An Unjustified War

“War is hell,” and war is our permanent reality.  War has been the companion of man since the beginning of recorded history, together with the need to justify waging it.  Centuries before jus ad bellum was imperfectly codified in late-medieval Europe, the desire to make one’s cause seem righteous had become a regular companion of campaign planning.  An unjust war was deemed dishonorable to Rome, making republican senators feel justified in punishing those who waged one—if the effort was not crowned by victory.  Only rarely would the mask be discarded to reveal the realist essence: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

In modern times that essence remains unaltered, but the rhetoric has been adjusted to the need to create domestic consensus for the bloodletting.  At its crudest we have the “Polish attack” on the German radio station at Gleiwitz, in Silesia, on the night of August 31, 1939; or Stalin’s claim that Finland had plotted an attack on the Soviet Union in the winter of 1939-40.  At a higher level of sophistication was Berlin’s blank check to Vienna—issued on July 5, 1914—to smash Serbia as a means of provoking the preventive European war against France and Russia that Wilhelmine Germany’s leaders had deemed necessary and winnable.  At the highest...

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