What Kind of a War Is This?

Training drill aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier deploying air strikes to Iraq and Syria (U.S. Navy)

French President François Hollande says that France is at war with ISIS. His lawyers will tell him that this isn’t a merely rhetorical statement; it has legal implications. It means that ISIS is a belligerent power, something like a state, and that captured ISIS fighters, if they haven’t murdered innocent people, should be treated as prisoners of war (not like the “illegal combatants” of Guantanamo). Indeed, ISIS controls territory, collects taxes, and provides services, so it has acquired the status of belligerent. A murderous belligerent, to be sure; hence Hollande’s war—and ours too. But this is a very peculiar war. Six or seven countries are involved in the bombing of military targets in Iraq and/or Syria—the United States and Russia, France and the UK, Turkey and several Arab countries—but there is only minimal coordination among them, nothing like a fully coherent strategy of attack. We are lucky that the Turkish-Russian encounter is, so far, the only military engagement of these insufficiently allied air forces.

The ground war is even more peculiar. The stateless Kurds are the best fighters against ISIS, while the Turks, with a much larger army, see the Kurds as their chief enemy, ISIS a distant second. The Iraqi army would rather not fight against anyone. Saudi Arabia, supposedly committed to the war, is the chief source of ISIS’s ideology and probably of its original funding. So there is a single enemy opposed by a radically heterogeneous non-alliance. This is not a war that can be won.

Is it a just war? Certainly ISIS is an enemy that one wants to defeat. But a war isn’t just—according to just war theory and international law—unless there is a reasonable prospect of success. And this peculiar war offers no such prospect. President Obama claims that the US is leading a “coalition,” but there is no effective coalition and, so far as I can tell, no agreed-upon end-in-view. Suppose that ISIS is defeated, what then? Are the Sunni Muslims in the caliphate to be returned to Shiite rule in Iraq and Alawite rule in Syria? That isn’t a prospect likely to inspire any of our Sunni allies. A just war must aim at a just ending, but this war is being fought without any likely end and without any vision of what a morally just end would look like. Without those two, I find it hard to defend the current air war—which may well kill more innocent people than ISIS fighters and produce more ISIS fighters than it kills.

It isn’t hard to imagine a just war against ISIS, with Sunni and Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and Syria as the end-in-view. Or, more ambitiously, with Sunni and Kurdish independence as the end-in-view. But it is very hard to figure out how to organize a war of that sort.

And what about the war at home, which isn’t a real war? The so-called “war on terror” is mostly police work, and the rules of engagement for the police are not the same as the army’s rules. This is a critical distinction, and we need to get it right. But there isn’t anything like the same critical literature on police work as there is on war. Just war theory has become a minor academic industry in the United States, the theory of just policing not yet. Because of Black Lives Matter, what the police can and can’t do is now a major issue in American politics and the subject of a lively debate, but the official codes of conduct for state and local police have not yet been subjected to close analysis.

Three things need to be said in anticipation of the analyses to come. First, the proportionality rule, which allows but limits collateral damage (a euphemism for the death or injury of innocent people), doesn’t apply to the police. They can’t fire into a crowd to stop a fleeing criminal and argue later on that this criminal was so important that the death of three bystanders was “not disproportionate” to the value of stopping him. The police are barred, except in extreme emergencies, from making calculations of that sort, which soldiers make all the time.

Second, though the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria needs an end-in-view, the “war on terror,” like the war on crime, has no visible end. There are possible victories, as when the police deal successfully with a crime wave. We can work in the same way toward a significant reduction in the likelihood of terror attacks. But the duration of the “war,” as distinct from the war, is indefinite. That’s why we shouldn’t treat captured terrorists as people who can be held “for the duration,” but as criminals who must be brought to trial.

Third, the police must operate within constraints set by our civil liberties, and we have to insist on those constraints even when we need, and seek, the protection of the police. That means no prisoners held outside the law, without charges and attorneys; no warrantless searches; no brutal interrogations; no harassment of recent immigrants; and no state of emergency that lasts three months. There are indeed emergencies, but over the long run, security has to be sought within the rule of law. Turning the police loose, like bombing without a strategy, will produce more converts to jihadi radicalism than it eliminates. We define ourselves and what we are fighting for by fighting justly and policing justly.


Michael Walzer is editor emeritus at Dissent. Parts of this essay appeared previously in Le Monde.

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