Philosophers and the Iraq war

The 2003 Iraq war already seems a long time ago. The long build up, global protests and wranglings at the UN all culminated in a war that dominated the news for three weeks and then quickly dropped off the front pages.

The war has since been fought and won; the peace is still being contested. History has yet to pass its judgement on whether, in the end, it did more harm than good.

When we have the benefit of hindsight, we shall be able to judge better the wisdom of those who argued for or against the war. On which side of the divide will philosophers be seen to have pitched their camp?

Most of the evidence points towards a strong trend of opposition to the conflict among professional academic philosophers. The clearest sign of this came when the American Philosophical Association eastern division passed a motion opposing war. The eastern division is the largest of the APA’s three regional groupings and hence its passing of an anti-war motion by a ratio of six to one is probably representative of American academic opinion.

In the United Kingdom, there was no such unified response. Several universities organised petitions against the war, the wording of which was usually almost identical to that used in Oxford’s:

We, the undersigned, working at Oxford University, find the case for launching a pre-emptive war against Iraq unconvincing and morally questionable. We urge the Government not to embark on a course of action that will bring death and suffering to the people of Iraq.

Several leading philosophers signed these petitions, including Onora O’Neill, Quentin Skinner and Simon Blackburn at Cambridge; and Joseph Raz, Timothy Williamson, Derek Parfit, G A Cohen and Michael Ayers at Oxford.

It is impossible to know, however, what is signalled by the absence of many philosophers from these lists. For example, Jane Heal at Cambridge was against the war and didn’t sign only because she was not aware of the petition’s existence. Her Cambridge colleague Edward Craig, on the other hand, didn’t sign because he “thought that the issues were far too finely balanced to want to go signing petitions over them.”

Furthermore, the internet hub for these protests, only lists nine universities which organised such petitions (Cambridge, Southampton, Oxford, Reading, UEA, LSE, UCL, Surrey and York). This is again indicative of the somewhat ad hoc nature of the formal campaign against the war in UK universities.

Anecdotal evidence certainly does suggest that British philosophers were generally against the war, although perhaps not as interested in it as one might expect. One of the most vociferous philosophers against the war was Rupert Read at the University of East Anglia, who could report, “My philosophy department is united against the war, and we got a motion passed through the University Assembly condemning it.” However, it should be noted that this motion was passed at a small meeting by 65 votes to five, when over 2,200 members of staff were entitled to vote.

A more typical report of how philosophers have reacted comes from a lecturer at Cambridge University who prefers not to make their own views public. At their college, “the atmosphere has seemed largely against the activities of the US and UK in Iraq, expressions ranging from the scornful to the angry. I have heard the occasional voice speaking in favour of the war, but if there is a large group of people with this view they are keeping very quiet.”

Brendan Larvor at the University of Hertfordshire found his peers even more circumspect. “Some colleagues were firmly anti. I don’t think anyone was firmly for it. On the whole the mood was one of suspended judgment. We knew we were being fed propaganda by all parties.”

As our straw poll seems to reflect (see TPM 23, page 10), many philosophers simply haven’t been talking much about the war. Christian Perring, an academic in New York, reports, “I have some colleagues who are strongly anti-war and who have gone on anti-war marches and protests. I don’t know anyone who is strongly pro-war. But it does seem to me that many philosophers are to a large extent more preoccupied by worries about potential budget cuts, fee increases, and decreased student population, and of course, the still-terrible job market in philosophy.”

Certainly, there have not been many philosophers who have made their voices heard in public on the war, whether by choice or simply because the media takes no interest. Noam Chomsky took up his usual role as leading spokesman for the intellectual left. Chomsky has warned that the war is likely to increase hatred of the US in the Middle East and create more problems than it solves. Back in September last year, he wrote in the Guardian, “As for a US attack against Iraq, no one, including Donald Rumsfeld, can realistically guess the possible costs and consequences. Radical Islamist extremists surely hope that an attack on Iraq will kill many people and destroy much of the country, providing recruits for terrorist actions.” Nothing that has happened since has prompted him to change his mind.

In Britain, only the few philosophers who regularly appear in the media anyway have made their voices heard. Mary Warnock has argued passionately against the war. In an interview for TPM last September, she spoke of her concern for the undermining of international law. “The thought of a war against Iraq without the United Nations seems to me to be absolutely monstrous,” she said. In March of this year, echoing Chomsky’s concern for the repercussions of a war, she wrote in theObserver, “For me, the most convincing argument against a pre-emptive attack on Iraq is a consideration of the consequences in the rest of the Middle East and beyond, regardless of what America’s long-term aims might be.”

It has been left to Roger Scruton to provide a lonely public voice of a philosopher generally supportive of the war. Chastising those who criticise US “imperialism”, Scruton cites America’s record in intervening and then withdrawing, saying that “The vices of the USA are always before us; but the virtues are not sufficiently remembered.

“US foreign policy isn’t always right,” he adds. “But it emerges from a rational process – one in which criticism is permitted, and accountability assumed. The foreign policies of North Korea and Iraq issue from no such rational process: which is one reason for using force in order to prevent them from issuing at all.”

If there is an overall picture, then it is one of philosophers being much more opposed to the war than in favour of it, but not on the whole feeling as strongly on the issue as might be expected. It hasn’t dominated their discussions and it has not resulted in a large outpouring of public words for or against the conflict.

What is perhaps most interesting is whether or not the reasons given for or against the war will turn out to be vindicated by events. At the time of going to press, it does not seem at all clear whether the conflict has, in the round, created more problems than it has solved, or made the lives of Iraqis worse in the medium to long term than they would have been. Even the number of civilian casualties, which both hawks and doves accepted would be inevitable, was lower than many pre-war estimates. As to the international rule of law, if anything, countries like Israel, Syria and North Korea seem to have moved more towards multilateral than unilateral solutions to their regional tensions since the fighting stopped.

The APA resolution was in part premised on what it saw as the likely outcomes of the war, so seeing what these actually are will surely help us to judge its wisdom. But one part at least was not based on consequences at all. Appealing to just war theory and international law, the resolution maintained that countries can only go to war in self-defence, and thus the so-called “Bush doctrine” of pre-emption is wrong, no matter what the consequences. Depending on how this situation pans out, that might be the biggest source of philosophical fall-out. If – and it remains a big if – this war turns out to have made the world a safer and better place, philosophers will be forced to reconsider the centuries-old principles of just war theory. And if it doesn’t, then the philosophical community can feel vindicated about the stand it took, albeit rather quietly.