Commentary: Reflections On War By Harry Weininger

Friday December 23, 2005

War is the ultimate power available to a nation. Young men and women go to battle. They postpone their studies, interrupt careers, disrupt important plans, are separated from loved ones. What they will come back to is uncertain. They may never come back. Many are damaged physically, and mentally, for life. Yet all of these people, our young men and women, persevere in order to defend our society, culture, nation. To go freely, even if not enthusiastically, requires a clear and convincing sense of purpose, a compelling vision. Absent that sense of purpose, absent that vision, without a bullet-proof mandate, even the inconvenience of leaving school or work for a few months is too much – and it weakens the social order.  

The people making the decision to wage war must have overwhelming evidence, clearly and persuasively communicated, so that those who have to go know why they have to go, why they have to make that sacrifice. If the sacrifice is necessary, it must be based on a high degree of certainty.  

To execute a single individual requires a unanimous conviction by a jury, based on solid evidence beyond reasonable doubt – and it’s done with sorrow by much of the population and vehemently protested by many. Should the standard of proof be any less demanding when we as a nation go to war and put thousands in harm’s way?  

No legal structure exists that requires other government branches to use a judicial interpretation of what would be an adequate justification for war. The executive has a different mandate – protecting the nation – and therefore different standards and reaction times are required.  

Whether or not Congress has exercised its constitutional power to declare war, it’s the executive that wages war. And a critical tool for waging war is marshalling the enthusiasm and spirit of the people – presenting a credible rationale for war and the conviction that the cause is just, the conflict necessary, and the prospect for victory real.  

Regardless of military strength, a successful military action is very difficult to sustain if conflict at home consumes as much energy – or even more – than the conflict away. Although a country like ours cannot have complete consensus, we can engage in a national dialogue, conducted in a civil manner. It’s up to the executive to set the tone for a national dialogue – and to persuade the public that military action is in our national interest and, with support, will be successful. 

The concepts of reasonable doubt and hard evidence resonate throughout our culture. When effectively presented they can go a long way to engendering a winning spirit on the home front as well as on the battlefield.  


Harry Weininger is a Berkeley