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The Case Against War – A Book Review

 by Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK


Can war be justified if launched unilaterally? Alternatively, have we moved into a new world where military actions must be approved by appropriate international legal authorities in order to maintain the peace?


In the play Henry V, Act 4 Scene 1, on the eve of the battle of Agincourt against France, the King, Henry V, disguises himself to talk with unknowing soldiers about war. The exchange is instructive:


Williams: But if the cause be not good the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place’, some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon the children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now if these men do not die well it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.


King: So if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him….but this is not so. The king is not bound to answer the particular ending of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant, for they purpose not their death when they purpose their services…


Shakespeare wrote the above exchange, between a soldier and his disguised King, over four hundred years ago. Yet the issues raised by this exchange have applied to warfare throughout time.


Who takes the responsibility for war?


Is the justification for conflict valid?


Can war be justified? Yes, World War 2 was necessary to defeat Hitler – yet Hitler could have been stopped, far short of a world war, in the Rhineland in 1936. Moreover, the freezing of Hitler’s finances would have stopped the Fuehrer in his tracks – yet nothing was done about it. Indeed, international financial infrastructures were maintained to expedite trade and finance during the war. The reality is that World War 2 would not have been necessary if proper actions had been taken by our governments to stop Hitler. So where is the justification? If a truly effective international security law existed, could Hitler have been constrained by international action? Quite possibly, particularly if that power had been applied before Hitler became a world danger.


That is why international institutions such as the United Nations were set up – to ensure world peace and development. Now, the United Nations has not lived up to expectations. However, the United Nations has a role in ensuring world peace – including actions to bring the peace.


The Case Against War, published by Spokesman Books (of the renowned Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation) is an excellent exposition of these issues. This work examines the cases for – and against – the war in Iraq. The briefs, on both sides, date back to 2002. However, the issues raised in international law are timely. The exposition of the role of the United Nations is essential to understanding the briefs on both sides of the issue. As per my comments above, the United Nation’s goal is peace – but is the United Nations a legal, or a political body? If it is a legal body, then, as per the argument against war, the relevant issues should proceed through the legal channels of the world, for example the United Nations Security Council. On the other hand, if the United Nations is strictly a political body where international alliances joist for position and power, any decision by the UN Security Council would need to be seen in that vein – and unilateral actions could be given justification.


While there is little doubt that the United Nations has a political character, it is significant that the joisting of alliances and powers is played out in the councils and assemblies, not on the battlefield. These councils and assemblies, particularly the Security Council, has a quasi-legal status. If the Security Council votes for a particular action, then that action obtains the force of international authority.


That is the issue upon which The Case Against War centres its discussion – whether international conflicts and issues should be handled by the international councils and bodies set up to maintain the peace, or whether the traditional unilateral exercise of might should apply. If there is no point in bothering with a political international body, then unilateral action may be justified.


On the other hand, where does that leave international order?


Note that the United Nations Charter does countenance the use of appropriate force by a country to protect itself from an aggressor – yet at the same time, the attack by the aggressor should be considered a violation of international behaviour, and addressed appropriately.


So goes the argument – yet it is apparent that, at least to some extent, the United Nations is a source of legal authority and not just political machinations. Even in the early days of the United Nations, in 1950, the United States itself sought the legal approval of the Security Council for a ‘police action’ in Korea. Both Israel and the Arabs have accepted the long-standing framework of Middle East peace, Resolution 242. Hence, that Resolution has legal effect, and has indeed formed the basis of subsequent peace treaties.


The Case Against War is a quite readable exposition of these issues, and the structure and operation of international law and conflict. It is a thoughtful opus that would be of value to legal and political minds, no matter where in the political spectrum they reside. It is of value to the neophyte student, as well as to the diplomat or Law Lord.


The Case Against War is published by Spokesman Books. Please note that The Law Journal UK takes no responsibility for the contents of this book, or works by other authors.


Your thoughts?


Brian Risman



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