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Several days ago the Syrian government began assembling “Chemical” weapons,

War
Several days ago the Syrian government began assembling “Chemical” weapons, which it was suspected would be used against that nation’s anti-government force, and presumably any innocent civilian bystanders. The United States Government stated that this action would “…cross a red line,” possibly forcing the direct involvement of the US into the situation. My question is; what does the “Chemical” part of it have to do with anything. How is dropping a 500 pound high explosive bomb on a school yard any more or less horrific than dropping a chemical weapon? The kids in the playground aren’t going know the difference. Does it really matter the “way” in which people are slaughtered, maimed, and terrorized in order to provoke and defend an intervention on those people’s behalf? It all seems a little disingenuous to me to tell somebody it’s OK to hit somebody else in the head with a wooden stick, but NOT OK to hit them in the head with an iron bar…. Is it possible that the 500 pounder is seen as more humane? If...

Very compelling question. I see your point, but will try my best in response. Probably a panelist should reply who has more first-hand experience in this area (I have not yet killed anyone with chemical agents, wooden sticks, iron bars, and such), but I suspect that what makes some weapons such as chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of special concern is that they are both more difficult to control (and hence more likely than conventional weapons for indiscriminate damage / harm) and they are part of a family of weapons that puts one on a slippery slope. So, for example, if North Korea launched a preemptive strike against the South, and the USA and South Korea in response used a small, contained nuclear bomb launched with great precision against the invaders and avoided any civilian casualties, this would open the door for the North to use a not-so-small nuclear weapon, perhaps going after civilian as well as military targets. There is another reason that may come into play: as odd as it may sound, I think there is a long-standing, sound tradition about honorable and dishonorable ways of fighting. The oldest poem in the west, the Iliad, records a repudiation of Odysseus who wanted to put poison on his arrows: this was deemed unfitting or wrong. In an important essay on war and massacre published during the Viet Nam War, Thomas Nagel argued (I believe cogently) that there are certain ways of killing that are permissible in a just war, and certain ways that are not. He singled out flamethrowers as especially heinous. I share Nagel's position here. Whether in a case of legitimate lethal force against an individual in self-defense, or use in a war against an invading, military force, I think there are right and wrong weapons and ways of killing. So, I think it was not good that, for example, some USA soldiers in the Viet Nam War smeared their bullets in human feces. This served no military purpose and reflected a demeaning attitude toward the "enemy." (I might add, though, that I thought at the time, and still think, the war was unjust --I was a Conscientious Objector in that era, despite having two brothers who served in Viet Nam in the army.) Perhaps the reason for seeing the use of chemical weapons as a "red line" is because they are deemed inhumane.

But your main point is well taken. It does seem irrelevant whether one kills with a stick or bar; moreover the mere fact that a bomb is chemical rather than conventional is hardly consoling to someone killed on a playground (using your example). I believe that chemical weapons were actually first invented with the intention of creating weapons that would be more humane than not. And if we could come up with a non-lethal chemical weapon that would, say, make an invading army listless and bored and yet enchanted with non-violent, pacifism and the weapon would have no harmful long-term effects, this sort of thing may be hard to resist. Still, in today's world, we are dealing with lethal forces, and I suggest we should make some prohibitions. So, imagine that someone unjustly threatens me with lethal force, and the only way I can escape him killing me is by killing the aggressor, but there are two weapons I could use with equal effectiveness in self-defense: an iron bar which could be used to bring about almost instant death with minimal pain or injecting the assailant with ProStrength Drano Max Gel (resulting in internal bleeding and the person suffering a profoundly painful death), I should use the former.

Very compelling question. I see your point, but will try my best in response. Probably a panelist should reply who has more first-hand experience in this area (I have not yet killed anyone with chemical agents, wooden sticks, iron bars, and such), but I suspect that what makes some weapons such as chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of special concern is that they are both more difficult to control (and hence more likely than conventional weapons for indiscriminate damage / harm) and they are part of a family of weapons that puts one on a slippery slope. So, for example, if North Korea launched a preemptive strike against the South, and the USA and South Korea in response used a small, contained nuclear bomb launched with great precision against the invaders and avoided any civilian casualties, this would open the door for the North to use a not-so-small nuclear weapon, perhaps going after civilian as well as military targets. There is another reason that may come into play: as odd as it may...

Is war inevitable? Since war, like murder, has been historically unavoidable, is

War
Is war inevitable? Since war, like murder, has been historically unavoidable, is war something to be accepted, anticipated, and dealt with as a fact of human nature? Or is war is becoming less frequent and less destructive globally, suggesting it is more natural to cooperate than fight for self-interest. I distinguish between local ad hoc conflict between individuals (you took my sandwich) and small groups (y'all took our sandwiches), not under consideration here. I am talking about extended, global, fatal combat between states and beliefs. A second question inevitably follows: does the development of military power inhibit war or invite it? I suppose your answer will clarify when war is war and when it is not quite war.

An excellent question! You are right to distinguish individual conflict from war. War seems to involve impersonal collaborative lethal conflict, though sometimes the definition of war is stretched to include a state of affairs when two communities (nation-states, cities, empires, tribes...) have declared war and so there might be a war even if the two or more sides never get around to do any actual killing. In any case, you are correct that war is not merely (though perhaps the word "merely" is not the best to use!) a matter of individual stealing or murder. Insofar as your question is more empirical than philosophical, it seems that one can make a pretty good historical argument that war is virtually inevitable. The latest thinking is that warfare probably came about approximately when we developed agriculture (on the theory that hunters and gatherers may fight as groups, but there was not quite the pressure to protect land in the absence of farms and (with surplus agriculture) you can get cities and have armies and have more motives to attack others or defend yourself. I believe (though I may be off a century or two) that the current, best attested case of when there was probably a war was 12,000BCE (that is, this is the oldest date of when there is evidence of the oldest war). There is a mass grave (cemetery 117) in Egypt in which there are 59 bodies of both genders, all ages, and all with signs of wounds which would probably be fatal. The thesis is that the most likely explanation is a mass attack by a hostile group (and thus this is not a case of individual struggle). So, empirically it seems we have had war for 14,000 years of human history, and this is likely to continue without some kind of radical change. From time to time, we have thought that conditions have changed that would make war less likely (better and better communication, better weapons making war too costly, more trade with would-be enemies) but so far, it seems difficult to be optimistic about the end of war.

However, if you bring in a little philosophy, things might look a bit different. Some philosophies of nature (going back at least to Empedocles in the 5th century BCE) have seen human conflict as stemming from a deep conflict within the natural world itself (Empedocles wrote of the conflict between love and strife). But there are other philosophies of nature and humanity that sees the natural world (and human history) as intended for something better. Certainly, in some of the great world religions there have been claims that we human beings were made to love and care for one another and through radical compassion, we can (perhaps with God's help or grace or luck) live in a world of peace. Check out prophetic visions like Isaiah 65;17-25 (Hebrew Bible / Christian Old Testament). There is also a tradition of cosmopolitanism in philosophy, with ancient roots, but represented today (e.g. by Martha Nuusbaum) that seeks to reduce or eliminate mass violence. Perhaps the greatest modern philosopher to push for this was Kant. Check out his work on history from a cosmopolitan point of view. I believe President Wilson got the idea (ideal?) of there being a League of Nations from reading Kant. OK, the League did not work out, but it seems the UN has been doing better, and perhaps a contemporary cosmopolitan might hope a stronger UN is the answer.

You asked a specific question I have glided over: "Does the development of military power inhibit war or invite it?" I believe sometimes it does one, sometimes the other. It seems likely that having a standing army brought down the Roman Republic and caused a bloody civil war, but it also seems like the USA's military power prevented the cold war with the USSR from going hot (slang for overt, direct violence, as opposed to fighting through proxy parties, etc). You have presented your fascinating question to philosophy panelists, not military generals, so forgive me if I try a more philosophical reply in closing. I suggest that the more a culture cultivates the ideal of a warrior as hero, and perhaps as the culture's greatest hero for, after all, the warrior is prepared to pay the ultimate price for his or her community, then the more likely it is that we will use our warriors (whether in war or black ops). Please don't get me wrong here: I think that the military is and certainly can be an honorable calling / vocation, and there are soldier heroes. But there are also heroic fire fighters, police, doctors and nurses, teachers, scientists, artists, civil rights workers, farmers, miners, cab drivers.... I think that one way we might inhibit the attractiveness of going to war (and there is evidence that many Europeans, including the youth, welcomed the outbreak of what we call world war I) is by seeing the virtues and greatness of a warrior alongside of other great vocations, including the vocation to do philosophy and try to love wisdom.

Sorry the reply is so long, but your question(s) are fascinating and important. I might add one more observation, though this is more about British and American culture rather than global. I believe that so-called "liberals" tend to think war is avoidable and so-called "conservatives" tend to think war is inevitable. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, I suggest. If you think something is inevitable (racism, say) you may be less aggressive in trying to eradicate it. But if you think something can be solved easily, you can wind up living on false hopes and be utterly unprepared to reply to aggression. So perhaps we should aim for a middle path?

Good wishes in further reflection on this...

An excellent question! You are right to distinguish individual conflict from war. War seems to involve impersonal collaborative lethal conflict, though sometimes the definition of war is stretched to include a state of affairs when two communities (nation-states, cities, empires, tribes...) have declared war and so there might be a war even if the two or more sides never get around to do any actual killing. In any case, you are correct that war is not merely (though perhaps the word "merely" is not the best to use!) a matter of individual stealing or murder. Insofar as your question is more empirical than philosophical, it seems that one can make a pretty good historical argument that war is virtually inevitable. The latest thinking is that warfare probably came about approximately when we developed agriculture (on the theory that hunters and gatherers may fight as groups, but there was not quite the pressure to protect land in the absence of farms and (with surplus agriculture) you can get cities...

I've noticed that Western media – and perhaps society as a whole – pay far

War
I've noticed that Western media – and perhaps society as a whole – pay far greater attention to civilian deaths (and coalition deaths) than to the deaths of enemy military personnel. The best current example of this is Libya – when civilian deaths due to NATO's campaign are suspected, this is heavily reported. But it is hard to get any sense of how many of Gaddafi's soldiers have been killed by NATO. From the point of view of the media (and NATO) these numbers don't seem to matter. The neglect of loss of military life (on both sides) seems to me indefensible. If Gaddafi's soldiers were entering the conflict of their own free will then we may try to argue (incorrectly, in my view) that their deaths have less moral significance than the deaths of civilians. However, it is likely that many of Gaddafi's soldiers are not in the conflict of their own free will, because defection is punishable by death. My question is this: shouldn't philosophers fight as hard for the rights of military personnel (whichever...

You make very good points! HIstorically, philosophers have been concerned about the status, importance, and duties of soldiers. Aristotle has a very high view of the warrior (and this perhaps makes quite good sense when one notes that he was a tutor of Alexander the Great) and Socrates was very concerned about not punishing (executing) members of Athens' navy who neglected to rescue sailers. Actually, Socrates' interest in soldiers is especially to be appreciated when one takes into account that he himself was a veteran (and, more specifically, a veteran of a defeated army). While there is a long tradition of philosophers reflecting on the ethics and practice of war, probably the topic was most heated recently in the 1960s and 70s during the Viet Nam War and during the Cold War. Today war seems a little less the topic of choice today (compared with the 1960s), though it is not neglected and it is not unusual to see work on international justice, nationalism, global justice, and genocide. I feel sure you are right, however, that soldiers can also serve under coercive conditions (without a real choice) and that non-lethal weapons are preferable to lethal ones for all sorts of reasons.

You make very good points! HIstorically, philosophers have been concerned about the status, importance, and duties of soldiers. Aristotle has a very high view of the warrior (and this perhaps makes quite good sense when one notes that he was a tutor of Alexander the Great) and Socrates was very concerned about not punishing (executing) members of Athens' navy who neglected to rescue sailers. Actually, Socrates' interest in soldiers is especially to be appreciated when one takes into account that he himself was a veteran (and, more specifically, a veteran of a defeated army). While there is a long tradition of philosophers reflecting on the ethics and practice of war, probably the topic was most heated recently in the 1960s and 70s during the Viet Nam War and during the Cold War. Today war seems a little less the topic of choice today (compared with the 1960s), though it is not neglected and it is not unusual to see work on international justice, nationalism, global justice, and genocide. I feel sure...