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Video Interview with Professor Jeff McMahon on Increasing Airstrikes in Syria — The Ethics of War

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In the first of a series of video interviews by Dr Katrien Devolder hosted by the Practical Ethics in the News blog, Jeff McMahan discusses the war in Syria.

In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, the US and France increased the number of airstrikes in Syria.

Is this increase justified?

See the full interview here:

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2 Comment on this post

  1. This is very disturbing to watch for a variety of reasons

    (1) The random musings about how it might be permissible to kill children as a ‘means/end’ are quite chilling. He never directly engages with any of the many risks of mistakes and human tragedies a military response causes. And yes, he is correct a military response is likely necessary–but there are many aspects to this response that need to be dealt with in a detailed fashion. The sweeping ‘you can fight evil with bombs’ idea is something anyone can do. Why not apply some actual analysis to the complex details here? What’s Russia’s role? What about the Syrian rebels? What about Iran? Who are the civilians at risk? What is the responsibility to them given that they are in the crossfire of a war that wouldn’t be happening without previous US-UK involvement?

    (2) The odd claim that Isis is in fact justified by Islamic theology. Yes, they claim Islam justifies their actions. They certainly utilize some version of Islamic theology. But there are many, many, many Islamic scholars and religious leaders who disagree with their view. In fact, even the most orthodox and traditional among them disagree. There are a number of fatwas against Isis. If he is so uninformed, could he simply defer to Islamic scholars on this point? He seems to get his views on the religious justifications Isis uses from newspapers and magazine articles. Isis is a sectarian cult, not some inevitable refinement of traditional Islamic belief.

    This simultaneously (a) validates Isis’s point of view and (b) gives fodder for those in Europe, Australia and the US who would like to persecute Muslims living in their countries since clearly ‘Islam’ is a cause of Isis.

    Islam is a cause of Isis like rain is a cause of erosion. Rain causes a lot of things besides erosion and rain doesn’t always cause erosion. Why is Islam causing fanatical death cults that are so attractive and why is this a winning ideological strategy at this particular moment in history? Islam is only a small part of the answer to that question–a cause but only one of many causes.

    I’m sure he couldn’t mean to support both Isis and the xenophobes in one fell swoop. He could not be so ignorant, could he?

    The way he flippantly talks about ‘people of the book’ and the view about enslavement–it’s quite naive. If he thinks Isis leaders are so orthodox that they will maintain a view over time he does not understand how fanatic cult-like militant groups work. They will shift their standards when convenient because their actions don’t flow from some doctrinal source but rather from what is convenient for them in motivating their followers and in dominating others.

    To consider the causal angle, Islamic texts are not a main cause of the actions of Isis. How could they be? There’s been nothing like this in the past and yet these texts have always been present. Suicide bombing itself is a very recent innovation–an innovation of the Tamil Tigers originally. Everything else that’s happening is determined by the specifics of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq rather than determined by a particular reading of a particular set of texts.

    (3) Another very sloppy claim is that Isis is evil so ‘we must do something’ and he refers to Hitler to support this claim. Similar to Michael Walzer, this use of WWII as a guide to moral choice is a potentially disastrous confusion. These are not parallel situations. Yes, obviously, something must be done. Surely he must have observed that the Western powers have been ‘doing something’ all along about terrorism (and its evils) and the something they have been doing is not effective. So the defensive model of warfare doesn’t apply and the model of traditional warfare between states also doesn’t completely apply since much of the battle is an ideological battle.

    He must be more sophisticated than to believe that this ‘evil’ springs from nowhere. He must be more sophisticated than to think that military force is the sole answer–given that military force hasn’t been successful in very similar situations.

    There’s so little nuance in his arguments. It’s as if he has taken a human tragedy and turned it into a logic puzzle. He has a list of things in his mind that justify certain actions given certain conditions. Then he claims that these conditions exist. And that’s it–nothing he says reflects a full understanding of the historical or cultural context.

    It’s true that Isis leadership aren’t rational actors but he needs to expand his reading if he wants to say that ‘they cannot be deterred.’ There’s something dehumanizing in this but it’s also factually inaccurate because it assumes everyone in Isis is of the same viewpoint. People are joining Isis for a lot of different reasons–and some are locals who are doing it for expedient reasons–so some can be influenced by whatever their interests are and some would like to stay alive. Likely bombing won’t deter but that’s because bombing does not have that effect on peoples’ psyches generally. It certainly didn’t deter the Germans or Japanese in WWII up until Nagasaki. How could he forget this? Or did he not know this already? How could he not know this? You’d be hard pressed to find a leader who was deterred by bombing or sanctions. People follow their leaders.

    The last thing is simply not something he will be able to acknowledge given the grip of the just war model on his thinking–which is that certain cycles of violence influence people beyond what is rational–most conflicts that lead to massive atrocities occur after people engaged in them have experienced catastrophic violence. You can look at Cambodia under Pol Pot as an example of this. If you are thinking in terms of *what is justified* why are you unable to think in terms of *what is effective.* You do find this in just war theory–a reasonable chance of success is a criteria. But the unwillingness to engage with the complexity of the situation and contextual factors is really the biggest missing piece in this discussion.

    There’s a tragic aspect to this particular situation that is worth thinking about but which takes one away from the tools Prof. McMahon is familiar with–we may do something and it is likely that very little that is done will have anything but disastrous effects. And in fact, strategists don’t know what to do. They are only guessing. But the terror that’s been fomented by the cooperation with the media and government of Europe, the UK and the US with Isis’s propaganda goals have made it imperative to do something in haste–but it is something which no one has any clear idea will be the least bit effective in the long run because we don’t know what horrors will be spawned by the continuing instability in this region and the terrifying destruction of the societies these people once lived in.

  2. It is inconvenient to comment here when there is no written text. Unless those watching the whole 14-minute interview transcribe it all, they will comment from memory, with inevitable errors.

    McMahan seems to work within the conventional framework of the states system, so presumably he would approach the Syrian airstrikes in that framework. There are many other issues related to Syria, ISIS, terrorism, and national security, which don’t fit into that framework. This blog seems an appropriate place to look at the ethics, so perhaps the editors might consider placing more items on that subject, rather than just linking to a video of a short interview. (Given the lack of posts recently, this blog may be in its last days, and perhaps the YouTube channel is intended to replace it).

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