Can Any War be a Just War?

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IwoJimaBy Gary Brumback

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once.

Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action!

It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder. ~ Albert Einstein

At the risk of seeming arrogant to add a postscript to one of the most intelligent and critical thinkers of the ages, this article will argue that no war can ever be a just war. In doing so, I will skip over the philosophical and theological justifications. They all amount to obfuscations and moral rationalizations. Throughout history, not the ancient prophets but organized religion and its overreaching leaders have been instigators, accessories, or silent accomplices of one war or other cruelty after another

Three Litmus Test Wars

If at least one war can be identified and justified as being a just war, then the argument that no war can be just is repudiated. There are three wars in America’s history that most Americans would probably argue pass the test. But do they?


The late U.S. historian Howard Zinn wrote that the supreme test for whether any war can be just is the U.S. military involvement in WWII. He then went on to raise several questions about it. Was the U.S. involvement for the rights of nations to independence and self-determination? To save the Jews? Against racism? For democracy? No, not at all according to his review of the evidence; the U.S. involvement in WWII had no such high-minded purposes, and he concluded that “Looking at World War II in perspective, looking at the world it created and the terror that grips our century, should we not bury for all time the idea of just war?” [1]

The American Revolution

America’s first war, the American Revolution was fought for the partial right of independence and self-determination. It was a clash between two privileged classes 3,500 miles apart. It did not save the Indians. It led to their decimation and subjugation. It certainly was not against racism. And it certainly was not for a democracy of, for, and by all the people. Had the war not been fought British control would have eventually dissipated, just as it eventually lost all of its other colonies, and an America of a less militant nature might have eventually emerged.

The Civil War

A third litmus test is the Civil War, the most deadly for Americans of any military interventions launched by a U.S. president. Zinn makes it clear in his book that President Lincoln provoked the attack on Fort Sumter that launched the Civil War not with the primary purpose of freeing the slaves but “to retain the enormous national territory and markets and resources.”[2] Lincoln, in other words, was an early practitioner of imperialism by deadly military means.

After reading Zinn I did not remove the image of the Washington statute of our 16th President that is displayed on my website, I like the looks of it. Before reading Zinn I had written an iconoclastic piece about President Lincoln in my book on which the site is partly based. It was in reference to the rash of states around 2002 rushing to pass laws declaring states’ rights in defiance of federal regulations. Here are some extracts of what I wrote:

“What if they left the Union and formed their own–There might be two Americas and two smaller corpocracies instead of one monstrous one. –President Lincoln may have made a colossal mistake in entering the Civil War. Slavery probably would have ended peacefully without [it] –because plantation owners were beginning to realize that share croppers were economically a better option than slave holding and thus emancipation would not have been forced by the Union on slave holders.

Concomitantly, racial hatred and prejudice might not persist to this day–With two Americas so divided each would not have been strong enough to do much warring around the globe. And with two Americas so divided, the corpocracy as it exists today might not exist today.” [3]

President Lincoln, in my opinion, should have adopted the sentiment of President Thomas Jefferson who exclaimed “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation … to a continuance in the union …. I have no hesitation in saying, Let us separate.” Most political leaders up to the Civil War agreed with that view. They thought states had the right to secede. But so much for reverse history; we can all make of it what we will.

My argument against the Civil War does not make me a racist. I have never been an open or closet racist. My argument against the Civil War does not mean I am content with the thought of slavery continuing longer until it was no longer profitable. My thought is that the death of around 700,000 Americans was not a justification for ending slavery earlier, and that was not the primary intent of President Lincoln anyway. Moreover, as Howard Zinn pointed out, the Civil War brought emancipation but not freedom. It brought continued misery, humiliation and violence against the blacks (e.g., by the Ku Klux Klan).

It makes me uneasy to criticize President Lincoln’s decision to start the Civil War. He is a revered president and the very idea of slavery is repugnant to me. But he was no more human than the more than 700,000 human beings sent to their graves. Despite his presidency, as another human being he was not better than the best of them and not worse than the worst of them. As a matter of fact, though, he apparently was worse than any of the Union soldiers or abolitionists who genuinely believed in equality between blacks and whites and that slavery was morally wrong. I was stunned when I read this quote from Zinn of an excerpt of a speech Lincoln gave to an audience in Charleston? “—I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” [4] Was the Great Emancipator a racist? He certainly did not have the moral character of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Seven More Litmus Tests

America’s three touchstone wars failed the litmus test. That alone ought to refute the claim that some wars can be just wars. But just to be sure let’s add seven more litmus tests.

1. Self Defense?

Wouldn’t a war of self defense unravel a pacifist’s argument that no war is just? No, the best defense against modern warfare initiated against the U.S. is prevention through the U.S. having the right kind of foreign policies in place over time. Unfortunately, the administrator of our foreign policy, the Department of State is a subsidiary of the Department of Defense. Our foreign policies are in reality militant military policies.

2. Unavoidable War?

Wouldn’t an unavoidable war be just? No war is unavoidable. A careful reading of the history of U.S. military interventions clearly indicates that all could have been avoided but were sought out instead. An imperialistic nation does not avoid war when it suits the empire, and war always suits empires and empire builders.

3. Conscription?

Would the draft have been abolished after Vietnam if the government was convinced that all future military interventions would be just and popular? No, the draft was abolished precisely because the government knew future military interventions could not meet those standards.

4. Exemptions?

The more urgent and just a war wouldn’t there be few exemptions granted from battle? No, in any American war so far the elite have avoided it like a plague. And how many politicians have gone into battle?

5. Popularity?

If a particular war were just, besides not abolishing the draft wouldn’t we expect very few conscientious objectors, draft dodgers or deserters? No, just the opposite happened during WWII and Vietnam, the last war relying on conscription. During WWII there were roughly 21,000 deserters (one was executed) and nearly 100,000 conscientious objectors. During Vietnam, there were nearly 4,000 deserters and several hundred thousand draft dodgers.

6. Amnesty?

If there was absolutely no question about a particular war being just, would warriors-in-chiefs ever have grant conditional or unconditional pardons or amnesty to war resistors over the years, including those, for example, who refused to fight in the Civil War? No, in the 20th century over 1,000 draft dodgers during WWII were pardoned by President Truman; Vietnam War draft resisters and deserters were offered clemency by President Ford; and hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War draft dodgers were given unconditional pardon by President Carter. Perhaps even warriors-in-chief can have pangs of doubt or guilt over sending young men to battle.

7. Humanitarian?

What about military interventions for humanitarian reasons? Are they not just? No, to quote Einstein once again, “War cannot be humanized. War can only be abolished.” There should never be inhumane means to a humane end. Witness the case of Amnesty International-USA urging NATO’s military intervention in Afghanistan to protect human rights for women and girls. Rationalizing military interventions as humanitarian interventions “is a sign of progress,” David Swanson, author of War is a Lie says, adding, “That we fall for it is a sign of embarrassing weakness. The war propagandist is the world’s second oldest profession, and the humanitarian lie is not entirely new. But it works in concert with other common war lies.” [5] Finding and using a genuinely humane intervention requires creative diplomacy and a moral conscience, not military might.

In Closing

Case rested. No war can be just.


[1]. Zinn, H. Howard Zinn on War. NY: Seven Stories Press, 2000.
[2]. Zinn, H. A People’s History of the United States, NY: Harper Perennial, 2005, p. 198.
[3]. Brumback, G. The Devil’s Marriage: The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the
Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch, Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2011, p. 38.
[4]. Zinn, op cit. p. 188.
[5]. Selling war as smart power by Coleen Rowley,, August 31, 2012.

Gary Brumback, PhD, a retired psychologist is the author of The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch and creator of the website,

One comment on “Can Any War be a Just War?
  1. All life is assigned a price and in reality is viewed as a commodity. War is the ultimate marketplace. Many spiritual types have died in this market and at point of death became a spent commodity leaving the term justice to refill the market with new flesh.

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