On February 12, 2018, I debated Pete Kilner on the topic of “Is War Ever Justifiable?” (Location: Radford University; Moderator Glen Martin; videographer Zachary Lyman). Here is video:




The two speakers’ bios:

Pete Kilner is a writer and military ethicist who served more than 28 years in the Army as an infantryman and professor at the U.S. Military Academy. He deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan to conduct research on combat leadership. A graduate of West Point, he holds an MA in Philosophy from Virginia Tech and a Ph.D. in Education from Penn State.

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie and War Is Never Just. He is a 2015, 2016, 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. He holds an MA in philosophy from UVA.

Who won?

Prior to the debate, people in the room were asked to indicate in an online system that displayed the results on a screen whether they thought the answer to “Is War Ever Justifiable?” was yes, no, or they were not sure. Twenty-five people voted: 68% yes, 20% no, 12% not sure. After the debate the question was posed again. Twenty people voted: 40% yes, 45% no, 15% not sure. Please use the comments below to indicate whether this debate moved you in one direction or the other.


These were my prepared remarks for the debate:

Thank you for hosting this debate. Everything I say in this quick overview will unavoidably raise more questions than it answers, many of which I’ve tried to answer at length in books and much of which is documented at

Let’s begin with the fact that war is optional. It’s not dictated to us by genes or outside forces. Our species has been around at least 200,000 years, and anything that could be called war no more than 12,000. To the extent that people mostly shouting at each other and waving sticks and swords can be called the same thing as a person at a desk with a joystick sending missiles into villages halfway around the world, this thing we call war has been far more absent than present in human existence. Many societies have done without it.

The notion that war is natural is, frankly, ridiculous. A great deal of conditioning is needed to prepare most people to take part in war, and a great deal of mental suffering, including higher suicide rates, is common among those who have taken part. In contrast, not a single person is known to have suffered deep moral regret or post-traumatic stress disorder from war deprivation.

War does not correlate with population density or resource shortages. It is quite simply most used by societies most accepting of it. The United States is high on, and by some measures, dominates the top of that list. Surveys have found the U.S. public, among wealthy nations, the most supportive of –quote– “preemptively” attacking other countries. Polls have also found that in the U.S. 44% of people claim they would fight in a war for their country, while in many countries with equal or higher quality of life that response is under 20%.

U.S. culture is saturated with militarism, and the U.S. government is uniquely devoted to it, spending almost the same as the rest of the world combined, despite most of the other big spenders being close allies whom the U.S. pushes to spend more. In fact, every other nation on earth spends closer to the $0 per year spent by nations like Costa Rica or Iceland than to the over $1 trillion spent by the U.S. The United States maintains some 800 bases in other people’s countries, while all other nations on earth combined maintain a few dozen foreign bases. Since World War II, the United States has killed or helped kill some 20 million people, overthrown at least 36 governments, interfered in at least 84 foreign elections, attempted to assassinate over 50 foreign leaders, and dropped bombs on people in over 30 countries. For the past 16 years, the United States has been systematically damaging a region of the globe, bombing Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria. The United States has so-called “special forces” operating in two-thirds of the world’s countries.

When I watch a basketball game on television, two things are ALMOST guaranteed. UVA will win. And the announcers will thank U.S. troops for watching from 175 countries. That’s uniquely American. In 2016 a presidential primary debate question was “Would you be willing to kill hundreds and thousands of innocent children?” That’s uniquely American. That doesn’t happen in election debates where the other 96% of humanity live. U.S. foreign policy journals discuss whether to attack North Korea or Iran. That, too, is uniquely American. The publics of most countries polled in 2013 by Gallup called the United States the greatest threat to peace in the world. Pew found that viewpoint increased in 2017.

So, this country has an unusually strong investment in war, though it is far from the only warmaker. But what would it take to have a justifiable war? According to just war theory, a war must meet several criteria, which I find fall into these three categories: the non-empirical, the amoral, and the impossible. By non-empirical, I mean things like “right intention,” “a just cause,” and “proportionality.” When your government says bombing a building where ISIS stashes money justifies killing up to 50 people, there’s no agreed upon, empirical means to reply No, only 49, or only 6, or up to 4,097 people can be justly killed.

Attaching some just cause to a war, such as ending slavery, never explains all the actual causes of a war, and does nothing to justify the war. During a time when much of the globe ended slavery and serfdom without war, for example, claiming that cause as the justification for a war holds no weight.

By amoral criteria, I mean things like being publicly declared and being waged by legitimate and competent authorities. These are not moral concerns. Even in a world where we actually had legitimate and competent authorities, they wouldn’t make a war any more or less just. Does anyone really picture a family in Yemen hiding from a constantly buzzing drone and expressing gratitude that the drone has been sent to them by a competent authority?

By impossible, I mean things like “be a last resort,” “have a reasonable prospect of success”, “keep noncombatants immune from attack,” “respect enemy soldiers as human beings,” and “treat prisoners of war as noncombatants.” To call something a “last resort” is in reality merely to claim it is the best idea you have, not the only idea you have. There are always other ideas that anyone can think of, even if you’re in the role of the Afghans or Iraqis actually being attacked. Studies like those of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have found nonviolent resistance to domestic and even foreign tyranny to be twice as likely to succeed, and those successes to be far longer lasting. We can look to successes, some partial, some complete, against foreign invasions, over the years in Nazi-occupied Denmark and Norway, in India, Palestine, Western Sahara, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, etc., and dozens of successes against regimes that in many cases have had foreign support.

My hope is that the more that people learn the tools of nonviolence and their power, the more they will believe in and choose to make use of that power, which will increase the power of nonviolence in a virtuous cycle. At some point I can imagine people laughing at the idea that some foreign dictatorship is going to invade and occupy a nation ten times its size, full of people dedicated to nonviolent noncooperation with occupiers. Already, I get a laugh on a frequent basis when people email me with the threat that if I do not support war I had better be prepared to start speaking North Korean or what they call “the ISIS language.” Apart from the nonexistence of these languages, the idea that anybody is going to get 300 million Americans to learn any foreign language, much less do so at gun point, almost makes me cry. I can’t help imagining how much weaker war propaganda might be if all Americans did know multiple languages.

Continuing with the impossible criteria, what about respecting a person while trying to kill her or him? There are lots of ways to respect a person, but none of them can exist simultaneously with trying to kill that person. In fact, I would rank right at the bottom of people who respect me those who were trying to kill me. Remember that just war theory began with people who believed killing someone was doing them a favor. And noncombatants are the majority of casualties in modern wars, so they cannot be kept safe. And there’s no reasonable prospect of success available — the U.S. military is on a record losing streak.

But the biggest reason that no war can ever be justified is not that no war can ever meet all the criteria of just war theory, but rather that war is not an incident, it is an institution.

Many people in the U.S. will concede that many U.S. wars have been unjust, but claim justness for World War II and in some cases one or two since. Others claim no just wars yet, but join the masses in supposing that there might be a justifiable war any day now. It is that supposition that kills far more people than all of the wars. The U.S. government spends over $1 trillion on war and war preparations each year, while 3% of that could end starvation, and 1% could end the lack of clean drinking water globally. The military budget is the only place with the resources needed to try to save the earth’s climate. Far more lives are lost and damaged through the failure to spend money well than through the violence of war. And more are lost or put at risk through side-effects of that violence than directly. War and war preparations are the biggest destroyer of the natural environment. Most countries on earth burn less fossil fuel than does the U.S. military. Most superfund disaster sites even within the U.S. are at military bases. The institution of war is the biggest eroder of our liberties even when the wars are marketed under the word “freedom.” This institution impoverishes us, threatens the rule of law, and degrades our culture by fueling violence, bigotry, the militarization of police, and mass surveillance. This institution puts us all at risk of nuclear disaster. And it endangers, rather than protects, those societies that engage in it.

According to the Washington Post, President Trump asked Secretary of so-called Defense James Mattis why he should send troops to Afghanistan, and Mattis replied that it was to prevent a bombing in Times Square. Yet the man who tried to blow up Times Square in 2010 said he was trying to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

For North Korea to try to occupy the U.S. would require a force many times larger than the North Korean military. For North Korea to attack the U.S., were it actually capable, would be suicide. Could it happen? Well, look at what the CIA said before the U.S. attacked Iraq: Iraq would be most likely to use its weapons only if attacked. Apart from the weapons not existing, that was accurate.

Terrorism has predictably increased during the war on terrorism (as measured by the Global Terrorism Index). 99.5% of terrorist attacks occur in countries engaged in wars and/or engaged in abuses such as imprisonment without trial, torture, or lawless killing. The highest rates of terrorism are in so-called “liberated” and “democratized” Iraq and Afghanistan. The terrorist groups responsible for the most terrorism (that is, non-state, politically motivated violence) around the world have grown out of U.S. wars against terrorism. Those wars themselves have caused numerous just-retired top U.S. government officials and a few U.S. government reports to describe military violence as counterproductive, as creating more enemies than are killed. 95% of all suicide terrorist attacks are conducted to encourage foreign occupiers to leave the terrorist’s home country. And an FBI study in 2012 said that anger over U.S. military operations abroad was the most commonly cited motivation for individuals involved in cases of so-called homegrown terrorism in the United States.

The facts lead me to these three conclusions:

1) Foreign terrorism in the United States can be virtually eliminated by keeping the U.S. military out of any country that is not the United States.

2) If Canada wanted anti-Canadian terrorist networks on a U.S. scale or just wanted to be threatened by North Korea, it would need to radically increase its bombing, occupying, and base construction around the world.

3) On the model of the war on terrorism, the war on drugs that produces more drugs, and the war on poverty that seems to increase poverty, we would be wise to consider launching a war on sustainable prosperity and happiness.

Seriously, for a war on North Korea, for example, to be justifiable, the U.S. would have to have not gone to such efforts over the years to avoid peace and provoke conflict, it would have to be innocently attacked, it would have to lose the ability to think so that no alternatives could be considered, it would have to redefine “success” to include a scenario in which a nuclear winter might cause much of the earth to lose the ability to grow crops or eat (by the way, Keith Payne, a drafter of the new Nuclear Posture Review, in 1980, parroting Dr. Strangelove, defined success to allow up to 20 million dead Americans and unlimited non-Americans), it would have to invent bombs that spare noncombatants, it would have to devise a means of respecting people while killing them, and in addition, this remarkable war would have to do so much good as to outweigh all the damage done by decades of preparing for such a war, all the economic damage, all the political damage, all the damage to the earth’s land, water, and climate, all the deaths by starvation and disease that could have been so easily spared, plus all the horrors of all the unjust wars facilitated by the preparations for the dreamed-of just war, plus the risk of nuclear apocalypse created by the institution of war. No war can meet such standards.

So called “humanitarian wars,” which is what Hitler called his invasion of Poland and NATO called its invasion of Libya, do not, of course, measure up to just war theory. Nor do they benefit humanity. What the U.S. and Saudi militaries are doing to Yemen is the worst humanitarian disaster in years. The U.S. sells or gives weapons to 73% of the world’s dictators, and gives military training to many of them. Studies have found that there is no correlation between the severity of human rights abuses in a country and the likelihood of Western invasion of that country. Other studies have found that oil importing countries are 100 times more likely to intervene in civil wars of oil exporting countries. In fact, the more oil a country produces or owns, the higher the likelihood is of third-party interventions.

The U.S., like any other war-maker, has to work hard to avoid peace.

The U.S. has spent years rejecting out of hand peace negotiations for Syria.

In 2011, so that NATO could begin bombing Libya, the African Union was prevented by NATO from presenting a peace plan to Libya.

In 2003, Iraq was open to unlimited inspections or even the departure of its president, according to numerous sources, including the president of Spain to whom U.S. President Bush recounted Hussein’s offer to leave.

In 2001, Afghanistan was open to turning Osama bin Laden over to a third country for trial.

In 1999, the U.S. State Department deliberately set the bar too high, insisting on NATO’s right to occupy all of Yugoslavia, so that Serbia would not agree, and would therefore supposedly need to be bombed.

In 1990, the Iraqi government was willing to negotiate withdrawal from Kuwait. It asked that Israel also withdraw from Palestinian territories and that itself and the whole region, including Israel, give up all weapons of mass destruction. Numerous governments urged that negotiations be pursued. The U.S. chose war.

Go back through history. The United States sabotaged peace proposals for Vietnam. The Soviet Union proposed peace negotiations before the Korean War. Spain wanted the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine to go to international arbitration before the Spanish American War. Mexico was willing to negotiate the sale of its northern half. In each case, the U.S. preferred war.

Peace would not seem so difficult if people stopped going to such efforts to avoid it — like Mike Pence in a room with a North Korean trying not to indicate awareness of her presence. And if we stopped letting them scare us. Fear can make lies and simplistic thinking believable. We need courage! We need to lose the fantasy of total safety that drives us to create ever greater danger!

And if the United States had a democracy, rather than bombing people in the name of democracy, I wouldn’t have to convince anyone of anything. The U.S. public already favors military reductions and greater use of diplomacy. Such moves would stimulate a reverse arms race. And that reverse arms race would open more eyes to the possibility of advancing further in that direction — the direction of what is required by morality, what is necessary for the habitability of the planet, what we must pursue if we are to survive: the complete abolition of the institution of war.

One more point: When I say that war can never be justified, I’m willing to agree to disagree about wars in the past if we can agree on wars in the future. That is, if you think that before nuclear weapons, before the end of legal conquest, before the general end of colonialism, and before the growth in understanding of the powers of nonviolence, some war like World War II was justified, I disagree, and I can tell you why at length, but let’s agree that we now live in a different world in which Hitler does not live and in which we must abolish war if our species is to continue.

Of course if you want to travel back in time to World War II, why not travel back to WWI, the disastrous conclusion of which had smart observers predicting WWII on the spot? Why not travel back to the West’s support for Nazi Germany in the 1930s? We can look honestly at a war in which the U.S. was not threatened, and about which the U.S. president had to lie to gain support, a war that killed several times the number of people in the war as were killed in the Nazis’ camps. A war that followed the West’s refusal to accept the Jews whom Hitler wanted to expel, a war that was entered through provocation of the Japanese, not innocent surprise. Let’s learn history instead of mythology, but let’s recognize that we can choose to do better than our history going forward.