Can wars with no ‘reasonable prospect of success ever be justified?

It has been said “a just war must have a reasonable hope of success; if there is no probability of achieving the just causes, the war’s destructiveness will be to no purpose” (Hurka, 2005, p.35). On the basis of the theory of just war, there are six reasons for a just war including the chance of success (Zuo, G. & Yunpeng, 2007, p.281). This essay will focus on the factor of the chance of success, assuming that every war has two consequences that are measured differently. One is the materialistic result that is observable by most people. This result includes the size of the destruction and the number of casualties. The other one is the abstract outcome that seems difficult to be understood by many observers. This un-materialistic aspect includes the protection of various values such as religion, culture and language. The success or failure of the none physical outcome can be measured by proportionality, necessity and, in some cases, by immediacy. The latter has been described by Walzer (1977, p.259) as the supreme emergency that refers to the situation in which the threat to human values is imminent and radical. It has been said that defensive wars have to meet the demands of immediacy, necessity, and proportionality (Kretzmer, 2013, p.257). This essay supposes that the success of a materialistic result is impossible to be achieved. According to this assumption, the paper will discuss the justification for war regarding the abstract effect. In other words, the war will be lost, but it may succeed in achieving a particular aim. The success or failure will be measured by what can be reached not by winning the war itself.

This paper will discuss three possible un-materialistic outcomes. First is where the war is justifiable when the purpose of the resistance is to defend a particular value or to inspire other people who have a high percentage of war success. In addition, another possibility is associated to waging a necessary war that can be considered as a justified offensive[1] war that has no chance of success, but it is important to protect people’s lives. The second possibility is when the war is not only justified, but also it must be waged for self-defence while surrender is an unjustified option for the offended people. In this scenario, the attacked people must resist regardless of it being impossible to win the war. In this section, the paper takes the stance that resistance is compulsory when defending a priceless figure. The third possibility in this argument will highlight cases where wars of self-defence are unjustified, and those who make the decision to fight in these kinds of fruitless wars must be charged. The essay will try to give real and assumed examples to explain its assumptions concluding with a summary and final thoughts.

The first possibility is when a war can be justified because it is waged in self-defence or to defend a particular value. Even though the defender neither wins the war nor protects lives, his violent response to the aggressor can be justified if he tends to protect values such as honour, dignity or culture. In other words, to protect values that are worth dying for (Schott, 2008, 131).  In general, a justifiable war is that in which a man would sacrifice himself defending a right or belief he believes worth dying for (Coker, 2004, p.142 and Walzer, 1977, p.110). In addition to this, resistance should provide values such as inspiring other people to defend themselves, drawing global attention to a particular case, or showing aggressors the difficulties which they will face when they attack other people. Proportionality plays a significant role in such cases. Rodin stated that “any morally justified defensive action must be grounded in a good of sufficient value to make proportionate the harm inflicted” (2005, p.124). For instance, as in the case of a particular number of people warned by aggressors that if they do not surrender then they will be severely punished. However, those people can resist for a given time and can cause much pain for the offenders before they are defeated and punished. Such resistance may be useful for inspiring others to defend themselves and protect their values. In like manner, this confrontation may deter aggressors from attacking others and, as such, this type of self-defensive war can be justified. Although it can be considered as a losing war, its final result and benefit for other people grant it the justification. In general, it is important to emphasise the principle that asserts that the “anticipated moral cost of a war should not significantly exceed the expected moral profit” (Zuo, G. & Yunpeng, 2007, p.285).

In a similar circumstance but a different scenario, a war can be justified even if it cannot be won, but it will assist to protect a country and its people from a potential danger. In some cases, the war may be waged to protect a country from a disastrous end as a result of an immoral action of its powerful neighbour. Luban (1980, p.175) stated that “a just war is (i) a war in defence of socially fundamental human rights (subject to proportionality); or (ii) a war of self-defence against an unjust war”. In some self-defensive wars, the necessity plays a crucial role because without waging a war the subsistence of particular people will be in danger. According to Lazar (2012, p.5), “necessity is satisfied if and only if the harm inflicted is necessary to avert the threat faced”. For example, assume that a river flows from the country (A) toward country (B). Imagine that country (A) builds a dam that results in a drought in country (B) with losses in various aspects. In this case, country (B) will suffer famine within a very short time. However, country (B) can declare a war against its neighbour and destroy the dam. The response of country (A) will be harmful and cannot be defended. However, in any other circumstances the amount of losses that would result from the war would be much lower than losses that result from the dam. Although country (B) has zero percent of winning the war, by declaring the war, it achieves its aim and can remove the object of future severe harm. By destroying the dam, the river will flow again, and the chance of building another dam by country (A) is very small. It will take them more than a decade to rebuild it and it will cost a tremendous amount of money. Another important feature of this war is that even though it is a losing war, it delivers a message to country (A). This message says implicitly that if the dam is rebuilt it will face the same fate. In this case, there are three essential aspects. Firstly, declaring war here is considered as a military action, but the declaration of the war can be counted as commencing with the building of the dam. Secondly, this war can be considered as a defensive war or as a response to the aggressive dam project. In other words, country B’s war can be assumed as an act of self-defence, not an offensive war because it is a response to the harmful action of country (A). As Bellamy, (2008, p.602) indicated, “combatants are entitled to wage war only to the point at which their rights are vindicated”. Moreover, if it is considered as an offensive war, it will not be justified at all according to those who only justify wars for self-defence purposes (Miller, 1964, 265). Thirdly, this justified war must not go any further than destroying the dam; if it goes further, then it will not be justified in jus in bello (Bellamy, 2008, p.612). For instance, if country (B) destroys the dam then attacks other military or civilian locations in country (A), this action makes the war unjustifiable. According to McMahan (2005, p.2), a war requires a cause to be justified, but when this purpose is achieved then any further attack will not be justified. Finally, regardless of its success, Luban (1980, p.177) pronounced that this kind of war is considered, according to the UN definition[2], unjust war because it is an aggressive act. However, Luban looks at this war differently arguing that it can be supposed as an effort to obtain basic human rights for people in country (B) and so it can be justified.

The second possibility can be seen in some circumstances when a war is not only just, but also it must be waged for self-defence purposes, moreover, to surrender is not justified. When defenders are expected to protect a priceless value that would be lost forever if not defended, then the offended people must fight even if they will lose the war. Assume that a powerful country requests a weaker state to hand over a spiritual leader who is the only one who knows and teaches religion and culture. If they betray him, the whole country will survive but if the state protects this religious leader and a few other people, it will be at the expense of everything else. Rodin (2005, p.40) asserted that necessity is only fulfilled if the harm imposed is necessary to prevent the confronted threat. If these people who defend their spiritual leader at the expense of their lives, which seems at first glance disproportionate, think his subsistence for them is a necessity then their resistance can be justified. It appears important to note that this justification for waging a war of self-defence is “the last resort” as asserted by Bethlehem (2012, p.772), which means that defenders must attempt all possible solutions before resistance. Another critical condition mentioned by Bethlehem that supports Rodin’s condition to justify a war is “the force used must be proportionate to the threat faced and must be limited to what is necessary to deal with the threat”. Although this condition suits a state that has greater chances of success and alternative means to defend itself, the proportionality appears to be an essential aspect. Proportionality, in this case, is strongly present owing to the necessity to secure a priceless figure whose life is considered more valuable than thousands of his people.

A comparison between the two values is necessary to know which one is more important before judging their decision. The comparison can show the proportionality of consequence which means, as Heinze and Steele (2009, p.7) and Kretzmer (2013, p235) expounded, that the benefit of a war to be justified is more than its harm, but if the damage exceeds the benefit then it will not be justified. In this statement, there are two possibilities to compare. The first is if people consider it possible to live without this value or if it could be replaced by another one. In such case, it can be said that the war is not justified and that a deal should be brokered with the offensive side. In other words, the war would be not justified because there is no necessity (Bellamy, 2008, p.603). This is similar to what happened to the Taliban in 2001 when the Americans requested them to hand over Bin Laden, which will be discussed in a following section.

On the other hand, if people see the values of a religion or culture as being more essential than their lives then the scenario is also different. Here, it can be said that defending the life of the spiritual leader is justified because of its necessity. The essentiality here is owing to the protection of a value that is necessary for the cultural and religious survival of a society. To put it another way, waging a losing war defending one’s honour such as happened in the Warsaw Ghetto, if the resistance is associated with reputation, then this war cannot be justified. In contrast, those people who defended their religious scholar did not look at it as a matter of honour for which they were prepared to die like the population of the Ghetto. The fact is that they preferred to die to protect their religion. Another key point is that the Ghetto’s seemingly unjustifiable resistance, if it is assumed as being based on honour, can also be seen in a similar way to defending the spiritual leader if the purpose of the resistance is inspiring other people to defend their priceless value. One crucial aspect that must be taken into consideration is the ability of inspired people to defend themselves or, in other words, they have a high percentage of success in doing so.

The third possibility is associated with a self-defensive war that cannot be justified if it leads to a loss of civilian lives especially where there is a possibility to avoid it with lower loss. If the aggressor is far more powerful than the defender to a level it appears impossible to defeat him, and it is possible to avoid the war by making some materialistic concessions, then the war will not be justified. In some cases, the aggressors do not want to attack people but they want to use a land or energy resource. In this case there are at least three values that would be affected which are the dignity of the state and its people, the sovereignty of the state, and the economic losses. The explanation of why a war of self-defence cannot be justified is because the comparison of losing these three values (dignity, sovereignty and economy) by waging a war against the aggressors clearly shows that the harm of the war would be tremendously more. McMahan (2004, p.77) stated “it would be either unnecessary or disproportionate to kill, and, therefore, impermissible to resort to war, in response to aggression that does not immediately threaten people’s”.  Rodin (2005, p.133) asserted that unless there is a threat to people’s lives, the war is a disproportionate response.  Rodin emphasised that this risk includes any kind which is harmful to people- leading to death, maiming or enslavement. However, he does not consider a threat on liberty and territory a critical harm that can be regarded as a proportionate reaction to aggression.

There are two key issues in this situation. The first concerns the number of casualties among the defenders owing to the huge distance in power between the two countries. The second serious issue that should be taken into account before declaring a self-defensive war is that in addition to the high number of casualties, the defending country will not be able to protect the three values. Instead, it would exacerbate the loss among these three values. For instance, the offenders may try to punish the government for not understanding their needs and replace it with another government that will be an ally to them. In such cases, there are two types of characteristics; one is the arrogance that is associated with the offenders, and the other characteristic is selfishness or recklessness that is related to the defenders. It would be considered as selfishness because the defenders were focusing on protecting their interest which is the country’s sovereignty at the expense of their people’s lives. Waging a war of self-defence can be also described as recklessness or even foolishness because of the inevitable outcome of fighting an undefeatable power. Defending a small part of something at the expense of the whole thing is recklessness. By the same token, a government that wants to defend a small portion of its sovereignty, despite the high risk that it may lose everything, may be described as acting in a foolhardy manner. Consequently, a weak country should act wisely when facing a possible war against a strong country. This means it should carefully consider any response to an offensive state’s unjustified action and weigh its response against the eventual consequences.

In some cases, it seems essential for the defenders to make some sacrifices to protect their country. Here are two examples of similar cases or it can be described as one case faced by two countries. When Osama bin Laden had become a serious threat to the Americans, the reaction of the Sudanese government was to request Bin Laden to leave their country to avoid any American aggression. In fact, according to Bergen (2006, pp.157-158), “the Sudanese offered to hand bin Laden over to the United States”. Consequently, the Sudanese lost Bin Laden’s investments, but it seems that they had measured the two losses and decided that losing Bin Laden’s investments was less harmful than fighting the Americans. Two years later, in 1998, Bin Laden attacked the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, before the attack of 11 September, using an Afghani land base. Taliban Leaders refused to hand over Bin Laden to the Americans, from what it appears to be a sovereignty perspective or matter of dignity. At the same time, the UN Security Council asserted, on various occasions, that the Taliban must stop its support of al-Qaeda and hand over bin Laden to justice. Unless they abided by these wishes, they would be considered violators of international law and the Americans would have the right to defend themselves and their war would be morally justified (Holbrooke, 2002, p920 and Smith & Thorp, 2010, p.5). This unwise challenge has led to devastating results that have caused thousands of casualties, a failing country and imprisonment of hundreds of people who were arrested in Afghanistan during the war and have been sent to Guantanamo Bay. Looking at the Sudanese’s decision not to face the angry Americans and comparing it with a similar situation demonstrates how an unsuccessful war of self-defence cannot be justified. Moreover, these two examples may serve to illustrate the difference between rationality and emotion when justifying a war, as well as show how governmental decisions can lead to huge differences in outcomes. The Sudanese dealt rationally with the American’s demand to protect their sovereignty owing to their experience and maturity. However, the Taleban thought emotionally as a result of a lack of experience, which has led the whole country to a chaotic consequence. To sum it up, it can be said that to face a powerful country that will lead to a harmful impact on the weaker country should be studied wisely and the decision should be taken carefully.

The absence of success in self-defensive wars has made resistance unjustified and prohibited, especially when there is no valuable aspect deserving of sacrificing people for. In the Taliban’s case, the self-defence[3] was unreasonable because of the complete absence of success. Moreover, the aim of the aggressors here was to remove the regime because it was supporting and providing a refuge for a dangerous terrorist group. The desire to remove the government was owing to various causes; one of them was the Taliban’s refusal to hand over bin Laden. In the Taliban’s case it seems important to look at what Hurka (2005, p38) calls “proportionality calculation” which is to identify the outcome of this war to see whether it is useful or harmful and compare it with the life of bin Laden on the one hand and the subsistence of the Taliban regime and Afghani lives on the other hand. Proportionality calculation shows that waging a war to protect the life of bin Laden at the expense of the regime and people’s lives was unjustified and a serious error on the side of the Taliban, because bin Laden’s life was of insignificant value. Bin Laden’s life was neither a necessity for Afghani people nor the Taliban, and the harm that has resulted from such a destructive war has been far worse than the alleged success of protecting his life.

No one could say that the Americans wanted to kill a larger number of Afghani people if the Taliban chose to resist. In this case, the Taliban’s decision to fight the Americans was more reckless than selfish. The recklessness of the Taliban has ultimately harmed them and, harmed partially, many non-combatants. Moreover, the response to the offensives can be described as more selfish than reckless when the damage affects a very high percentage of non-combatants. For example, Walzer (1977, pp.5-9) mentioned that in 416 B.C., the Athenians wanted to concur Melos island. Yet the Melian magistrates refused to surrender because the rulers of Melos valued freedom over safety. The Athenians’ response was to put the island under siege for a few months before its defeat. The island’s surrender ended with the Greeks’ decision to kill the Melian men, to enslave the women and children, and to colonize the island. Thucydides described the resistance of the Melians as a stupid response to the Athenians because the elites of Melos chose to die defending their absolute sovereignty (Howse, 2013, p22). The Melian leaders could and should have thought rationally to protect their people and their land.

It was their responsibility not to wage a losing war as Heinze and Steele (2009, p.6) asserted, as politicians are responsible for not involving their people in any war that cannot be militarily won. Nevertheless, the selfishness of the Melian elites which led to an unjustified and unwinnable war at the expense of their people may drive some to say, in such cases, that selfish people must be stopped before they cause serious harm to their people. To put it differently, in such case when selfishness is dominant and the lives of numerous people may be affected then the argument should be not about war justification, rather it should be about committing crimes against people.  A similar case occurred in the Roman Empire when it was invaded by Barbarian tribes. According to Walzer (1977, p.57), the Barbarians wanted to settle on empty land inside the Roman borders, and if they did not get what they wanted then they would declare war against the Roman Empire. Regardless of the success of winning the war, Walzer questioned whether this could be considered as aggression or not. The answer came from Hobbes, who assured that the natives should give the invaders what they want, or they would be considered as aggressors (ibid). The Romans were wise to avoid that war by granting the Barbarians what they considered as a necessity for them.

In conclusion, it appears that an unsuccessful war is not always an unjust war. As has been shown above, the war may seem a losing war, but it achieves its goals. These goals may be none physical and to attain them one may lose much to a level it seems to some observers that the war is unsuccessful. However, this essay is based on the idea that a war’s success is measured by its goals and achievements with respect to the proportionality that must be estimated carefully. In addition to proportionality, this essay has emphasised that necessity should also be considered. To clarify this argument, the paper has focused on three different possibilities. The first is when the war is justifiable in cases where defenders are trying to protect a deserved, sacrificing value, or when they are attempting to provoke others to resist the offensives. The second possibility is when the offended people must fight or are not allowed to surrender in order to protect an essential value. The third category has focused on unjustified war of self-defence, where offended people protect themselves by avoiding an unsuccessful war that will lead to serious harm to them and their country.  As shown above, war has two consequences; one is tangible and can be realized by most observers whilst the other outcome is none tangible and is therefore less obvious to be understood. This essay has attempted to demonstrate that these two kinds of results can be separated and losing materially does not mean a complete loss. Finally, this separation has allowed this paper to justify the waging of an unsuccessful war owing to its abstract outcome, not its materialistic result.

Fahd Alghofaili


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[1] This war can be seen as a defensive war because it is a response to an unarmed harmful action of another country.

[2] “Definition of aggression adopted by the UN General Assembly in I974 includes the clause: Aggression is the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations” (Luban 1980, pp.161-162).

[3] “The UN and many states seemed to accept that the attacks on Afghanistan were legitimate self-defence” (Smith & Thorp, 2010, p.6). It seems that they have considered this war a response to 11 September offensive attack.