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The Gulf War: Just or Unjust?




Whether you subscribe to just-war theory or not, the Gulf War was a moral victoy for America. Using the just-war theory outlined by Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars, the American-led coalition against Saddam Hussein's forces not only prove his actions as unjustified, but also legitimizes the response by the United Nations' coalition force.

Just-war theory, broken into its two main categories, tries to dictate the justification for going to war and, once engaged, the conduct of the combatants involved. Although closely related, these two categories are treated as discrete considerations. A questionable cause does not qualify questionable conduct. Applied to the Gulf War, both considerations were ignored by the Iraqi government as well as the Iraqi soldiers.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a textbook example of aggression, according to the very definition given in just-war theory. Once Iraq invaded, the coalition made enough attempts to settle the matter without resorting to war thus satisfying the "last resort" requirement. After diplomatic efforts failed, the coalition received permission from the competent authority of the United Nations to use force against the Iraqi army. Finally, to add to the numerous reasons that the Gulf War was just, humanitarian intervention was necessary as a result of the atrocities performed against the Kuwaiti civilians.

After the war started, the concentration shifted from justification for war to justice during war. Here, too, Iraq failed to adhere to just-war principles. Iraq's treatment of prisoners of war stood in stark contrast to that of the coalition. The coalition also followed the requirements of just-war behavior which allows the killing of combatants despite the circumstances which brought them to bear. Finally, the coalition did not participate in individual assassination nor nuclear war, the latter of which would violate the exclusion of non-combatants from hostilities. At every opportunity, the coalition followed the requirements for a just war before and during the Persian Gulf War.

Jus Ad Bellum

The just-war theory as described in Walzer is not a checklist of items that, when completed, gives the authorization for war. Morality for waging war is on a sliding scale rather that a definite point of decision. Because of the ambiguity of when a war is just depends on who is making that decision, just-war theory tries to qualify the situation using the circumstances leading up to armed conflict. During the Gulf War, the coalition fulfilled many of the just-war qualifiers which slid the scale in favor of a just war. Aggression, last resort, competent authority, and humanitarian intervention were among the justification factors used by the coalition.

Aggression On August 2, 1990, the Iraqi army crossed two lines. The first line was the border separating the two sovereign countries of Iraq and Kuwait. Internationally recognized as a legitimate state since 1961, Kuwait was overrun by the large Iraqi military. The second line was the biggest qualifier for a just war against Iraq: Aggression. Using the legalist paradigm, Walzer views aggression as the largest, if only, justification for war. In performing this act of aggression, Iraq unleashed the floodgates of war which Walzer describes as the crime of war (Walzer 1977). Because of Iraqi aggression against Kuwait, the international coalition was morally forced to wage war.

Of all the arguments for the war against Iraq, stopping aggression was the strongest platform. Even though oil was a central issue, the coalition required Iraq to give back the property, land, and people seized in the invasion. To ignore the Iraqi invasion would be to reward "naked aggression" (Blonston 1991).

Last Resort

After the initial invasion, diplomatic efforts were made to avoid fighting. For six months, every opportunity was given to Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait and avoid a war. Yet some critics claim that another major point in just-war theory was not met. According to the theory, not only must a war be a response to aggression, but also be a last resort. But Walzer points out that the concept of last resort would nullify any war as just. There can never be a true end to attempts to avoid war. In practice, a point is reached when it is decided that all reasonable attempts have been made to avoid conflict. But here lies the problem. Who makes that decision? Once it is made, there will always be those who question if all possibilities had been explored. The Gulf war raised many such arguments. Even General Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed his desire for more time to allow the blockade around Iraq to force Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. But with the prospect of a fortified country such as Iraq holding out for possibly years until the blockade finally worked, the coalition decided that the only answer was to remove Iraq from Kuwait by force. Iraq was given every reasonable opportunity to leave but chose to remain in Kuwait. The coalition, therefore, fulfilled the just-war requirement of last resort and hostilities were soon to follow.

Competent Authority

By what authority did the coalition use to wage war against Iraq? Many critics in the early stages of the war asked this question which was soon answered. Once Congress backed President Bush, competent authority was fulfilled because the ruling body, representing the American nation, provided the authority to wage war against another sovereign country. But opponents still argued that proper authority does not reside in the country that simply agrees as a whole to fight. If the competent authority that authorized the Gulf War was the American Congress, then the United States could be accused of aggression or intervention. But there was a higher power. As much as the world would like to believe that the Gulf War was the United States against Iraq, that was not the case. While it is true that America was the leader during the crisis, the entire coalition effort was sanctioned by the United Nations. This body of leaders, an international assembly of representatives, provided the competent authority to wage war against Iraq. Any more justification than that, if possible, would be hard to come by. Regardless, there was more.

Humanitarian Intervention

Along with aggression, the Iraqis were guilty of atrocities in Kuwait. While these acts fall under jus in bello (justice in war), the fact that the atrocities were performed on the civilian population qualifies another justification for just war: humanitarian intervention. According to just-war theory, an ally of a country is justified to intervene in a crisis when conditions exist that are morally and ethically inexcusable. Here again is the problem of judgment on the part of the intervening power. But on the broad scale of the Kuwaiti invasion, the coalition's use of force was a humanitarian intervention because no one could argue that the systematic slaughter of civilian Kuwaitis was anything but evil.

The factors listed above point towards a just war in the Gulf. Opponents on both sides of the war tried to use the theory in favor of their beliefs. Final determination depends on which argument is stronger using the same theory. Much of the accusations centered around President Bush's hypocrisy in sending troops in defense of Kuwait. If Bush was standing on a moral platform and committed troops on principle alone, why did he withhold 2100 Marines off the coast of Liberia in 1990 when civilians were being slaughtered by rebels? Why did he send Scowcroft to China to recommend continued trade advantages even after the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square? Why did he send the secretary of state to Moscow and continue to deal with Gorbachev even after bloody repression in the Baltics (Broder 1991)? These are tough questions that point to just one answer. The United States, or any world power, could find a war to fight at any time that would qualify under the just-war theory. So who decides to commit military power and under what conditions? The answer is simply that the government decides which just wars are in the best interest for their countries to fight. No one should pretend that America's national interest for protecting access to the Persian Gulf because of oil was not a major factor in this war. Even President Bush admitted that fact. To act as the "principle police" for the world would drain American resources, most importantly of which would be American lives. Little justification could be found to intervene on such a large scale if the projected outcome did not yield a reward for the victors. During the Gulf War, not only was the justification a just one as accepted by the collective conscience of the United Nations, but American interest was also at stake. To pretend otherwise would be the ultimate hypocrisy.

Jus in Bello

As stated earlier, the conduct of combatants in war is a separate issue than the justification for the war. The coalition and Iraq were on different sides of both issues. The coalition was justified in fighting the Gulf War and Iraq's actions broke the tenants of just war. During the fighting, coalition forces adhered to just-war rules as well as international laws. On the other hand, Iraq broke most of the rules set down by the just-war theory.


Because of the lop-sided victory of the coalition, the U.S. dealt more with prisoners than did Iraq. Despite the fact that coalition forces had more opportunity to abuse prisoners, only Iraq found it necessary to violate prisoners' rights. Legally, according to the Geneva Convention, a prisoner of war has rights and is to be treated as a non-combatant. This treatment does not advocate torturing prisoners. The coalition did not do it, not because the average Iraqi soldier held little military information, but because it is morally wrong. Yet the treatment of coalition POWs in the hands of the Iraqi interrogators was violent and painful. Conversely, the thousands of Iraqis who surrendered were fed, clothed, detained humanely, and protected from the hostilities. Coalition prisoners were used as human shields by detaining them at potential bombing sites. Saddam Hussein tried to justify this policy, which is forbidden by the Geneva Convention, by claiming that Western countries had jailed Iraqi students as a security measure (Associated Press 1991). Even if that claim was true, those students were not in danger of being bombed. Contrary to Iraqi beliefs, a violation of the Geneva Convention does not justify a similar violation. Two wrongs do not make a right. If it did, coalition forces had justification enough to commit heinous crimes against Iraqi prisoners. The fact is, American forces did not.

Conscripted Soldiers

The United States has been criticized for fighting Iraqi soldiers who for the most part were conscripted into service. Walzer questions whether it is morally correct to kill an enemy who is being forced to fight. The argument fails because there is no alternative. Even Walzer admits that service in the defense of your country is a type of coercion by the populous (Walzer 1977). Where some might view the killing of a conscripted soldier as morally questionable, being killed by that soldier for the sake of sympathy for his plight is ludicrous. On the battlefield, the strongest motivation is survival. The question of how the enemy came to join in the mix is a moot point when rounds are coming down range. Walzer touches on this point by discussing the moral equality of soldiers on the battlefield. Even though the average Iraqi soldier was fighting against his will in the desert, by no means did the average American Marine private relish the thought of combat against even a weak enemy. What got each soldier on either side to the battlefield, once there, is irrelevant. Once the decision to engage in battle has been made, the individual fighters have the same goal: kill the enemy before he kills you. No crime is committed on either side because during war, that is the accepted attitude. Consequently, whether the Iraqi soldiers were conscripted or not, they were the enemy. What occurred to get them onto the battlefield was an internal affair of the Iraqi state.

Fleeing Soldiers

Together with the surrendering soldier and the fighting soldier, one other type was given much attention during the end of the Gulf War: the fleeing soldier. A large moral question mark hung over the road known as the "Highway of Death." After realizing their eminent defeat, the remains of the Iraqi army tried to flee back to Iraq with their stolen booty. Every vehicle that could be found was loaded with riches from Kuwait. As the convoy fled northward, coalition air forces found them and went to work. Disabling the first vehicle in order to stop the entire convoy, the overloaded vehicles scattered into the desert. Most vehicles became bogged down in the sand which gave the planes a large area of stationary targets. After repeated attacks, the coalition forces destroyed the convoy, preventing their northward escape.

Walzer points out that while a surrendering soldier is not to be killed, a fleeing one is a legitimate target (Walzer 1977). Walzer then questions the reasoning of this fact because the basic theory behind killing a fleeing soldier is to prevent him from returning to the fight. It ends up soldiers who fled did return to fight, rather slaughter, during the Kurdish rebellion after the war. But Walzer sees that as an internal issue and therefore because the soldiers were not going to return as combatants against coalition forces, killing them was not morally correct. The facts are that a state of war still existed and during a time of war, the killing of enemy soldiers, even if in retreat, is an acceptable act. While the atrocities they committed as an occupying force in Kuwait would seem to warrant the destruction of the convoy, that mentality falls too close to raw revenge. As distasteful and horrendous as the Iraqi conduct in Kuwait was, destroying their convoy as they fled solely for revenge would not hold up under jus in bello (Justice in War). But not only were they legitimate targets, they were also thieves. They had plundered Kuwait and were attempting to return with the ill-gotten booty. As part of just-war theory, the legalist paradigm states that aggression justifies two kinds of violent response: a war of self-defense by the victim and a war of law enforcement by the victim and any other member of international society (Walzer, p.62). Because the war was still in effect at the time and just-war theory dictates that a member of international society can respond violently when enforcing laws, the "Highway of Death" was a just act in a just war.


Some acts lose meaning during a war. The assassination of international leaders is one such case. Many people questioned before during and after the war if the coalition should have ensured Saddam Hussein's premature death. Under a 1981 Executive Order, the U.S. government is forbidden to participate in assassination. But during wartime, international law recognizes military commanders as legitimate targets. During the Gulf War, the assassination of Saddam Hussein was never revealed as an official goal but every location where he should have been was bombed. Most military analysts believed that if Hussein was killed, the war would have ended instantly, (Beyer 1991). It was easy for the American public to accept the effort because the leader in question was the enemy's. Less savory would be the thought of Iraqi bombers dumping ordnance on the White House, claiming it was a just act of war. The difference was that Hussein was located within the physical limits of the war. President Bush was not. So if Hussein was killed in a bombing raid while in Baghdad, no moral question is raised. Similarly, if President Bush was killed in a bombing raid while visiting Al Jubial, no moral rule would be broken. But what if the leaders are removed from the area of hostilities? Are they fair game? International law says they are. Therefore, the idea of assassination being morally wrong loses all meaning during war because the political leaders are legitimate targets. The moral equivalency of the "assassin" is the same as that of the coalition soldier fighting in the desert. It is the dysfunctional agreement during war: both sides try to kill the other side's forces, including the leaders.

Gas and Nuclear weapons

Two of the liveliest moral debates during the Gulf War involved weaponry used. The coalition wondered if Hussein would use gas warfare and Iraq wondered if President Bush would use nuclear bombs. Fortunately neither were used even though some suspect limited gas attacks were made. President Bush animatedly declared that if coalition troops were gassed, the strongest retaliation would be used. There was little doubt what he meant by "strongest retaliation" and the threat worked. In his autobiography, General Powell stated that he was asked to draw up plans for the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq (Associated Press 1995). After the war, military planners admitted that nuclear bombs would not have been used even if large-scale gas attacks killed coalition troops. Instead, large dams were targeted which, once destroyed, would flood Baghdad. Whether nuclear bombs or flooding were to be used, either one breaks the most basic rule of war: non-combatants are not legitimate targets. As horrendous as gas attacks would have been, retaliating by mass killing of the Iraqi civilian population would not have been acceptable. Just as Saddam Hussein's presence in the war zone qualified him for justifiable death, so did the coalition troops' presence. If the unlikely situation of gathering only Iraqi troops together and destroying them using nuclear bombs or flooding, then those means would then be justified.


By using the two categories that comprise the just-war theory, the Gulf War against Iraq has shown to be a just war. Not only for the reason the coalition fought Iraq, but just by the means that the hostilities were performed. Iraq resorted to aggression and did not expect the world-wide response that it received. Even after numerous offers to settle the matter peacefully, Saddam Hussein made it clear that he was not going to withdraw. Once this was clear, the United Nations, the competent authority, understood that diplomatic means were futile. To repel the aggression and put an end to the human slaughter of Kuwaiti civilians, the American-led coalition was authorized and justified to wage war against Iraq.

After the commitment to war was made, the opposing sides had a responsibility to respect the laws governing warfare. The coalition fought justly and succeeded. Iraq did neither. Their treatment of prisoners of war shows that following the rules was not a concern during war. And while it is morally wrong to force a soldier to fight, as the Iraqis did, there is no moral dilemma in killing that conscripted soldier during battle, as the coalition did. Nor is it immoral to kill fleeing soldiers whether they are going to join the fight again or not. Finally, assassination, while illegal during peacetime, loses meaning during war. Therefore, no moral questions arise when no problem exists. But when there is a problem, such as massive civilian casualties, weapons of mass destruction such as gas and nuclear weapons must be banned. Fortunately for all of the soldiers involved, the Gulf War crisis did not require the decision for retaliation to be made.

Thus, the Gulf War, a justified and moral victory for the American-led coalition, proved once again that even against an enemy who fails to abide by the rules of war, a moral force can overcome an immoral enemy.

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