Question for Juan Cole

In 2005, he argued "young men who advocate a war must go and fight it." Does that apply to Libya?

Published March 30, 2011 1:54PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II) 

University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, for whom I have a lot of respect, has become one of the left's leading advocates of American involvement in the war in Libya. I don't agree with his arguments -- for reasons set forth here, here and here, among others -- but he's one of the people I read when I want to be challenged in my opposition, as his arguments are usually well-reasoned and always in good faith. During the Iraq War, Cole was responsible for one of the most humiliating massacres ever seen in an online debate, when he exposed Jonah Goldberg's war advocacy as the know-nothing, cowardly, adolescent tripe it was. During the course of that debate, Cole wrote this:

Although I do not believe that everyone who advocates a war must go and fight it, I do believe that young men who advocate a war must go and fight it. . . . I don’t think there is anything at all unpatriotic about a young man opposing a war and declining to enlist. But a young man (and this applies to W. and Cheney too) who mouths off strongly about the desirability of a war is a coward and a hypocrite if he does not go to fight it.

Note that this was not a principle specific to the Iraq War; it was expressed as a universal principle applying to wars in general. My question for Cole is this: does this principle apply to supporters of the U.S. war in Libya? Elsewhere, Cole argued -- and I'm unable to find the specific post despite substantial searching, so I'm relying on recollection -- that the test for whether a war is justifiable is whether one is willing to risk one's own life -- or the life of one's children -- to fight it. Cole said he supported the war in Afghanistan because he could answer "yes" for that war, but not for the war in Iraq. How about the war in Libya: is that the proper question to apply to determine its justifiability, and if so, would Cole be willing to risk his own life or his children's to fight that war?

I'm not asking rhetorically to make a point, but rather because I'm genuinely interested in his answer. Obviously, a war confined to air attacks (such as Libya) entails much less risk than a ground war (such as in Iraq), but it's by no means risk-free. Perhaps a war that entails less risk to the lives of American service members alleviates (in Cole's mind) the burden on (young, male) war supporters to go fight it, but it's hard to see how his principle -- which did not contain any such caveats -- can accommodate that sort of an exception. I'm not adopting Cole's principle regarding the duty of war supporters -- I've actually argued in favor of a narrower standard for "chicken-hawkism" -- but am merely asking how Cole applies his own principle.

The reason this is worth asking -- other than to know whether principles are being consistently applied -- is because this is what is necessary to ensure that "war as a last resort" is something other than an empty platitude. What that term should mean, at minimum, is that we shouldn't start wars except in situations where we consider the necessity so compelling that we would be willing to risk our own lives in pursuit of it. As Afghanistan war advocate (and Libya War skeptic) Andrew Exum put it when explaining the importance of Secretary Gates' admission that we have no "vital interests" in Libya: "Vital interests are those interests for which you are willing to bleed. And so if we have no vital interests in Libya, why are F-15 pilots punching out and having to be rescued by Marines?" That's the minimum test necessary to give meaning to "war as a last resort": a cause for which "you are willing to bleed." If that's the case, how do Cole's principles -- as pronounced for Iraq and Goldberg -- apply to Libya?


UPDATE: Cole has posted a reply, here.


UPDATE II:  Here is the quote of Cole's which I said I could not find, regarding his test for whether war is justifiable (h/t axenicely):

My reply would be simple. If you are arguing for war, you don't have to ask all these fancy questions. There are really only two questions you have to answer. The first is, would you yourself be willing to die fighting for this cause you have espoused? The second is, would you be willing to see your 18-year-old son or daughter killed for this cause? (I do not ask if you would be glad or satisfied; I ask if you would be willing).

My answer with regard to the aftermath of September 11 and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is, yes, I would have been willing to go fight and die myself to protect my country from another such attack. And, had my son been of age and had he enlisted after September 11, I could have accepted that and everything it entailed.

With regard to Iraq, the answer to both questions in my case is "no." I would not have been willing to risk my own life to dislodge Saddam Hussein from power. And, I would certainly not have been willing to see my son risk his, nor would I like to see him ever sent to Iraq as a draftee, because I believe the entire aftermath of the war has been handled with gross incompetence, and I certainly don't want my flesh and blood mauled by the machinations of Richard Perle and his buddies.

That was in reply to Christopher Hitchins' advocacy of numerous wars without fighting in them.

By Glenn Greenwald

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