Postscript: The video of this lecture is available again on the website below.(January, 2007)
This lecture took place at U.S. Military Academy at West Point on April 20, 2006. It was aired on C-span TV in the United States.
The video clip was available on his official website for a couple of months after the coverage, but no longer so at this moment. Prior to posting, I asked Professor Chomsky about the copyright with regard to this lecture. He replied to my e-mail and introduced me to Mr. Arnove. Mr.Arnove said if I could send him my transcripts, he'd let me know which material can be posted on a case by case basis so I sent the transcripts. I have been waiting for his reply. I don't know who owns the copyright but I’d like to post this for the record because I think this is too important to disappear. Professor Chomsky said he assumed it was fine for me to post as long as it was identified properly and also he was glad I undertook this task. I’ll delete this as soon as I find any problem with the copyright owner and I'm responsible for the punctuation. Thanks to Professor Chomsky and Mr. Arnove for their answering to my emails.
(The Q&A part is to be continued. No questioners’ names will be included. The blanks are where I could not catch. )
On Just War Theory and the Invasion of Iraq. U.S. Military Academy at West Point. April 20, 2006
Professor Tully: …colleagues in the trenches who teach philosophy 201, and nearly five hundred cadets now taking this course. Good evening to all, and welcome. I’m Robert Tully, Professor philosophy at the Academy. Our guest speaker tonight, a man of extraordinary accomplishment is Noam Chomsky, the Institute Professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His reputation proceeds here by leaps and bounds. Just six months ago, the British journal on current affairs Prospect conducted a poll among its more than 20,000 readers to identify today’s leading global public intellectual. In a list of a hundred such figures, Professor Chomsky came first, drawing more than twice the votes received by the runner-up, Umberto Eco. In the eyes of this journal, Professor Chomsky belongs to the, as they said, the age of great oppositional thinker.
Opposition has indeed been consistent feature of Professor Chomsky’s public life. Since the 1960s, he has been a determined and acerbic critic of American foreign policy. He has denounced politicians of both parties for hooplas and blindness and condemned American society for tolerating the grip of big business on politics, and pervasive influence of mass media. If he has been given more to condemnation than to praise, that may well be the world’s fault, not his. Professor Chomsky has launched his attacks on newspapers, journals and magazines, on radio and television and in public forums, pronouncing on the major issues of the day from Vietnam to Central America, the Middle East, the war on terror, and of course, Iraq.
His articles and essays on political topics alone numbered more than 200, that is at least where I gave up counting. In addition, there are more than fifty books on political matters, beginning in 1969 with “American Power and the New Mandarins” and continuing to the present with the recently published “Failed States.”
However, this amazing productivity constitutes only half the picture. Seemingly, two people fill the shoes of one Noam Chomsky. His protest and denunciations will eventually recede from public view(my note:did he really say this?) but the posterity will certainly always remember Noam Chomsky as a single thinker, the non-global, nonpublic intellectual who once revolutionized science of linguistics.
Chomsky’s work on linguistics burst upon the scene in the late 1950s and was steadily consolidated in a vast number of articles and more than 30 books. He gave linguistics a new starting point. Chomsky set out an answer of a fundamental question: What makes possible the endowment of human language itself? What lies beneath the enormous variety of spoken languages? He theorized that our familiar languages derive from underlying universal grammar and a set of operational rules in which native children already possess efficient skill to enable them unthinkingly to become speakers of their parents’ language in just a few years. Whether this underlying grammar is the functioning of mind or the brain was a secondary concern to Chomsky.
As a linguist he entered into codifying and gave formal shapes to the rules by which a language learner naturally operates. This is science in abstract but profound sense, the new direction that Chomsky gave to linguistics made his project comparable to the work done by Whitehead and Russell, a half century earlier, who was inspired to base both formal logic and number theory on the set of the first principle. His achievement on behalf of linguistics was also in the spirit of two great European rationalists: The philosophers Descartes and Kant, who had sought in their own ways and for different purposes to find anchorage for our experience of the world in the workings of the objective human reason. Two selves then. The public controversialist and the academic scientist. Two voices, but one Noam Chomsky.
To such diversion interests have foundation, is there underlying unity to the voices? I think the answer can be found in the same European tradition from which also comes the view that moral will is in the essential component of human reason. According to the rationalist, we recognize the rightness or wrongness of human actions just as we intuit the necessary truth of some propositions. Our ethical judgment has expressed the workings of the moral law, and sharpened insight compels us to take an ethical stand if we have the courage.
The rationalist with courage rejects the self-deception and dominance of feeling that chief concern is what is right to do, not with whether the consequences make the action right. Above all, the rationalist uphold the universal perspective that treats people as ends rather than as means. Actions contrary to this perspective deserve to be exposed and criticized all the more so if they are the actions of government that abused their nearly absolute power for the sake of self-interest.
Noam Chomsky is a passionate rationalist. Yet his endeavor has not been to advance a novel theory of ethics., the moral certainties that compel him to speak are not theoretical. They are the stuff of everyday moral intuitions. Simple and easily recognized but in need of a voice. How these certainties are applied is the stuff of the controversy, but the dust of political in social debate all too easily obscures the strong moral conviction that underlie them.
I do not apologize for these lengthy remarks about Professor Chomsky. It cannot be said that the person with such remarkable complexity needs no introduction to use worn phrase. He has come to speak to us tonight about some aspects on just war theory. After which he will want to engage the students and cadets of philosophy 201 in discussion and priority in the question and answer period will be given to the cadets. Let this discussion be what all philosophical debate aims to be: Objective, open, respectful, fair, well-argued. In one word, rational. Please join me now, and welcome in our guest, Professor Noam Chomsky.
Chomsky: Thanks. I think a useful place to start might be with a recent academic study by an oxford professor of "Traditions of War," which contrasts two leading paradigms in the study of just war: what the author calls the Grotian and republican interpretations. The first paradigm traces back to Hugo Grotius, a fame in the 17th century, a humanist who found the dominant framework of thinking on laws of war. Within this paradigm, law war is an act of states and just war proposals are a means to humanize and to introduce humanity and warfare. It’s one tradition.
The contrasting republican paradigm traces back to Rousseau, and the uprising against monarchy in feudalism in the late 18th century including the American Revolution. This paradigm blends war with justice, with liberty, equality, individual community rights, whatever else may fall within our concept of justice. Well, these positions are of course idealizations, the real world is more complex. The former implementation of efforts to introduce humanity into warfare do not simply disregard questions of justice but they do put them to the margins. They’re not central to the codification of the principals of world order and practice with single exception of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has a pretty tattered history.
Well, despite real world complexities, the differences between these two approaches to just war, I think, deserve attention in considering both the issues that are addressed and those that are ignored. We might ask whether that itself is just.
There are at least three major sources of insight into the concepts of just war. The first is the scholarly literature. The second is the underlined notions of human nature that underlie our moral judgments. The third is the international codifications. So I’d like to say a few words by each of these topics, I think it may help to indicate in advance where I’m heading, in brief, my own conclusions are that the literature merits careful attention, but is ultimately not very instructive about just war.
Secondly, that the notions of human nature should be at the heart of the discussion although serious inquiry into this is still at its early stages. And the third that the codifications are, seem to me sensible, but actions in the real world all too often reinforce the famous maxim of Thucydides, “The strong do as they can while the weak do as they must.” So let’s start with some remarks on some of the current literature on just war.
One of the most recent studies is Michael Walzer’s book "Arguing About War," which merits particular attention not only because of the high praise it’s received but also because Walzer is responsible for the … largely responsible for the recent revival of just war theory. The strength-- I think the book reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses-- of just war theory. The strengths are that many of the conclusions seem plausible enough, at least to me, but particularly those conclusions that pretty much reiterate standard codifications. The weaknesses, that despite the book’s title “Arguing About War," it’s very hard to find an argument. You might try that as an experiment.
More accurately, well, arguments are sometimes detectable, they rely crucially on such premises as “seems to me entirely justified” or “I believe” or “no doubt.” And there is almost no effort to bring in relevant background information and evidence. Walzer gives two paradigm examples which, in which case he simply asserts that wars are just, in fact so obviously just that arguments are unnecessary. The two examples are Afghanistan and Kosovo, he describes the invasion of Afghanistan as "a triumph of just war theory," which stands alongside the bombing of Serbia in 1999 as an uncontroversial case of just war. No argument is felt to be necessary though in either case it doesn’t take much effort to think of possible evidence that might bear on the pronouncement that these are triumphs of just war theory. These are considerations that would certainly be brought by, brought up by just war theorists if the responsibility for the military actions lay elsewhere. Well, for the lack of time I’ll skip the illustrations but can come back if you like.
To be clear on not asking whether the bombings of Afghanistan and Serbia were right or wrong, maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, I’m asking a different question, namely what does this just war theory have to say about it? And I think if you look closely you’ll find that the answer is that it has nothing to say about it. We’re left with assertions of the authors, that state violence was justified, and uncontroversially so. And any consequences, whether anticipated or not, are an “entirely no doubt” fault of the official enemy.
Another reason and also highly regarded inquiry into just war theory is by a moral political philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain. The paradigm of just war she writes is the bombing of Afghanistan. And she adds that nearly everyone with the exception of absolute pacifist or if you’re lunatics agree that the bombing of Afghanistan was clearly a just war. Argument ended. In reality, nearly everyone excludes substantial categories of people, the majority of world’s population for example, even in Europe, far more so in Latin America, and also leading Afghans who had been fighting the Taliban, including U.S favorites, and virtually all aid agencies working there.
But what’s relevant is that this constitutes the sole argument, to establish that the war was just and in fact uncontroversially so. The facts are irrelevant, and no further argument is needed. Well, Elshtain does provide criteria for just war. So it at least has rudiments of the theory. Four criteria, I’ll read them.
“First criterion: the war must be openly declared or otherwise authorized by legitimate authority. Second: It must begin with the right intentions. Third: Forces justified if it protects the innocent from certain harm as one country has certain knowledge that genocide will commence on a certain date. Forth: It must be a last resort after other possibilities for the redress and defense of the values at stake have been explored.”
Well, the first two conditions, a vacuous declaration of war by an aggressor confers no support whatsoever for a claim of just war. And even the worst criminals claim right intentions. The third and forth conditions sound reasonable, but have no relevance at all, clearly to the case of Afghanistan. So, therefore Elshtain’s paradigm example collapses entirely under her own criteria. Let me add just one word on the classic, modern work, Michael Walzer’s “Just and Unjust Wars,” which I believe you’ve been reading, my personal judgment is that its conclusions are generally very reasonable, also pretty much in accord with conventional reading of the United Nations Charter.
But what’s relevant here is that the conclusions just about unbearably rely crucially on the ubiquitous phrase, “it seems to me” and so on. Again, you might attest. So, just as illustrations take what it regards is “the hardest question” in his words. That is the British bombing of urban centers in Germany up to the end of the war. Walzer concludes that “such bombing,” quoting him, “after the immediate threat posed by Hitler’s early victory had passed was entirely indefensible.” Maybe so, but if you check you’ll find there’s no argument, a part from the statement, “That the policy seems cruel.” Well, I think it does, it seems cruel to me at least, but what does just war theory have to say where it is entered into the argument. Why are relevant facts disregarded. There are, after all, relevant facts.
The character of the theory is revealed further when we look at the examples that Walzer gives, he gives about half a dozen examples which I just listed, no argument or discussion, to show just war theory applies “leaving” in his words “no doubts”. The examples are mostly uncontentious although one might well ask why some of these examples are chosen but not others. For example, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia is given as a case where there is “no doubt” but not given is the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which I suppose had about a hundred times as many as casualties, and many more during the 22 years of occupation of Southern Lebanon in defiance of the Security Council orders. So maybe there’s a reason, maybe there isn’t, but whatever it is, it’s not given. That’s all examples except one. The last example of a case where just war theory applies “leaving no doubt” is the Egyptian challenged Israel in 1967. That’s the sole example in a long period covered where just war theory allegedly demonstrates the preemptive strike was just “beyond all doubt.”
Maybe the selection of cases and the conclusions are correct, maybe they’re not, but what’s relevant here is that just war theory plays little if any role in the argument, which reduces pretty much to declarations of personal preference.
Well, I won’t go on but these are to my knowledge fairly representative selections from the most highly regarded literature and I think it’s fair to conclude more generally that we learn very little about just war from just war theory, although we do learn something about the prevailing intellectual moral climate in which the theory is presented and honored.
Well, let’s turn to the second source of potential insight. The second source of potential insight into just war theory, that is our intuitive moral judgments. Well, here, we’re turning to what was traditionally called moral philosophy. I think it’s more aptly described as moral psychology in modern terms, after the divorce of science and philosophy in the mid-19th century. A century before that, David Hume had done his classic work on what he called “the springs and origins of human nature.” Hume recognized that knowledge and belief are grounded in what he called “the species of natural instincts,” part of their inherent mental nature. He recognized also that something similar must be true in the domain of moral judgment. His reason was that our moral judgments are undaunted in scope, we’re constantly applying them in systematic ways to new circumstances in a manner that’s intelligible to others. Hence, they too must be founded on general principles that are part of our nature, although beyond what he called “our original instincts” meaning narrow instincts that we share with animals.
Well, that insight which I think is accurate, should lead directly to efforts to develop something like a grammar of moral judgment. That’s an enterprise very much like the inquiry into the principles that are encoded somehow in our brains but permits us to do what you and I now are doing, and more broadly to produce and understand linguistic expressions over an unbounded range and use them in a way which is appropriate to circumstances and intelligible to others even though they’re maybe quite new and in our own history and our experiences in fact all our history.
Well, as was recognized a century before Hume, these principles must be universal, hence grounded in our nature, on the basis for acquisition of any particular language. Today we would say that the principles of language and moral judgment are part of our genetic endowment, part of human biology, in both cases they are culturally specific and universal aspects, in both, the case of internal faculty of language in moral judgment. These things can be studied, they are part of science and in fact studied in rather similar ways. Inquiry into the moral faculty in these terms was undertaken by the leading American moral and political philosopher of the late 20th century, John Rawls, who relied explicitly on the analogy of two linguistic theories that were being developed in the 1960s at the time that he was writing his classic work “Theory of Justice.” Rawls in fact put this aspect of his work aside, under severe criticism by moral philosophers, turned to core issues for him. The criticisms were re-examined and I think adequately refuted in a doctoral dissertation a few years ago by John Mikhail, who is now a law professor at Georgetown, forthcoming book of his, based upon his dissertation developed this, also presents an empirical investigation of moral judgments in puzzling thought experiments that have been designed by moral philosophers. This experimental work reveals that intuitions in these quite puzzling cases are typically instantaneous and reflexive in adults and children, with systematic changes through early childhood development, as much as in other aspects of development. He then goes on to develop a theoretical explanation in terms of six principles that can be regarded as a development of Rawl’s “Theory of Justice,” in much earlier work of Hume in other classical writers are natural instincts.
There’s another book soon to come out by Harvard primatologist and cognitive scientist Marc Hauser carrying such inquiries further, includes comparative studies and more general ideas about what he calls “the moral organ” analogous to the language organ other subcomponents of the cognitive systems that are a core part of our biological nature. Well, in recent years, these topics have become a lively field of theoretical empirical inquiry from many points of view incidentally, these are study of principles that underlie intuitive conceptions of justice and rights and their cultural variety, their limited cultural variety and their universal properties. That could someday provide foundations for more substantive theory of just war. But it remains largely a task for the future though it’s underway in interesting ways.
Well, finally a couple of words on the codification of these intuitive judgments and the past century. I’ll keep it to the period after the World War two, though the earlier conventions have very clear and significant contemporary relevance, Hague Convention of 1907 for example. I can come back to that it if you like.
The post Second World War, codification of laws of war consists primarily of the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg principles later adopted by the General Assembly. Well, as you know I’m sure, the Charter bars the threat or use of force except in two instances: If authorized by the Security Council of the United Nations or under Article 51 of the Charter in self-defense against armed attack until the Security Council acts. The phrase “armed attack” is conventionally interpreted in terms of Daniel Webster’s principle, which extends armed attack to cases where in his words “the necessity for action is urgent, is instant overwhelming, leaving no choices of means and no moment of deliberation.” Any other resort to force is a war crime, in fact “the supreme international crime encompassing all the evil that follows” in the words of the Nuremberg tribunal.
There was a high-level UN panel meeting, issues were reported in December, 2004, included among others, the former National Social Security advisor Brent Scowcfoft. It concluded that Article 51 needs neither extension nor restriction of its long-understood scope. It should be neither rewritten nor reinterpreted. Last September, UN World Summit reaffirmed quoting that “the relevant provisions of the Charter are sufficient to address the full-range of threats to international peace and security.” The summit further endorsed the responsibility to commit ourselves to helping states build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.
The summit granted no new right to intervention to individual states or regional alliances whether under humanitarian or other professed grounds, and it established no responsibility to protect, on the contrary to what was widely alleged in news reports and commentary.
The high-level panel of December 2004 had reached the same conclusion in words that were specifically directed at international intellectual opinion in state practice in the West in recent years. Its words were these: “For those impatient with declaring Article 51 to be appropriate as formulated, the answer must be that in a world full of perceived potential threats the risk to the global order and the norm of non-intervention on which it continuous to be based is simply too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed action, to be accepted. Allowing one to so act is to allow all. Allowing one to so act is to allow all.”
Here the panel is presupposing the principle of universality, namely that we apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others if not more stringent ones. That’s perhaps the most elementary of moral truisms and it's the foundation of just war theory if that theory is to be taken that all seriously.
The principle, however, is flatly rejected in the elite intellectual, moral and political culture of the most powerful states and it’s explicitly rejected by the official doctrine. That includes the expositors and advocates of just war theory, also includes substantial legal literature, it’s pretty easy to illustrate--there’s plenty of material in print about it--we can draw some conclusions from that. In this connection, in the end by saying, that it’s worth remembering some eloquent words on the principal of universality, foundations of just war theory and any serious moral theory, comments by Justice Robert Jackson, he was the chief for the council for the prosecution at Nuremberg.
He informed the tribunal that: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are the crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we’re not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants to a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”
The supreme international crime for which the defendants were hanged at Nuremberg was defined clearly enough by Justice Jackson at Nuremberg. He proposed to the tribunal that an aggressor is the state that is the first to carry out invasion of its armed forces with or without a declaration of war, of the territory of another state. Illustrations of that too, were easy enough to find and others are on the horizon. It’s again, noteworthy that these considerations are virtually excluded from the dominant, intellectual and moral culture in the West rather generally, although we have no difficulty at all in applying them to official enemies.
Once again there’s nothing special about our own country in this respect, except that it’s more powerful than the others. Such evasions with regard to the acts of one’s own state are close to universal, they disfigure intellectual history as far back as you go to the maxims of Thucydides that I quoted. We may add an observation by the President John Adams, “Power always thinks it has a great sole and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak.” I think that’s another near universal, again all too easy to illustrate from the traditional practice of governments and the educated classes within them.
Well, to return to the beginning, what can we learn from just war theory? My feeling is that from the literature on just war, we learn mostly about the prevailing moral and intellectual climate in which we live. Scientific inquiry into moral psychology and its roots in our nature may someday provide important insights, but practice cannot wait for that day, any more than engineering has waited for physics or medicine for biology for centuries in these cases, which are much simpler ones and much more accessible to inquiry than human nature. Thirdly, the codification of laws of war has overtime had a notable civilizing effect, but the gap between professed ideals and actual practice is much too large to be tolerated in my opinion. Thanks.