War, just and unjust

poppies on crosses
Just war theory is notoriously problematic, but World War II illustrates its validity. If ever there was a just war — or at least, a justifiable war — that was it.

(Not in every detail of its execution, perhaps; but at least the cause itself was just.)

It is much easier to point to examples of unjust wars. The preeminent example might be that other 20th century conflagration, the Great War — the war to end all wars — World War I.

Hindsight boils down to the simple question, What were they thinking? “Civilized” nations, fellow Europeans and Christians, swapping control over short lengths of muddy earth, with no great cause to justify all the carnage.

World War I was all cost, no benefit. Consider Canada, for example. Our population at the time was barely eight million. 60,000 Canadians were killed; another 154,000 wounded; total casualties, 2.7 percent of the population. Of course the percentage would be much higher if we calculated Canadian families impacted: sons / husbands / fathers who never returned from the Great War.

Three Canadian veterans of World War I are still alive: Lloyd Clemett, 106; John Babcock, 106; and Dwight Wilson, 105.

Jack Babcock, then, now

Earlier this week, the Globe and Mail argued that a state funeral should be held for the last of these men to die:

A state funeral is the highest honour a country can offer any individual. But in this case, such a funeral would honour more than one man. Through him, it would honour all who served. So many men sacrificed so much for God, king and country during those terrible years, 1914 to 1918. …

There are precedents. Australia held a federal state funeral for the last survivor of the Gallipoli campaign. Britain has not gone that far, but has announced that a national memorial service will be held after the death of the last known First World War veteran. That service will be held in Westminster Abbey and will be preceded by a memorial procession. It might not be called a state funeral, but it has most of the trappings.

Three quarters of Canadians support the idea of a state funeral, according to a study done by the Dominion Institute and released today.

I agree. We must be prepared to distinguish between the justice of a given war and the motivations of the soldiers who serve in it. The Globe and Mail aptly captures the motivations of World War I veterans, whose values were those of a bygone era: they were prepared to die on the battlefield in a noble sacrifice to God, king, and country.

The principles are transferable, and should be applied to the wars fought today. In my view, the war in Afghanistan is justified: authorized by NATO, directed at a state which was sheltering Osama bin Laden when he orchestrated the 9/11 attack.

Afghanistan is not to be confused with the war in Iraq, which had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 and, in fact, diverted resources away from the “war on terror”.

But the veterans of both wars deserve to be honoured, just like the veterans of both world wars. Soldiers cannot be blamed for the miscalculations of their political and military masters; on the contrary, they are the first victims of any error in judgement.

When they serve with distinction, they should be honoured accordingly, whatever we may think of the cause itself.


14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 49erDweet
    Nov 11, 2006 @ 17:22:11

    Well said, Stephen. I agree with 90% of your post. (As you know 49er considers the rest of the world responsible for failing miserably to hold SH to account for his actions after the GW). He also concede the US made of mess of it in Iraq in the post “fall of Bagdad” period. s

    Regardless, warriors of all nations responding to their nations’ calls deserve honor and support from reasonable citizens. Those choosing not to do so are suffering some type of internal disconnect, and are more to be pitied than censured, IMO.



  2. aaron
    Nov 11, 2006 @ 19:53:28

    That’s a very nice idea that you Canadians are supporting — it’s certainly important to distinguish between the leaders and the soldiers, and to appreciate what the latter have done regardless of the formers’ decisions. The way you present the issue does beg the question, however — in World War II, a just war as you call it, should the Axis soldiers be accorded the same recognition and respect that you suggest for the Canadian soldiers of WWI? I would think that they should be, but it nevertheless leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.


  3. hazel8500
    Nov 11, 2006 @ 20:55:59

    I support our troops in Afghanistan, and I support the troops in Iraq, despite the fact I do not support the war on Iraq for the reasons you cite in this article.

    I must be in the minority on the state funeral thing though. I think its kind of morbid and sad. I’d rather see a ceremonial state funerural that honours all the soldiers of WWI, when appropriate. In the meantime it would be nice to see these last three soldiers honored in a concrete teneble useful in the now kind of way. I’d like to see them celebrated now, while they can enjoy the attention.


  4. Stephen
    Nov 12, 2006 @ 00:36:18

    • 49er:
    Clearly there is a consensus emerging: the Bush administration bungled the post-war effort in Iraq. Perhaps this significant area of agreement can be the beginning of healing for the deep divisions between those who supported the war and those who opposed it.

    It isn’t healthy for Americans to be polarized the way they are over Iraq. Nor is it a happy situation when Canada and the USA, good neighbours and friends, are deeply divided over the war. Let’s hope we can all work together to find a solution to a real mess.

    • Aaron:
    That’s a pretty clear-headed comment for a guy who probably has been getting about three hours of sleep per night! (For readers who don’t know, Aaron and his wife just had their first baby this week.)

    Certainly I would not want to honour any Nazi commandant who ordered the murder of Jews.

    I am aware that private citizens embraced Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews, and many participated directly in the oppression of Jewish members of their communities. To my mind, such conduct is without excuse (notwithstanding the economic pressures Germany was under because of the Treaty of Versailles).

    Surely those are special circumstances which make it hard to honour the German veterans of World War II … at least to the extent that they were implicated in the Holocaust / Shoah.

    • Hazel:
    Your point is well taken: let’s honour these veterans while they’re still alive.

    I think Canadian officials have tried to do so. John Babcock now lives in the USA, and Veterans Affairs travelled to Spokane to honour him there.

    But the two world wars are increasingly remote to the Canadian public, and I’m not sure the average Canadian appreciates those veterans as much as the veterans deserve.


  5. 49erDweet
    Nov 12, 2006 @ 02:00:56

    Stephen, I concur with your response to me. There is no easy answer, but I fear if we take too drastic a step in an attempt at consensus, the genie that’s now struggling with the newly elected government of Iraq will too easily pop out of the bottle.

    btw, tags are now working. Must have been me. Cheers.


  6. juggling mother
    Nov 12, 2006 @ 03:36:48

    I am in not in favour of a state funeral:
    1. It’s glorifying war
    2. It’s making someone a hero just for doing their job
    3. Why should just one veteran get it, when all the others didn’t?
    4. As Aaron says it’s totally one sided & would therefore be very divisive. There is no way the Germans ever could or would do the same.

    however, I would say that it would be a good time to remind people about what happened in WW1 (and indeed, other wars) and to highlight our history. But not with a state funeral, which I think is expensive, unecessary, and sending out the wrong message.


  7. aaron
    Nov 12, 2006 @ 14:24:06

    Stephen — Thanks. Sleep comes in spurts, as does lucidity. I wasn’t referring to the Germans involved in the murder of Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables;” or to the Japanese who committed atrocities of their own in Asia. I was referring to the soldiers who followed the rules of war in fighting for the expansion of the Third Reich, and in Japan’s imperial army.

    Juggling Mother — When you’re honoring a war-time volunteer rather than a professional soldier, I don’t see it as making someone a hero for “just doing their job.” However misguided the cause, someone who volunteered to fight on behalf of one’s country in time of war has done something above himself. Many left their real jobs to serve their country. I consider myself a pacifist, but I nevertheless recognize that these soldiers made a sacrifice.


  8. Stephen
    Nov 12, 2006 @ 17:32:14

    • JM:
    Good points — particularly your concern about glorifying war.

    I tend to agree with Aaron, that veterans warrant some degree of public appreciation because they have made a personal sacrifice for the good of the nation. But I certainly deplore war, and we don’t want to return to the bad old days when war was promoted as a social good.

    • Aaron:
    Re those who fought for Germany without participating in the other evils of Naziism — I see no difference between them and, say, the participation of American soldiers in Vietnam. They’ve made the same kind of personal sacrifice as any other soldier, even if the cause was immoral. Footsoldiers have no influence over the course of a war.

    If you order a soldier to violate someone’s human dignity (as at Abu Ghraib), s/he should refuse to obey. But short of that, soldiers have no real choice but to carry out orders. A scenario where soldiers shoot at other soldiers at the battle front is akin to two boxers duking it out in the ring — two professionals engaged in a fair fight.

    However, it’s tougher to maintain the boxing analogy with modern technological warfare — dropping bombs from a safe distance, knowing that a certain number of civilian deaths will result. In protecting our own soldiers, we have increased the injustice of war.


  9. Ozymandias
    Nov 13, 2006 @ 02:36:40

    Interesting post.


  10. Bill
    Nov 14, 2006 @ 15:32:58

    I tend to lean in the same direction as JM but I don’t entirely agree with the points she makes, because Canada as part of the British empire (which it arguably was at the time) was defending the empire to which it belonged.

    1. It’s glorifying war (to a degree – but not so much if you think of the veterans as defenders against aggression, keep in mind we did not occupy Germany perpetually as the Germans might have had they won. I know there is a percentage of supposition in that)
    2. It’s making someone a hero just for doing their job (What is wrong with that, when you know your job could cost your life, we honour fire-fighters and police with memorial days)
    3. Why should just one veteran get it, when all the others didn’t? (This I agree with it should be for all – so I would say on the death of the last WWI vet maybe have it as a state memorial day with the last surviving veteran laying in state to symbolize the sacrifice of all )
    4. As Aaron says it’s totally one sided & would therefore be very divisive. There is no way the Germans ever could or would do the same. (My German relatives would not find it divisive most don’t even associate themselves with the aggression that the nation expressed during the last two world wars. they are a new nation defined by who they are now not their past.)


  11. Anonymous
    Feb 12, 2009 @ 18:27:44

    uhmmm hi … can anyone tell me pleaseee, why world war one was unjust ?


  12. Stephen
    Feb 12, 2009 @ 19:36:15

    The death toll wasn’t as great as the death toll of World War II. But in hindsight, World War I is seen as a quite irrational war.

    “Just war” theory has several elements to it. Consider proportionality: i.e., “the anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.”

    World War II is usually considered to be “just” because of the evil the Nazis would have perpetrated if they had succeeded in achieving world domination. Even though many millions died, they died to achieve a great good.

    But what was the great good achieved by World War I?

    The war was precipitated when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist secret society. So Austro-Hungary was upset with Serbia.

    From there, other European powers were dragged into war because of their various alliances with one another. There was no great cause; it was (in the words of this site) a case of “one thing led to another … a mindlessly mechanical series of events.”

    In the end, the “benefit” achieved by going to war was certainly not proportionate to its costs, in terms of human carnage.


  13. Bill
    Feb 16, 2009 @ 15:37:10

    I concur that WW1 was pretty much a unjust useless war. It was likely the last of the European wars faught for no more reason than a territorial war was expected every 50- 100 years. Then the whole damn thing escalated beyond all proportions. I think that even your anonymous guest was thinking of WWII as no one outside an obtuse historian or two would think to defend WWI.


  14. Brian Bradley
    Nov 27, 2011 @ 20:41:13

    1. This veteran has served in the CF on 3 separate ‘tours of duty’ with the last tour as a training Combat Systems Engineer in the Canadian Navy providing the rationale for my spinal cord injuries and ensuing disability pension claims. These claims remain ignored by Veterans Affairs (VA) along with several other government departments.

    2. In my last tour of duty at Esquimalt, B.C., I was billeted to HMCS Qu’Appelle where I injured my spinal cord at three levels, subsequent to a fall in the showers onboard that same warship. Upon release from the Canadian Navy in 1993, I was assessed by a qualified medical general practioner (GP named Dr. R.A. Killeen), in Lower Sackville, NS, who immediately identified a C5/C6 radiculopathy (occuring from one of the spinal cord injuries) which had resulted from the accidental fall onboard the HMCS Qu’Appelle.  This same GP referred me for assessment initially to a diagnostic service in Halifax (i.e., spinal cord MRI), an orthopedic surgeon, a neurosurgeon, and an internal medicine specialist.  All of these graduates and post-graduates in medicine agreed that my three levels of spinal cord injuries (i.e., C5/C6; T11/T12 & L2/L3) most likely were the result of my previously described accidental fall when serving and training onboard the HMCS Qu’Appelle.

    3. Beginning in March 1996 and continuing to this year (2011), I applied for a disability pension with the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB; note: initially this pension was applied for in 1994, but delayed due to typical precursory and unfounded ‘excuses’ on the part of the VRAB). The VRAB ruled on (allegedly) ten separate occasions over the next 15 years against my application for a disability pension.  I was accordingly forced to bring the VRAB into the Trial Division of the Federal Court (Fed. Ct.) on six separate occassioins (Fed. Ct. case # T-157-98, T-2137-99; T-67-03; T-401-05 & T-617-09). 
    4. I submitted several letters/reports/etc. by graduates and post-graduates (in associated fields of internal medicine, neurology and orthopedic surgery) in support of my claims in all of these cases which were brought before the Fed. Ct. Note that none of these submissions by professional graduates of medicine were contradicted by testimonies from similar medical professionals on the part of the VRAB. 

    5. The Hon. Mr. Justice Phelan (Fed. Ct. case #T-617-09) decided: “THIS COURT’S JUDGMENT is that the application for judicial review is granted and the Appeal Board’s decision is quashed.”  Unfortunately, such a ruling did nothing more than refer the same matter back to the Respondent (e.g., Veterans’ Affairs), thus prolonging the history of this veteran’s claims and thereby moving these same claims from the ridiculous to the sublime, as far as the actual service of justice to this veteran is concerned.

    6. While Canadian governments over the past 80+ years have continued to disregard their legislated obligations to veterans of the CF and Mounted Police, along with their spouses and dependants, to what extent do you believe these same governments are allegedly meeting their legislated obligations to the remainder of Canadian citizens?
    7. The Bureau of Pensioners’ Advocates presented this veteran’s case to the VRAB on July 6, 2011 and the VRAB provided a decision applicable to this same latest presentation of my case dated July 5, 2011 (i.e., one day prior to the actual presentation of this veteran’s claims to the VRAB).  Such pre-emptive decisions and complete lack of fair and due process, has been the ‘ear mark’ of the VRAB’s alleged handling of this veteran’s claims over the past 17 years …. not to mention the similar manner in which this same Fed. gov’t dept. has ignored it’s legislated obligations to other veterans, their spouses and dependants.

    8. History has been written, how more often do we have to ignore these blatant travesties in the service of justice before learning lessons which apply to all Canadian citizens?

    9. Why must this veteran’s case (and/or that of all other veterans, their spouses and dependants) be ‘pushed’ to the Appeal Division of the Fed. Ct. (or ultimately to the Supreme Court), before a ruling and/or decision which forces the Fed. gov’t dept. concerned to recognize it’s legislated obligations to all veterans, their spouses and dependants, while meeting the claims of these same citizens and/or veterans, is provided?

    10. The critical and unanswered question, after 17+ years of seeking a settlement with the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB = a subdivision of VA) remains: “If this is the manner in which successive Canadian governments (including the present one) have treated men and women who have placed their lives on the line for these same Canadian governments, to what extent are these same travesties in justice being forced on all Canadian citizens with or without their knowledege of these same unlawful transgressions?”

    Yours truly,

    Brian C. Bradley, Calgary, AB T2J 0E5
    Phone: (403) 455 – 9353
    email: bcbradl5y@inbox.com


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