Who Does War Punish?

by Patrick Appel

In a 2011 paper (pdf), David Luban made the case against punitive war:

War is a blunt instrument. Despite easy talk about “surgical” strikes and “precision” attacks, the fact is that warmaking wreaks damage across entire towns, cities, and territories. Wars are the equivalent of natural disasters like floods and hurricanes, and even the most discriminate war breaks whatever it touches. Thus, if war is retributive punishment, we must acknowledge that it is collective punishment, indeed collective corporal punishment.

Joshua Keating adds:

Obama probably won’t use the word “punishment” when he presents the case for war to the American public, but given that no demands have been made of Assad—no one is suggesting that if he surrenders his chemical weapons or comes to the negotiating table in the next few days, the whole thing will be called off—this certainly does feel like punishment for a blatant human rights abuse and for crossing the “red line” Obama specified last year. Whether you agree with Luban’s take or not, that’s a more radical notion than I think people realize.