Stop calling it the War on Terrorism: 

An Argument for Moral Clarity


Marc. O. Hedahl


The views expressed in this paper are solely the views of its author and not necessarily the views of the DoD, the USAF, The USAFA, or even the USAFA Dept of Philosophy as I’m sure my fellow panel member and more importantly my commander Col Cook will make clear before the morning session is over


            On October 23, 1997, then Governor George W. Bush declared a War on Illiteracy in the great state of Texas.  After a month of several campaigns involving numerous strategies, the Texas Governor won this hard fought battle when Texas A&M finally surrendered in the early morning hours of November 22, 1997.[1]

The War on Drugs, the War on Illiteracy, the War on AIDS, the War on Poverty, the War on Hunger, the War on Disease. In all of these cases we can clearly see the term ‘war’ used as a metaphorical device. In a possible world where the joke that leads this paper is actually humorous it is easy to see why, we are after all conflating a war in the metaphorical sense, an issue of great importance for which we are willing to devote significant time and resources including our sweat and tears and a non-metaphorical war where we are also willing to sacrifice blood: our blood, the blood of our enemies and often times the blood of the innocent as well.  And, while there appears to be no immediate harm in using the term ‘war’ for the War on Illiteracy, that may not be the case the War on Terrorism.  It seems that this particular war is actually a hybrid of the two cases with which we are familiar; it’s a war in both the metaphorical senses and the more traditional sense.  This “war” will usually be political in nature, involving diplomatic pressures, freezing assets, economic sanctions, etc.  Parts of this “war”, however, will involve military campaigns, and it is this unique combination that makes this particular “war” so problematic.[2]

In this paper I will attempt to argue two main points.   Contrary to the overly ambitious title of this paper, however, my first point is not an attempt to change the name, ‘The War on Terrorism’.  Rather, I will attempt to argue that it is morally problematic to think of the War on Terrorism as a war.  One problem is that it can lead to numerous category mistakes.  For example, it seems absurd to claim that we need to  have an exit strategy for the Federalization of Airport Security. Of course, an even greater concern with thinking of the War on Terrorism as a war is that important moral discussions about the “Battles” within the “War” may not take place at all.

The second major point of the paper will build off the first and deal with the very real wars that fall under the umbrella of the war on terror.   Immediately, two sets of cases seem less morally problematic.  The first set contains cases where we clearly have a just cause (e.g. Afghanistan).[3]  The second set contains cases where the host nation invites us to enter their country to assist them with their anti-terrorist efforts. [4]  The most morally problematic set of potential wars within the War on Terrorism, however, are preventative wars and I will briefly discuss the problems the criteria of just cause creates when considering preventative wars. 

Stop Calling it the War on Terrorism

War is grave business. In a democracy, we don't and shouldn't go to war without the people understanding why we're doing it and what our goals are. We shouldn’t go to war unless certain criteria are met.  The list is familiar to this audience I am sure, but I want to focus on two: reasonable hope of success and last resort in order to demonstrate that the very real wars that fall under the umbrella of the war on terrorism are not mere battles, and therefore we must address the concerns of jus ad bellum anew with each conflict.

A group called Stop the War at home and abroad has claimed in a relatively disdainful tone “The White House promises a war without end.”[5]  -- This statement would of course be an almost unanswerable objection if we were talking about an actual war – it would fail reasonable hope of success and proportionality of ends at the least.

However, it seems literally absurd once we realize just how much of this War is not a War at all. Look at the President’s summation on the war on terrorism in Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech, “3,000 arrested in various countries; Intensified border patrol; Increased screeners in airports.”[6]  Then we realize that the people at Stop the War at home and abroad are in effect telling us “The White House promises increased boarder patrol without end.”  Or “The White House promises police forces controlling crime in our neighborhoods infinitely into the future.” berates the president for not providing specific criteria for the war’s success.   This condemnation as well would be devastating to a war in the traditional sense of the word; reasonable hope of success would most certainly be impossible.  And, even if we took some of the rhetoric of success such as “The end of terrible threats to the civilized world” or “The end of any terrorist threat with global reach”, there seem no problem in pursuing these goals even if there is little chance of success.  In fact if the war on terrorism is mostly political and policing in nature we would consider the failure to act even  if only to make those threats less likely as a moral failure. 

Still others have objected to President Bush’s remarks that “The war on terror will not be won on the defensive.  We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” If we are talking about political action and policing actions, however, then this statement becomes significantly less morally problematic.

It is these kinds of category mistakes that are all too common in the discussion of the war on Terrorism.  Unlike previous wars, there is no Berlin or Tokyo to capture and all would assert to the fact that this is at the very least a radically different kind of war.   But for those who would still want to consider this war a war in the very really sense keep in mind that if as Clausvitz tells us, “War is politics by other means” then politics by everyday political means must fall outside our definition of war.  The use of the military instrument of power is a purely political act until the true power of that instrument is unleashed.  Mobilization, increase in Force Protection, etc. are not by themselves acts of war.  And if all of our strategic and moral discussions about the war on terrorism no longer even remotely resemble those types of discussions in other wars, we should start to realize that war is not a good description for this campaign.

One Final objection could be that the War on Terror should be called a war for three important reasons.  1) it contrasts the current approach with an alternative approach that is more reactive and less proactive in nature 2) it demonstrates our resolve to resort to war if required 3) No other term correctly demonstrates the importance of this effort to our country at this particular time in history.  Let me say that I am certainly amenable to these types of concerns, and that is why I said earlier that I am not attempting to change the name of this campaign but rather attempting to argue that it is morally problematic to think of the War on Terrorism as a war. 

But, if these are the reasons that we call the war on terrorism a war, we should realize that we have in effect introduced a radically new meaning to the term to our lexicon.  Therefore, we must be extremely weary of equivocation, and most importantly we must realize that the very real wars that fall under the umbrella of the war on terrorism are not mere battles, we must address the concerns of jus ad bellum anew with each conflict, and we must ensure that those tough questions are answered properly.

Traditional Wars that may fall under the umbrella of the War on Terror

We should also remember, however, that parts of this “war” will involve actual military campaigns; it is as I mentioned earlier this unique combination that makes this particular “war” so problematic.  We would be oversimplifying the problem if we believed that Bush’s quote that we will “confront the worst threats before they emerge” was delivered to deal only with actions within the arenas of politics or law enforcement. So we must therefore discuss the very real wars fought under the umbrella of the war on terrorism and the problem of just cause.

It is important to note that I am using the term ‘just cause’ in the traditional Kantian sense, not the more broad sense that we are fighting for freedom or justice as the term is more commonly used.  For us to have a just cause in the traditional just war sense of the term, the other side must have committed some act of aggression, so we can act in the defense of ourselves or in the defense of others.

Traditional Just War Theory allows for preemptive strikes against a nation or group.  But that means that the threat must be clear, present and serious.  One can strike only if the potential enemy is in the process of striking or just about to strike a blow.  However, Traditional Just War Theory does not permit preventive strikes.  These strikes try to prevent attacks that are in the future.   So preventive strikes are not allowed because steps can be taken to avoid wars in the future and more importantly the country in question does not yet poses a clear, present and serious threat.  In effect, preventive strikes are not permitted because one has not yet satisfied the principle of last resort or more importantly just cause.  Last Resort, however, is a more “relative criteria” and inherently consequaentalist in nature.  So, last resort is usually an easier criteria to meet and less problematic than the criteria just cause, which is deontic in nature.  Therefore, in this presentation I will focus on just cause.

Now, there are some that claim in this new world post 9/11 we longer require just cause. The first argument sometimes provided is that these wars are required to win the war on terrorism, for which we obviously have a just cause, two towers relegated to rubble, the pentagon broken, and possibly more if not for heroic efforts in the skies over Pennsylvania.  This argument however, rests on just the types of equivocations warned against in the first section of this paper and the fact that it is so prevalent show the potential dangers of thinking about the war on terrorism as a war.  A war against Iraq or anyone else cannot be justified solely based on the war on terrorism.

A second argument against the need for just cause in wars with terrorists rests on the claim that legitimate governments do not require just cause when they fight rebels or terrorists because rebels and terrorists plan for actions against nation non-contingently.  Their plans represent the first steps which will actually lead to (and in effect already constitute) attack.  This is directly contrary to legitimate governments who plan contingently, that is legitimate nations plan to take action only if some particular action is taken by someone else.  Because the terrorists and rebels are planning non-contingently, they are in effect already at war, so just cause no longer applies. [7]

But this argument seems to me to miss the main problem of preventative war.  If rebels or terrorists are planning a non-contingent attack against me there are it seems to me 3 possibilities

  1. Those rebels or terrorists are within my country
  2. Those rebels or terrorists are within a country that allows me in  (e.g. Yemen)
  3. Those rebels or terrorists are within a country that does NOT allow me in

In case 1 and 2 , however, I would contend that  we are not within the realm of warfare but policing regardless of who is used to carry out the actual police work and the morality is different.  

After all even the police are allowed to shoot to kill if two conditions are met:

    1. there is no other way to apprehend the suspect without killing him,
    2.  there is convincing evidence that the suspect will very likely cause serious harm to others if not apprehended

It’s simply that these two conditions do not obtain very often in police work.  Furthermore, although the question of who carries out the policing function, particularly within our own borders is an interesting one as well, we once again conflate the war on terrorism with an actual war if we believe that there is not a fundamental difference between preventative actions within our own borders, within our allies borders, and within our adversaries borders.  Arresting terrorists in Buffalo or Paris, or even attacking them in Yemen are fundamentally different than attacking them in Iraq or Iran.  Just Cause is not required for internal law enforcement, but it is required when we breach sovereignty, it is required for war.  Yes, terrorists and rebels plan non-contingently, as do all criminals.  But, our ability to take preventative measures against them within our own borders should not be confused with an ability to start a preventative war with another nation. We cannot dismiss just cause simply because we are fighting against terrorism.

            A third argument sometimes advanced is that we meet the criteria of Just Cause anytime the offending country has broken some UN Resolution or international law.  While it seems that there’s some basis to this line of argument, there must be something more fundamental involved as well.  One or two other criteria must be also met in order for just cause to be satisfied. Either a) we need to be authorized by the UN to enforce the resolution and international law or b) the crimes against humanity must be so egregious as to constitute a violation of human rights that is in the words of Michael Walzer “literally unbearable”, something akin to genocide.  If one of these criteria is not met, then I fear that we would lack the proper authority to have a truly just cause.

            So, if just cause can never be met or merely brushed aside in a preventative war, is it possible for a preventative war to be just?  The answer to anyone but the most strict Kantian would seem to have to be yes.  In order to find a defense, however we should not look to the future, but rather to the past.  We have already morally justified a preventative war at least once in our history when we defended the justice of the demand for unconditional surrender.  With a demand for unconditional surrender we continue fighting because the chance of future war is likely and the impacts of that war on the world would be devastating.  Furthermore, the demand for unconditional surrender is just if and only if both the likelihood of a future war is high and the consequences of that war would be unbearable. Both of these conditions would have to be met, one without the other is not enough. Moreover, the requirement for preventative war should be even more restrictive because we do not merely continue the fight, we initiate it.  Therefore, preventative wars can be just if and only if both the likelihood of a future war is extremely high and the consequences of that war would be literally unbearable.[8]

            So, although it seems a small number of preventative wars can be justified, I feel the need to briefly discuss how extensive a just preventative war would change the just war theory and our whole idea of just warfare.  So, let us examine two possible theoretical consequences of a just preventative war. 

            One possible theoretical consequence of a just preventative war is that both sides could be fighting a just war is that both sides could be fighting a just war.  If we agree that the country fighting a preventative war could be fighting a just war, it seems at least possible that the country being attacked could be just in defending itself as well.  After all, they have not yet committed an act of aggression.  They have not posed a clear, present and serious threat.

            Another possible theoretical consequence of a just preventative war is the fact that we may lose the distinction between Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello. 

1)      Normally we do not blame the solider for the war, but we do blame them for their actions within war because of both epistemic concerns and because of patriotism which are present when dealing with concerns of ad Bellum but not in the concerns of in Bello.

2)      In a preventative war, however:

a.      Both sides may be fighting a just war

b.      Both sides may indeed be ultimately be fighting to “preserve their way of life”

3)      So, on both sides, blaming soldiers for their acts within a preventative war becomes much more problematic if they have reason to believe that their actions were required to win the war


Neither of these consequences are theoretically necessary, but their mere possibility underscores how morally problematic preventative war is.

So, in conclusion, although countries are not necessarily required to wait until an attack has occurred, morality does seem to require them to err on the side of caution and not on the side of war, .   In the years ahead, we must be extremely cautious in both our words, in the war on terrorism, and more importantly our deeds, in the very real wars that will fall under its umbrella,  if in the words of our commander in chief “our flag is to continue to represent something more than just Our Power and Our Interests.”



[1] This is, of course, all false.  I hope that we could even allow philosophers the occasional literary license (albeit very occasional).

[2] I realize, of course, that we always use the political instrument of power in traditional wars, and often use the military instrument of power in means other than wars (e.g. show of force).  The over-arching campaign of the war on terror, however, uses these instruments of power in different amounts (i.e. sometimes not at all) when dealing with different countries.  It is this feature that makes this campaign a hybrid of war in the traditional sense and war in metaphorical sense.

[3] I am using the term ‘just cause’ here in the traditional just war sense of the term, which implies certain deontic concerns, i.e. one country has already done something (e.g. invade another country) which makes a war morally acceptable provided the other just war criteria are met.  Merely fighting for freedom or security is not a just cause in the traditional just war sense of the term.

[4] This is not actually a war in the traditional interpretation of jus ad bellum , but simply us assisting in internal police action

[7] These ideas come from Nick Fotion’s Reich Lecture at the US Air Force Academy on 21 November 2002.

[8] This is, of course similar to Walzer’s defense of Supreme Emergency. Of course, for a Supreme Emergency the danger has to be both grave and immanent.  For an unconditional surrender, however, the danger must be grave, but not as immanent because the rights we are violating (temporarily taking away a country’s sovereignty) are much less severe (as opposed to intentionally targeting the innocent). I contend that the justice of preventive wars will closely resemble the justice of unconditional surrender.  I will obviously go into more detail about what constitutes a grave and somewhat immanent danger in my paper.