there a morality that
can avoid war?
January 17, 2003
LONDON - For the moment the great debate about going to
war with Iraq is cast almost exclusively in the dark
shades of realpolitik- will it achieve its objective and
disarm Iraq once and for all? Will it lead to the
introduction of a pro Western democratic regime? Will it
open the way for a realignment of dictatorial Arab
regimes that tolerate, even encourage, anti-American
feeling? But the morality of war is given very short
This week Pope John Paul 11 spoke out, saying war in
Iraq "would be a defeat for humanity". Many people, of
many different cultures and persuasions often tack to a
common standard when it comes to the making of war- at
least in principle. Buddhist teaching asks, "Hurt not
others in ways that you yourself would find hateful".
Confucianism asks, "Do not to others what you would have
them do to you." Hindu teaching says, "This is the sum of
duty: do not to others what would cause you pain if done
to you." Islam, which evolved from a warrior religion to,
until recently, one of the most pacific of religions,
preaches, "No one of you is a believer until he desires
for his brother that which he desires for himself".
Judaism, although it is known for its precept of an "eye
for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" also talks of "what
is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow men".
All these admonishments have been pulled part and
broken to pieces by the adherents of all religions. The
most bellicose of the great faiths is Christianity whose
European followers were nearly always at war until
finally they were awoken from their folly by the two
biggest wars of all time and created in the aftermath the
European Union to bind them together. Christ's teaching
rejecting an eye for an eye and asking us to "turn the
other cheek" has rarely been taken at face value.
What is perhaps extraordinary is that occasionally
someone who has been steeped in realpolitik and some of
its most bloody compromises should emerge as a spokesman
for moral principles being applied to the making of war.
I am thinking of Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of
Defence under presidents Kennedy and Johnson and was
responsible for many of the decisions that led to the
prolongation of the terrible war in Vietnam. One of his
closest friends told me, "he bleeds inside for deeds done
in Vietnam". I am sure he does but perhaps no other high
official who has commanded a war machine has done more to
raise the level of the moral debate. One after the other,
over the years, his articles and books have given us
insights that have shown that it is possible to be
concerned with the security of one's country without the
reflex of always preparing for war.
McNamara is convinced there is a way to achieve a
radical reduction in the killing of human beings if we
think morally, rationally and with empathy towards those
we are in conflict with. "Might war- especially Great
Power war- be relegated, perhaps like slavery, to a cruel
and primitive past?"
This is the total opposite of the way the great
scholars of realpolitik and "realism" have argued it,
such men as Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer.
Mearsheimer is convinced that "there have been no
fundamental changes in the nature of international
politics since World War 2
between sovereign states will remain the distinguishing
feature of international politics."
But are these "realists" in fact unreal in their
analysis of our world? Perhaps they are blind to the
danger of trying to intimidate, humiliate or coerce a
nation whose self-image is that of an important power? We
may intimidate them to do what we want in the short run
but the memories of the humiliated tend to be long ones.
McNamara is convinced that current U.S. policy which sees
China and sometimes Russia as aspiring to challenge and
defeat the U.S. as perverse. "It creates enemies where
there need not be enemies and it leads to missed
opportunities for sustainable peace that may never come
It was the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin who
wrote that in addition to knowing the mind of an
adversary we need empathy to grasp "the particular vision
of the universe which lies at the heart of his thought".
McNamara, who sat at Kennedy's right hand during the
Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the U.S. and the
Soviet Union came their closest to nuclear war, believes
only Kennedy's empathy of what was going on in
Khrushchev's mind saved the world from catastrophe.
We need this empathy with Saddam Hussein and Kim
Jong-il today. The U.S. needs to talk to these men face
to face at the highest level and see what it is that
makes them feel so threatened that they lash out at all
around them. It won't solve every problem, but it might
avoid the recourse to a murderous and unnecessary
I can be reached by phone +44
7785 351172 and e-mail: JonatPower@aol.com
Copyright © 2003 By
link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book
written for the
40th Anniversary of
Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty
Tell a friend about this article
Message and your name