War makes many people dead and many more homeless. It also turns people into killers, as it stokes fear and anger high enough to drive us beyond the limits of human decency. “War is a violent teacher,” wrote the Greek historian Thucydides. As a veteran and observer of war himself, he knew what he was writing about. As we count the deaths and atrocities in Ukraine, we should not forget that war itself leads to atrocities, no matter who wages it.
For evidence of this, we can look back at our own record during the American war in Vietnam.
I was a military adviser in Vietnam in 1969-70. There, I still believe, we were fighting on the right side for the freedom of the Vietnamese people from communist domination. But many American soldiers felt we could not tell the difference between Vietnamese civilians and Vietnamese enemies.
When we were frightened by a perceived threat, we tended to react with preemptive violence. When we were angry over the loss of a friend, we sometimes sought violent revenge. Either way, we caused civilian deaths. The massacre at My Lai is the best-known example of American violence against Vietnamese civilians during the war but it was not the only case.
We are now learning of atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, and they are far worse than anything we did in Vietnam. Not only is Russia the aggressor in this case, but the actions of Russian troops against civilians have been gratuitously nasty. But we should not be surprised that they have occurred. War and atrocities against civilians are linked inextricably. They cannot be separated. That is one reason we should work to abolish war. If we wish to put an end to atrocities in war, we must push to abolish war itself.
Killing civilians is not the only atrocity of war. Most of the military deaths in war are atrocities. They should not happen. War theory seems to justify the killing of enemy soldiers who pose a threat, but just war theory is wrong on this. The young people who bear the brunt of a war are not at fault for that war, and so they do not deserve to die. We cannot justify killing teenagers who were drafted into a war they do not understand, even when they are shooting at us. The most we can reasonably say is that we choose the lesser evil when we choose to take lives in our own defense. But it is not just, and it is not good. It’s horrible to kill young people who are morally innocent. That is a second reason why war should be abolished.
A third reason is that when war turns us into killers, it injures us morally. Few of us can emerge from combat experience without some level of moral injury, as we are learning from the suffering of many of our own recent veterans. A war may satisfy all the moral rules of jus ad bellum (justice in going to war) and jus in bello (justice in the conduct of war). But even then, veterans suffer moral injury. It is not enough for us to observe the traditional laws of war. We need to abolish war altogether.
Sad to say, it takes war to abolish war. If the Kremlin succeeds in using war to its benefit, war may become more common around the globe. To abolish war, we must make sure that the Kremlin does not profit by it.
This will be difficult, since one cause of the war is the Kremlin’s felt need to recover from the humiliation of defeat in the Cold War. Nevertheless, the Kremlin must lose this war, and Ukraine must win, in a clear and distinct victory. And then we must all continue the struggle to abolish war. The American record has been bad, sometimes even atrocious. But we must not be bound by our past to go on making bad decisions. We must build alliances to abolish war.
Paul Woodruff is a professor of philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin. He served as a junior officer in Vietnam in 1969-70, for which he was decorated.
A version of this op-ed appeared in Austin American-Statesman, Abilene Reporter News and the San Antonio Express News.