Preemptive War

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Iraq was the first preemptive war except for all the others. All wars start with a series of escalations on both sides. All offer multiple opportunities to escalate or deescalate (back down). A fight doesn't happen because one guy throws the first punch, but because both sides chose to not walk away until eventually a fight is the only natural outcome -- who threw the first punch at that point, is almost irrelevant. Both sides will have plenty of vindication to claim, "he started it". So those arguing that we were wrong because we responded to dozens of illegal provocations, are missing the point and trying to find excuses for why America was wrong, by ignoring all the ways that Saddam and Iraq was first.

All the rest

Iraq was the first preemptive war, other than:

  • the Revolutionary war - no one knows who exactly fired the first shot in the Revolutionary war (both sides claim the other side shot first), but there's no doubt the Americans (Rebels) were doing things that were illegal acts of war first (like the Tea Party). Of course both sides see their actions as justified by the others actions first.
  • Shay's rebellion - a rebellion is by nature preemptory or retaliatory depending on whose side you're on.
  • War of 1812 - for using the quasi-legal concept of Shanghaiing (impressing Americans into Her Royal Navy's service), and trade duties we didn't like, so the Americans declared war on the British (again).
  • Barbary Wars - When the Danish King Eric charged everyone "Sound Dues" for shipping near his coastline, the world accepted that. When Tripoli demanded their tithe, we started wars over it. Explain the difference.
  • Civil War - since both sides were Americans, Americans must have been preemptive.
  • Spanish-American - was started over a mistake: Americans fired first because they thought the Spanish had sabotaged a ship (the sinking of the USS Maine).
  • Mexican-American - in the Thorton affair the Mexicans attacked and killed 12 Americans over disputed territory, did that justify everything the Americans did or not?
  • WWI - territorial disputes in Europe had nothing to do with us or our defense
  • WWII - Japan attacked Pearl Harbor... because we committed acts of War against them first: in China we supplied weapons and airplanes and men to fly them (the AVG and Flying Tigers), we cut off the Japanese oil supply, we supplied weapons/training to Japan's enemies, and a dozen other acts of war before the Japanese attacked is back/first. Does that make us more wrong or more right than the Japanese?
  • Korea - the U.S. took over parts of Korea controlled by Japan before that, and then got involved in the civil war to take their country back. We defended the South and democracy against an aggressor, but it still wasn't our fight to begin with.
  • Vietnam - we had the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which is disputed whose waters our patrol boats were in (thus justifying whether they fired first), or we were in the wrong place thus our retaliation was the first illegitimate attack
  • Panama and a few others in Latin American wars... we needled. Someone got shot. That's preemptive.
  • Bosnia/Kosovo - the civil war had nothing to do with us or our defense
  • The first gulf war - territorial disputes in the Middle East had nothing to do with us or our defense
  • Libya - territorial disputes in the Middle East had nothing to do with us or our defense
  • and so on....

Conclusion

Wars can not start if neither side attacks the other. Thus all wars are preemptive, and both sides rationalize their attacks as counter attacks, attacks for past transgressions, or necessary for defensive action. This war was no different from all the rest. But it doesn't matter. The issue of whether a War was preemptive or not, is moot. The real question is whether there was enough justification, or whether this war was “illegal” or immoral. So it is not an absolute wrong to start a war, because a war (like a fight) is a series of escalation's by both sides. At any time, either side can stop and walk away, but the war (fight) happens because neither will back down.

Those that say Iraq was the first preemptive war, or that preemption makes a War morally wrong, are both clueless of history and ethics.

Like it or not, the whole world would be a far worse place if the U.S. had not been preemptive in the past (like WWII or Korea), there are plenty of cases where we weren't preemptive and still wrong (we should have backed down and never gotten into the fight in the first place), and there are plenty of cases where the biggest failings as a world were when weren’t preemptive when we should have been. Think of Cambodia, Rwanda, Germany, Russia, China, Albania, and so on, where a lack of action by the world, led to thousands or millions of people massacred. I'm not a fan of world cop, but I'm not a fan of selling popcorn to watch a gang rape either. You make your choices, do the best you can, and live with the consequences. I'm fine with people choosing to do nothing, as long as they accept the tradeoffs and consequences. But I have a problem with folks that claim the other side is wrong for trying to do something, when the alternative was so gruesome. Written: 2005.08.04