with an ethical purpose we can use just war theory to determine the legitimacy of many American wars. One example in which just war theory can be used to highlight unethical practices of war is seen through U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
First, in order to evaluate American military response throughout the Vietnam War we must consider the traditional American attitude toward war. Historically U.S. involvement in any war has always contained some type of moral bearing. A feeling of duty to save the world from any threats to our democratic principles generally provokes public support. This is also known as American Exceptionalism. We also follow a pattern of Wilsonian liberalism, in which it is our job to “make the world safe for democracy.” Although nearly every war in the past has contained a self-serving purpose it was not until Vietnam when these ulterior motives would be made public. In perspective, with the consequences of Vietnam already known, we can better assess if the Vietnam War is considered a just war on the basis of just war principles.
Following the policy of containment America entered Vietnam in the 1950’s. U.S. involvement later escalated under President Kennedy and President Johnson in the 1960’s until the fall of Saigon in 1975 under President Nixon. To the American public we entered Vietnam with intention to make the world safe from a communist takeover, to free the oppressed people of South Vietnam from the North Vietcong. In his letter to Diem, Eisenhower describes our position in Vietnam as a “humanitarian effort.” (Eisenhower 1) Our involvement in Vietnam can be considered a preemptive strike against communism. “There is nothing in South Vietnam which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America,” stated Vietnam veterans in a testimony to congress in 1971. (Kerry 1) According to the just war theory any preemptive, as well as preventive, strike is considered unjust. On this basis alone our involvement in Vietnam already defies a “just” war.
The just war theory contains two sets of rules. The first is Jus Ad Bellem or justice before war, which states justifiable reasons for wagging war. Jus In Bella or justice in war is the second set of principles. It governs the moral military practices and conduct during war.
The first principle of jus ad bellem states that war can only be waged by a competent authority. When taking into account the lack of knowledge that resided throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, one can argue that the president and his men cannot be considered competent authorities. McCarthyism and his “list” took effect in the late 1940’s and 50’s in which state officials, most of whom were experts on Asia, were purged and left Washington with little expertise on the area and therefore how to properly approach the Vietnam issue. Failing to understand the indigenous problem, American’s viewed Vietnam as a threat to the world order rather than for what it really was, a civil war. During a testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee in April of 1971, John Kerry addresses Vietnam veterans’ grievances about the war. In this testimony veterans explain how “most [Vietnamese] didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy…they wanted…to [be left] alone in peace.” (Kerry 1-2) (Johnson American Policy 1)
American arrogance led us to believe we did not need to understand the Vietnamese. In George C. Herring’s article “People’s Quite Apart,” he discusses how our failure to consult with the South Vietnamese and our tendency to overlook the cultural significance of this war contributed greatly to our defeat in Vietnam. This can be seen in our support of Diem, who was not popular amongst the Vietnamese people and contained no nationalistic credentials. Along with a lack of background knowledge, the Kennedy and Johnson administration both viewed communist as a monolithic threat coming from Moscow. In a statement on American Policy in Vietnam, Johnson describes the situation as “the deepening shadow of communist China.” (Johnson American Policy 1) Until Nixon took office this monolithic approach severely damaged the war effort.
Also hindering our ability to be successful in Vietnam were our intentions for fighting. The second and third principles of jus ad bellum state, “the use of force in war must be directed to an identifiable political result” and “must be fought for right intentions.” (Humanities notes) This means that one should wage war not out of hate or personal gain, but rather because they believe is will bring about a more peaceful result. President Johnson during his Gulf of Tonkin speech stated that America had “no military, political, or territorial ambitions in” Vietnam. (Johnson Gulf of Tonkin 1) However, our initial entry into Vietnam was to save the South from a political ideology. Critiques of the Kennedy administration have suggested that our involvement in Vietnam escalated as a way of recovering from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which was a failed attempt at sending Cuban revolutionary refugees back into Cuba in hopes of overthrowing Fidel Castro. This reason to wage war is not justifiable according to the principles of Jus Ad Bellum. “No political figure…was prepared to risk the fate that had befallen Harry Truman…for the loss of China,” states Herring in his assessment of McNamara’s memoire. (Herring 28) Although not ours to loose, no president wanted to be perceived as weak against communist aggression. “National pride” is not justifiable under just war theory. (Herring 29) “Pride [allowed] the most unimportant battles to be blown into extravaganzas.” (Kerry 2) To fight in Vietnam for the purpose of “saving face” is neither a just cause nor an attempt to bring about a genuine political or peaceful result.
In wake of the Pentagon Papers scandal it was revealed that Assistant Secretary of Defense stated to Secretary McNamara that we were “in Vietnam 10% to help the South Vietnamese, 20% to hold back the Chinese, and 70% to save face.” (The Most Dangerous Man in America)
When Daniel Elisberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in March of 1971, it was discovered that many high officials believed our involvement in Vietnam was a breach from American Wilsonian principles. The same liberal ideals that encouraged many Americans to initially support the war. And the same ideals that are supported under just war theory. “Our primary purpose,” said President Kennedy in a letter to Diem in 1962, “is to help [the South Vietnamese] to maintain their independence.” (Kennedy 1) By 1971 veterans described how “America [lost] her sense of morality” by the way we “rationalized destroying villages in order save them.” (Kerry 2)
Principle number four argues that, “the moral use of military force requires a just cause.” Although containment may have been the grounds for initially entering Vietnam our continued fighting in later years would not be for a “just cause.” “A just cause” is defined as a moral issue. McNamara’s study he initiated, which would later become the Pentagon Papers, revealed that Truman and Eisenhower both supported French colonization in Vietnam. Truman financially supported the French in the fight against Vietnamese nationalist, while Eisenhower later supported brutal dictatorships and canceled elections. These actions go against American democracy and are therefore immoral. In his review of McNamara’s memoire, Herring discusses McNamara’s disillusionment with our actions in Vietnam. McNamara states that the U.S. entered the war with “sparse knowledge, scant experience, and simplistic assumptions.” (Herring 27) Assumptions are not valid reasons for waging war under this principle.
The final principle of jus ad bellum is “the rule of proportionality.” This rule states, “if the just cause might be achieved by other means that has not been attempted, then war for that just cause is not just war.” (Humanities notes) Herring states that McNamara admitted to not “asking questions” and “readily dismissed alternatives.” (Herring 27) There was also no public debate on the decision for war. The basis for the rule of proportionality is that “the waging of war should not bring more harm then good.” (Humanities notes) The consequences of the Vietnam War proved to be disastrous. It left Americas divided and disillusioned, while also destroying Vietnamese land and killing millions people (mostly Vietnamese). (Herring 27)
Our constant air attacks and bombing raids of civilian territory in Vietnam greatly defies just war theory rule jus in bello. U.S. military strategy in Vietnam consisted mainly of bombing acres of land, and therefore obliterating Vietnamese civilian livelihood and property. Principle number one of jus in bello, the “principle of necessity,” prohibits “the destruction of life and property, even enemy life and property.” This is “inherently bad…therefore one should cause no more destruction than is strictly necessary.” American veterans admitted to shooting “cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stock and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.” (Kerry 1)
The military principle of proportionality is the next principle of jus in bello. Similar to the first principle, it states, “the amount of destruction permitted…must be proportionate to the importance of the objective.” Our objective began as a humanitarian effort to free the South Vietnamese, so that their country could gain the freedom and independence needed to begin a successful democracy. However, in tapes released from the Pentagon during the Watergate scandal Nixon is recorded saying that American should use it’s “maximum power…against this shit-ass little country,” in order to win the war. (The Most Dangerous Man in America) Referring to Vietnam, Nixon and even Johnson before him never took Vietnamese lives into account. Judging from the number of lives destroyed from American bombing campaigns, the immediate losses are not proportionate to the negative outcome of the war.
The final jus in bello principle of noncombatant immunity argues, “civilian life and property should not be subjected to military force.” Accidental killings of civilians is however, excused. Bombing campaigns like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and Operation Rolling Thunder made clear that the lack of concern for Vietnamese life. Vietnam was “ravaged equally by American bombs…as well as by Viet Cong terrorism,” state Vietnam War veterans. (Kerry 2) America’s actions in Vietnam can be considered like terrorism, which is always wrong under just war theory. The treatment of the Vietnamese consisted of rape, random shooting of civilians, and an overall placement of “a cheapness on the lives of” Asians. (Kerry 2) The Geneva Convention stood as a series of treaties that provided the human treatment of soldiers and civilians. (The Geneva Convention 1) The United States became “more guilty than any other body of violations of those Geneva Conventions.” (Kerry 2)
America entered Vietnam following a popularly supported strategy of containment. Blindly the American government prolonged the war not in the name of freedom and democracy, but in fear of personal embarrassment and individual pride of three U.S. presidents. In debating the legitimacy of Vietnam it is fair to say that for the time period our intentions could be perceived as moral; however, after close examine American involvement in Vietnam was not only a mistake, but was unjust on the basis of just war theory. Our intelligence on the communist infiltration into South Vietnam from the North was incorrect and unplanned. The biggest question that needs to be focused on when approaching the Vietnam issue is whether or not war was the only means of establishing peace and protection against communist forces. Do we ever really consider anything else besides war to be as effective? Throughout the Vietnam War this question was never debated. This war would have been justified if our initial reasons for fighting continued to be the reasons we stayed in Vietnam for so long.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. Letter to Ngo Dihn Diem. 1954.
The Geneva Convention. 1949. www.pbs.org
Herring, George C. “The Wrong Kind of Loyalty: McNamara’s Apology for Vietnam.”
Johnson, Lyndon B. American Policy in Vietnam. 1965 April 7. Speech.
Johnson, Lyndon B. Tonkin Gulf Incident. 1964 August 5.
Kennedy, John F. Letter to Ngo Dihn Diem. 1961.
Kerry, John. Vietnam Veterans Against War Statement. 1971 April 23. Testimony to
the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Dir.
Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. First Run Features, 2009. DVD.